Becoming an Innovative Heretic

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    Ok, so I’m going to be completely honest, here. When I decided in the 7th grade to become a teacher when I grew up, I always had it in the forefront of my mind that I wanted to do things differently. In fact, my frustration with my worksheet-driven, unpersonable 7th grade math teacher cemented the idea that I was going to teach--and do it much better than her.
    I’ve noticed at the beginning of the school year these past couple of years that an increasing number of students tell me that they’re glad they have me as their English teacher. They’ve heard from their siblings and friends that I’m a good teacher, and I’m genuinely humbled when they tell me that they’re looking forward to my class. I just do what I feel good teachers should do, and let the chips fall where they may. Without question, I would assert that I’m not the best teacher in my department, much less the school building. But I try. Every day. Every class period.
    Trying to meet the diverse needs of my students also requires that I be innovative. George Couros, in his book The Innovator’s Mindset, defines innovation as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of ‘new and better,’ it is not innovative.” Given this two-part definition, it’s not a stretch to say that almost all teachers are innovators. Most of us--myself included--are excellent at taking someone else’s idea, tweaking it, and making it our own. Most of us are iterators. A select few would fall under the category of inventors. Those people are also heretics, and I use this term in the most complimentary way possible. We need teachers whose opinion is at odds with everyone else’s. 
    One such example of this is the Montessori teaching method. 110 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori opened her first school in Rome. After studying 200 years’ worth of educational theory and becoming a trained educator, she bucked the system and designed her own school for children to learn in a completely inventive way, with independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child's natural psychological, physical, and social development. Dr. Montessori believed strongly in mixed-age groupings so that the younger children could learn from the older ones, and the older children could reinforce their learning by teaching the younger ones. The teacher in this type of setting acts as a facilitator of the students’ learning, instead of the bearer of all knowledge. Montessori schools in the United States did not start to become popular until the 1960s, fifty years later, and many iterations of Dr. Montessori’s teaching methods can be found in schools and classrooms across the country today.
    My gradeless, (mostly) paperless, student-centered classroom is certainly innovative. It’s not easy, but I do it because I have an insatiable desire to improve how I do things. I didn’t implement these concepts for the sake of change. I did it because of the positive effects it has on my students. That said, it’s an iteration of other ideas that I have combined to suit my students’ needs. In order to get there mentally, I also had to become an educational heretic. I had to accept the notion that there is a better way to reach my students, even if that made my teaching methods unique to my school building and probably school district. 
    I believe that I have achieved my goal of becoming a better teacher than my 7th grade math teacher, who unknowingly and unintentionally paved the way for me to eventually travel down a path of enlightenment. Just because I have accomplished that goal does not mean that I am ready, or willing, so stop and rest where I am. I have traveled too far and I want to see where this path eventually leads. Again, to quote Mr. Couros: “The constant pursuit of serving our students and being flexible based on what they need not what we are most comfortable with is something that we should always strive for. Even the smallest of innovations in education can be life-changing for a child.”