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I have a bobble head of myself on the bookshelves in my office. It’s a bit of an Easter egg that you can find in some of my videos. On the surface, this item seems arrogant and excessive. And yet, I didn’t buy the bobble head. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t even realize it was possible to create a custom bobble head for everyday people. However, it was a gift from my friend Chad.

See, Chad was our tech director. After my seventh year in the classroom, I chose to become an instructional coach, mostly to work on Chad’s team. When other leaders asked “why?” Chad would say “Why not?” He loved to experiment with new ideas and pilot new projects. When Javi wanted to redesign the traditional summer school, Chad brought a team together to transform it into a STEAM camp for ELL students. When I wanted to create a blended professional development platform, Chad asked me for a proposal and then met with me to help me learn how to create it from a place of empathy.

Early the next year, when I moved back into the classroom, Chad came by with the bobble head doll. He said, “If a guy who can hit a ball with a stick gets a bobble head doll, you deserve one, too. Keep it up in the classroom as a reminder that you’re impacting lives, even when it doesn’t feel like it.”

Like a few other leaders I’ve had, Chad empowered teachers to empower students. He continues to do this as a principal. Chad creates an environment of “goofing off.” On the surface, this might seem frivolous. It might even seem like he’s not taking his job too seriously. But it is part of a larger philosophy of reducing fear and encouraging innovation. I’m not an expert on leadership. At both the K-12 and university level, I have avoided formal leadership positions. But I do know this much about leadership — I know which qualities I look for in a leader. I know that the years when I have empowered my students the most have been the years that I felt the most empowered as an educator.

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Big Idea #1: There Is No Instruction Manual for Teaching

Often, in working with pre-service teachers, someone will ask about the “right” way to do something. The educational system throws around words like “best practices” and “highly qualified,” but it doesn’t really work that way. There is no guidebook or instruction manual or how-to video for how to be a great teacher, because ultimately teaching is a craft.

The hard part is that it takes years to perfect. The process is often messy and confusing. There are so many moments where, as a teacher, you’ll doubt yourself. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll feel like improvement is slow. It’s harder, still, when you screw up. I still cringe at the moments when I yelled at a class or shamed a student and I’m still amazed at how quickly students forgave when I apologized.

And yet . . .

All of those mistakes were a part of learning the craft.

That’s the beauty of it. There is no instruction manual. There is no codified list of best practices. That means you get to explore like an astronaut. You get to experiment like a scientist. You get to design like an engineer. You get to make like an artist. Like any other craft, it takes a lifetime to perfect.

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There’s no point where you “have arrived.” As a creative teacher, you’re always exploring, always experimenting, always innovating.

I feel weird writing that, because I’m a professor and not a K-12 teacher. However, after teaching for three straight days and jotting down notes of what went well and what I would improve, I’m struck by the fact that I’m still learning this craft. I’m still growing. And it’s so fun.

Big Idea #2: We Still Need Blueprints

When I taught social studies, I worked collaboratively with my friend Javier to design project-based units for our middle school students. I used to love experimenting with new ideas, like Socratic circles or curation projects or digital journalism. However, when I moved into self-contained (teaching all subjects), I suddenly faced a new challenge: scripted curriculum. Not only did I have to teach the standards but I was supposed to follow a step-by-step recipe for language arts and math.

This was the opposite of being empowered. Although I was an expert on the content and I had a solid understanding of pedagogy, I was reduced to an actor reading a script. Despite my knowledge of my students and their interests and personalities, I had to follow the processes of a curriculum designer I didn’t know; all with the goal of passing the test. I felt like an artist being told I had to paint by numbers.

I don’t want to paint by numbers. However, I actually geek out on curriculum. I love borrowing materials from multiple sources and mashing them up together. I love sharing ideas and learning new strategies. I even love recipes. It’s just that I want to be able to take the recipe and modify it. I want to experiment with multiple recipes and see what works. I want to be able to create a cool fusion dish with flavors from all over the place.

In other words, as educators, we need blueprints rather than instruction manuals.

If you’re geeking out over design thinking frameworks (like Stanford or LAUNCH) or if you’re getting into the PBL Works project-based learning framework, you’re using a road map. But you’re not using an instruction manual. Design thinking and project-based learning aren’t about formulas. They can’t be distilled down into step-by-step directions. They are meant to be adjustable frameworks rather than packaged curriculum.

Instruction manuals fail because we are deeply human and messy. There are no average students. Every student is different. This is why formulas fail. There are simply too many variables at work. Teaching is inherently relational and that means it’s always changing. It’s why great teachers are always experimenting. But this requires teachers to be empowered to be innovators.

Big Idea #3: Teachers Are at the Heart of Innovation

When I first started working on my new book Vintage Innovation, I asked members of my newsletter to fill out a Google Form if they were willing to share their classroom stories of things like PBL, student philosophy chats, lo-fi maker projects, and service learning. Within a two days, I had over a thousand submissions. I tried my best to coordinate interviews but I simply couldn’t gather all the stories. Each time I interviewed a teacher, they would say, “I’m not very innovative. There are a lot of people who do this.” Perhaps. But the sheer number of teachers experimenting and taking creative risks doesn’t make the act any less innovative. It just points to the reality that teachers are at the heart of innovation.

This is a core idea of vintage innovation.

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If you are a teacher, you are an innovator. You are the experimenter trying new strategies. You are the architect designing new learning opportunities. Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But one thing remains: teachers change the world. And one way to do this is through a vintage innovation approach. With vintage innovation, teachers ask:

  • How do I innovate when I don’t have the best technology?
  • How can I use vintage tools, ideas, and approaches in new ways?
  • How can I use constraints to spark creativity?
  • How do I blend together the “tried and true” with the “never tried?”

It’s not about the technology. Vintage innovation redefines relevance as “better and different” rather than “flashy and new.” Relevance isn’t about using the latest available technology. It’s about solving the latest problems by leveraging whatever technology works best. In this sense, vintage innovation is all about the overlap between the best practices and next practices:

If we go with best practices alone, we end up with stagnation. Nothing ever changes. If we go with next practices, we end up with novelty and an endless pursuit of the latest fads. But this overlap recognizes the role of the classic and the vintage and the years of experience that a teacher brings to the table. All of these things are a part of the “best practices.” But this overlap also recognizes the need to experiment and take creative risks and discover knew ideas. These are the elements of “next practice.” However, this overlap requires teachers to be empowered as designers and makers and experimenters and experts in their craft.

Seven Ways to Empower Teachers

The following are a few ways that leaders can empower teachers:

  1. Honor teacher expertise. In 2013, I got the opportunity to speak at the White House for the Future Ready Summit. I was teaching middle school journalism and STEM at the time and I felt like an imposter when I showed up. But to my surprise, most of the speakers and panelists were actually current classroom teachers. It was a powerful message from the Office of Educational Technology that teachers would be viewed as experts. This is why I love seeing current classroom teachers write books or give keynotes.
  2. Find the blueprints and tools. Although teachers don’t need recipes or paint-by-numbers directions, there is still value in finding the blueprints they can use as instructional designers. Some of the most innovative teachers I know are curators of ideas, tools, and blueprints. It might be a set of strategies from Making Thinking Visible or it might be the PBL works protocols for project-based learning. In the case of vintage innovation, I have offered the toolbox and the free Getting Started with Vintage Innovation eBook that you can download at the bottom of this page. I do the same with design thinking and PBL.
  3. Provide experiences for sharing ideas. I love the un-conference movement, popularized by ed camps. Here, teachers can engage in a free, democratic exchange of ideas. This is why I also love the mastermind structure. Unlike an un-conference, a mastermind group is deliberately private and highly structured. Each member has a chance to share an idea or a problem and the other members provide advice, ask questions, or give encouragement. I’m a member of three different mastermind groups and they have been life-changing for me.
  4. Give teachers voice and choice in their own learning. For two years, I ran a blended, personalized professional development program. Teachers set goals and then attended PD of their choosing. Some of the PD was online with mini-courses or video recordings of master teacher lessons. Others met in person with short courses, weekly trainings, or workshops. Some groups chose to do book studies. However, the whole program was teacher-led and teacher organized. Using before and after surveys, we found that this voice and choice in professional learning correlated with an increase in teacher self-efficacy.
  5. Engage in action research. Another option is to have teachers engage in their own action research. Here, they engage in professional learning while also experimenting in their own contexts.
  6. Honor teacher autonomy. This is the idea of shared leadership. Instead of sharing responsibilities or delegating, the best leaders are able to empower their teachers by letting them help design systems and make key decisions. It bothers me when a principal says “I’m the instructional leader at my school.” Wrong. You are the facilitator of instructional leadership. Your teachers collectively have immense instructional knowledge. It’s your job to empower them to take it to the next level.
  7. Give teachers the permission to fail. Cultivate a community of creative risk-taking by de-emphasizing standardized test scores. Let them know that it’s okay if lessons don’t look perfect when they’re starting out with PBL or design thinking.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

It Begins with Teacher Ownership

Right now, teachers all over the world are meeting in small groups, doing book studies to refine their practice. Without prompting from a district or a principal, they are are taking ownership of their learning. They own their learning.

Go to Twitter at any given moment and you’ll see teachers wrestling with big ideas, engaging in deep discussions about how to transform their practice. Some of these are formal chats. Others are doing it informally. They own their learning. 

Meanwhile, teachers are making things from scratch. They are experimenting with new ideas, diving deep into the maker culture, and building new things. They own their learning.

These teachers are reading books and blog posts. They’re watching YouTube videos to get ideas. But they aren’t treating this as instruction manuals so much as road maps. There’s a key difference there. An instruction manual is about requiring, a road map is about inspiring. Instruction manuals demand compliance. Roadmaps inspire possibilities.

In writing Vintage Innovation, I did not create an instruction manual. Instead, I shared tools and ideas and stories, with the knowledge that educators don’t need recipes. We need tools. If you buy the book, my hope is that I have shared something useful for you in your teaching craft.

Check Out the Book

This is the third article in a series about vintage innovation. Parts of this blog post include excerpts from my upcoming book Vintage Innovation, which will be released in January. It will be a highly visual, engaging reading.

I’ll also be releasing the free Vintage Innovation Toolbox sometime in early January. For early access to the toolbox and for updates about the book, please fill out the form below:

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


  • Roxana Castaneda says:

    Innovation and creativity is what drew me into teaching! It is great to hear this message from you today!

  • K Wilmoth says:

    I have been a teacher for many (many) years. I am so intrigued by leadership. Although I have never been a principal, I have worked for many of them, and they set the mood for the school. I have had the privilege of working for leadership that empowered, and leadership that micromanaged. My teaching is greatly affected by the leadership. When working for a micromanaging principal, I used to joke that I felt as if I needed to sneeze, but had not been given permission yet. I am a professional and, yet, I am made to feel as if I have never taught a day in my life. I appreciate that good leadership acknowledges teacher expertise. I love learning new strategies and how I can make my teaching better, but I also bring a lot to the table. I know I own my learning!

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