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There’s no question about it: innovation is risky.

“It’s like a baby learning to eat – it’s messy!” says Mike Nagler, superintendent of Mineola Union Free School District in New York. “Moms wipe off a lot of food that didn’t quite make it into the mouth. We may need to try many things before we find out what works best.”

While avoiding that mess may seem like the safest choice, taking chances can reinvigorate teachers, engage students, and ultimately transform education.

To drive innovation, educators can’t just be open to risks; they need to embrace them, superintendents say.

“The most important thing school leaders can do to drive innovation is to create an environment where calculated risk taking is encouraged,” says Erik Gundersen, superintendent of Pascack Valley Regional High School District in New Jersey. “It is vital to lead by example by taking risks yourself and embracing the fact that your own efforts are not perfect, but that you learn from and improve upon your own efforts.”

Creating that environment doesn’t happen overnight; teachers need to be supported. That support can and should take several forms.

“Sometimes [it] can be as simple as giving encouragement, brainstorming together, or offering guidance,” says Matthew Miller, superintendent of Mentor Public Schools in Ohio. “Sometimes the support might be financial – providing tools and resources for a staff member to implement and idea.”

Horry County Schools in South Carolina, for example, encourages teachers to innovate by providing funds to try ideas that are outside of the box. This approach has helped the district break out from traditional classroom models, where teachers lead all students through the same lessons, at the same pace.

Instead, the district blends online and face-to-face instruction, often in the same classroom. Teachers share cohorts of students and work together on projects that span multiple subject areas and center around solving real problems.

The district’s approach to driving innovation has had a ripple effect, says Cynthia Elsberry, superintendent at Horry County.

“[Teachers’] peers see the excitement that is generated among their students and they feel gentle pressure to add variety to their instructional techniques,” she says.

Support for teachers, through learning communities and development opportunities, is also key to cultivating a district culture that celebrates risk-taking and innovation.

“Professional isolation is a recipe for stagnation,” warns Devin Vodicka, superintendent of Vista Unified School District in California. “Collaboration and interaction are essential to support and encourage innovation.”

School and district leaders need to make sure teachers and staff are given this time to connect with one another, Vodicka says, noting that at Vista, collaboration time is built into teachers’ contracts, so every teacher has that time built into their work week.

Another important rule in innovation: the work is never done. Even after a culture is built and teachers are collaborating and taking risks, it is important to keep checking in, evaluating progress, and pushing forward.

“Greatness is an inherently dynamic process, not an end point,” Nagler, from Mineola UFSD says, quoting “Good to Great,” a book by Jim Collins. “The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun.”


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