“The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it’s there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client, you can be sure shame played a part. The deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking risks required to move our companies forward.”
This excerpt from Peter Sheahan, in Daring Greatly, highlights how shame prevents us from taking risks and if this feeling prevails amongst administrators, teachers, students, it leads to a culture of fear that stifles innovation. On the contrary, Brene Brown defines shame-resilient cultures as those where people are nurtured, there is greater willingness to accept and solicit feedback, and an understanding that the work is iterative and constantly improving and therefore people are more creative and innovative.
During the first #IMMOOC live episode with George Couros, AJ Juliani , and John Spencer the notion of taking risks came up throughout our conversation and a participant jokingly tweeted, “Can we get permission slips for teachers to innovate?” It brought me back to this conversation with some teachers– As we brainstormed some ways to improve learning, one by one they dismissed the new ideas that were brought up because of having to keep up with the pacing guides and the fear of not meeting expectations of their colleagues or their administrator, yet were frustrated because they knew that their students needed something different. Bravely, another teacher countered, I don’t teach it that way. All eyes quickly moved to her and she shared that instead of assuming that she wasn’t allowed to do something in her classroom, she approached her principal to share her ideas and described why she wanted to do something else.
What Choice are You Making?
Whether you realize it or not, both of these approaches require making a choice: to comply or to challenge the status quo. You might think that following the rules is the easiest course of action but it’s not always as fulfilling or the best thing for kids. As most teachers get into teaching and feel a greater sense of efficacy, a belief in one’s ability to meet the need of students, when they see the impact they are making on their students. As one teacher acknowledged in this conversation, “there is nothing worse than teaching something in the pacing guide when you know that there is a better way to teach it.” I would argue that there is something worse, not doing it. If you know that there is a better way to meet the needs of learners, you owe it to them (and yourself) to try it.
For this to work, however, teachers have to trust themselves for the professional they are and be willing to take risks. As George has pointed out many times from an administrator’s point of view, it important to ask not assume, “I would always try to reinforce with my staff is that I cannot solve a problem that I don’t know exists. We can easily say our “culture” doesn’t allow us to do these things, but just remember, culture is not determined by one person, but the group”. If you are doing something that is truly to make school for kids, don’t hide it. If you want to try something new, make your goals and your learning transparent– share with your colleagues what your idea is, talk to your principal, talk to your students, ask for feedback and share what you are learning.
What Kind of Culture Have You Created?
So here is the second part of this–When that teacher asked to try something new, her principal said, “ok, you can do this but don’t tell anybody else.” This response likely comes from a place of fear and many teachers fail to realize that administrators are afraid too. Afraid of not having all the answers, afraid that they can’t control what might go wrong. But to move forward, we must address this and acknowledge that “The secret killer of innovation is shame.”
My hunch is that this teacher who asked her principal to do something differently is probably a great teacher but I also believe that she likely became a great teacher, like so many great teachers I know, by trying new things and meeting the needs of the learners in her class, not simply following the scripted curriculum and adhering to the pacing guide. The irony here is that although there are often perceptions of expectations for teachers to comply, no principal or district administrator has even brought me into a classroom to highlight how a teacher is following the pacing guide or the curriculum.
So if you are a principal or district administrator, you likely want powerful, creative inspiring learning in your classrooms, and if people are afraid to try something new, holding back ideas because it’s not in the curriculum, think of all of the opportunities for new and better learning that are being squashed. If we create shame-free cultures where teachers don’t feel like they have to ask for permission to deviate from the curriculum map but are empowered and held accountable to meet the goals that you have set out in a way that meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms, imagine what is possible!
Have You Given Permission to Innovate?
Creating a culture that allows for risk-taking is foundational to innovation. Kaleb Rashad, an incredible person and school leader, intentionally creates a culture where teachers can take risks to be creative and innovative with what he calls the 3Ps: Permission, Protection, reduction of Policies.
- Permission- Give people permission openly and remind them often that they have your permission to try new things if it is in the best interest of the learners.
- Protection- Assure people that you will protect them when things go wrong. When you are trying something new, they will fail and that has to be honored in the process.
- reduction of Policies- Remove barriers and policies that encumber people from putting innovative ideas into practice. Empower them to make choices within reasonable boundaries rather than creating hoops to jump through.
Are your systems designed for people to comply and implement your programs and policies or are your systems designed to empower people to learn, improve, and innovate?
These 3 Ps are important in leadership but just as important in the classroom. Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, I hope you reflect on your expectations of others and policies that exist. Think about how you can create conditions for a shame-free culture that empowers learners and fosters growth for everyone.