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For the last month, I’ve traveled everywhere from Hawaii to Washington (short drive, actually) to Indiana to South Carolina delivering keynotes and leading workshops on empowering students with voice, choice, and ownership. Each time, I’ve had the opportunity to hear stories about the design thinking projects that teachers have implemented this last school year. But I’ve also heard about the fears that teachers have as they start out on their PBL journey. Often, they’re the same fears I had when I first started using design thinking and project-based learning with my students. What about the noise level? What about classroom management? What will the principal think? Will we actually cover all the standards? How will I assess the learning?

But, honestly, each of these fears was a subset of a larger question. What if it fails?

innovation impracticality impractical john spencerTeaching is often a mix of best practices and next practices. We know ahead of time that certain strategies are likely to work. But we also know that change occurs when we innovate and iterate and experiment. However, there’s no guarantee that these new strategies will work. I can point to the research on PBL and how it leads to moderate increases in student achievement and significant increases in long-term retention of knowledge. But none of that alleviates the fear I feel when students are taking a district-mandated high-stakes test after a PBL unit.

Here’s the hard truth. Sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes you take a risk and it fails. You start a project only to abandon the idea two days later after you realize it’s actually not that authentic. You plan a project and realize that your students actually don’t have the prerequisite skills to tackle it.

You Will Have Crappy Lessons

This last Tuesday, I met my new cohort of pre-service teachers. For the next year, I will teach close to half of their classes and work with them during their student teaching. I’ll visit their classrooms. I’ll meet with them for coffee. I’ll think about them and pray for them.

One of my hopes for them is that they are willing to take creative risks. I want to see them try a more student-centered approach to classroom management even when their school culture focuses on punishments and rewards. I want to see them pilot Genius Hour or Geek Out Blogs or a Wonder Day project. I want to see them try out a PBL unit or implement an empathy-driven design thinking project. However, it’s easy for perfectionism to creep in – especially when you’re a new teacher and you feel like you need to prove yourself.

When I was a first-year teacher, I had an idea for an introductory project. I had spent hours planning out a collage project where students would find social studies themes within their world. For weeks, I reached out to friends and family asking for old magazines and checked for a diverse racial and cultural representation. I looked for the best washable paint. I spent a whole weekend on the lesson plan and project handouts. This was going to be epic. I had planned everything out perfectly.

And yet . . .

It tanked. Badly. You know those teacher nightmares you have before the school year? That was my reality. Kids spilled paint on the table and wiped it on each other. They tossed magazines in the air.

You can find the whole story here in a video I created for my cohort. My goal is to create a weekly video for them called “Welcome to the Club.” This was the first week. I want them to know that failure is a part of the journey. But even the crappy lessons lead to growth:

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This is why I love the idea of a New Teacher Card.

You Don’t Have to Wait to Innovate

When I was a first-year teacher, my team leader Nancy gave me this heaping box of classroom supplies. On the top, she placed a notecard with the words New Teacher Card. On the back of the notecard, she wrote a note explaining that I could play this card when I messed up. “You’re new and you make mistakes but that’s okay. Just play the New Teacher Card. Feel free to play this card when you mess up or when you don’t know how things work and you need to ask for help. Play this card when you miss a meeting or you don’t get every paper graded or you have a day when your lesson fails. This is going to happen often in your first year. But don’t beat yourself up. Just play the New Teacher Card and remember that mistakes are how we learn.”

I played that card so many times in my first year. But, actually, it’s something I still go back to all the time when I slip into perfectionism or when I find myself replaying all the mistakes I’ve made in thirteen years of teaching. I’ve come to believe that this New Teacher Card is something you should never let go of in teaching. Although you grow in knowledge and expertise, you will always remain imperfect.

But I think the New Teacher Card is more than just a forgiveness card. It’s a reminder to keep experimenting and trying new strategies and testing out new ideas. The New Teacher Card means I’m open to new possibilities. It means I’m willing to take creative risks. I’ve played this card when I first tried out sketch-noting or student blogging or Genius Hour or cardboard challenges or documentaries.

The New Teacher Card reminds me that every single lesson is an experiment. It might work. It might fail. But the biggest risk you can take is not taking the risk at all.

Think of the New Teacher Card as an invitation to innovation — to rewrite the rules of teaching and to experiment with new ideas and transform your classroom into a bastion of creativity and wonder.

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What About New Teachers?

I bring this up because I often hear new teachers say, “I’m going to try new things after I’m established. Let me get my classroom management down and figure out a traditional approach and then in five years I’ll think about innovation.”

But then it never happens.

They are stuck in a rut, afraid to make mistakes, waiting for that moment when they “have it down” enough to take creative risks.

I love to ask new teachers, “What cool project would you do if you were five years into teaching?”

When they answer I follow up with, “Why can’t you do it now?”

Or I ask, “How would you teach if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

See, the hidden advantage of being a new teacher is that people know you will make mistakes. You have permission to be different from day one. So I’d argue that you should always have a new teacher card and you should play it, not only when you screw up, but every single day.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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