What Happens When Teachers Take Creative Risks?

I sit at the Starbucks, staring at the blinking cursor daring me to write another line. Fears swirl through my brain. What if this doesn’t work? Will people hate it? What if I write the entire first draft and it simply isn’t any good? I stumble forward with a sentence, then another sentence until I have an awkwardly bad first paragraph. Thirty minutes whirl by and I have, at most, two hundred words. But something happens in the next hour. I quit asking “Is this any good?” and simply ask “What happens next?” Words spill into paragraphs and into pages. It’s still slow but after four hours, I have three thousand words.

This is my first serious attempt at fiction since I co-wrote Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard over five years ago. I have a three-week break without any classes to teach. Meanwhile, my doctoral classes are winding down. And so, here I am, working on another book that I will co-write with my wife. I’ll spare you the details but the protagonist is a girl who’s a maker.

Although I’m excited about this process, I’m also fighting back fear every single day. I know how to write a blog post, an article, or an education book. But this is different. This is story craft. And although I wake up excited about the project, I find myself fighting off the urge to go check Facebook or pick up a novel or answer emails. The hardest moment is when I first get started and I make the decision to plunge into the uncertainty and start writing.

Creative work is easy when it’s simply an idea. You can plan it out and put it away. Meanwhile, it remains a perfect ideal, sitting on the shelf of your mind. But take it down and transform the idea into an actual product and suddenly it feels complex and confusing and even fragile (even if it’s not).

But what I’ve found is that the pit-in-the-stomach fear is nearly always a sign that you are on the right track. I remember telling A.J. Juliani that I wanted to do this highly visual approach for Empower and the whole time I wondered if people would mock the visual aesthetic for being too messy or bold or sketched-out. I felt the same way when I first decided to create sketch videos and when I decided to do color sketches instead of photographs when I did keynotes.

In these moments, there’s a sense that what you’re creating might not work. It’s why I keep a sticky note with the words “this could fail.”

It’s easy to do creative work when you know ahead of time that it will succeed. But the best creative work you do is the kind that will leave you feeling uncertain and scared. And when you choose to embrace that take creative risks, it has a profound effect on how you teach.

Five Reasons Why Teachers Should Take Creative Risks

Right now, all three of my kids have classrooms where they are doing amazing projects. My oldest son gushes about his engineering class in the seventh grade. My middle son gets a chance to do Genius Hour and blogging in his fifth-grade class. My daughter is doing science experiments and maker projects in her second-grade class. While the projects differ, the teachers are each taking a creative risk.

When I observe classrooms where students are becoming problem-solvers and creative thinkers, there is always a common element with the teachers. They take risks. They experiment. They know that creative risk-taking is exactly that: a risk. It might work. It might fail. But they also know that the greatest risk occurs when they teach out of fear and fail to innovate in their own practice. So, with that in mind, I  thought I would explore reasons you should take creative risks, both in your teaching and in your life — and why you should share your risk-taking with your students.

 

#1: You build empathy with students.

I remember a moment when a group of students burst into tears because they couldn’t get their solar oven to work. They had each researched possible concepts and tried out various approaches as a group after school. The next morning, they met up to talk about their design. And yet, when they finally attempted it, the project simply didn’t work. It’s easy to say, “it’s just some cardboard and aluminum foil,” but I instantly recognized how they felt. It was the same frustration I had felt when writing a book that wasn’t working or trying to string together a line of code that didn’t work.

I also understand when a student has a hard time getting started on a creative task. I’ve felt the fear before. I’ve experienced the lack of clarity. The more I take creative risks, the better I am at anticipating the emotions my students will experience and I’m also able to walk them through it, because I have walked through that process myself. It’s easy to make a snap judgment about why a student is failing to get started. You might view it as laziness or a lack of interest or even a poorly constructed unit plan. But when you start from a place of empathy, you are more patient with students who are on that journey.

 

#2: You demonstrate that failure is a part of the process.

When A.J. Juliani and I created the LAUNCH Cycle, we included a phase called “Highlight What’s Working and Fix What’s Failing.” We chose to use the word “failing” for a reason. Although we could have used “needs improvement” or even “revise,” we chose the word “failing” because we wanted all students to see that every prototype will have areas where it is failing. No project is perfect in its first iteration.

But we also wanted students to see that fail-ure was permanent while fail-ing was part of the process. Here, students can embrace a mindset that mistakes are a part of the learning process.

Don’t get me wrong. Failing isn’t fun. Mistakes suck. It’s hard to work on something that simply isn’t working in the moment. However, when students expect mistakes and view it as part of the learning process, they are more likely to embrace a growth mindset:

 

#3: You create a culture of creative risk-taking.

You are the leader of your classroom. So, when you take creative risks with your students, you are saying to your students, “this is what we do. We take creative risks.” But you’re not simply telling them to take creative risks. You are leading the way by taking risks yourself. We tend to think that teachers need to look self-assured and confident. However, we can also say things like, “I’m experimenting with this project” or “I’m trying something out and I’m afraid it’s not going to work.” In these moments, we are not only modeling creative risk-taking; we are modeling vulnerability and trust, which, in turn, transform the classroom culture.

This is also why it helps to learn something you know nothing about (like playing an instrument or learning to code or writing a novel) and sharing your journey with your students. This normalizes creative risk-taking for the entire classroom community. One of the hardest parts of creative risk-taking is the uncertainty and loneliness of it. But when you share your journey, you are giving them a blueprint for how to handle failure while also helping them see that they are not alone in the process.

 

#4: You redefine the idea of inspiration.

I have a flow chart up on a whiteboard in my closet. It’s the first thing I see in the morning before I head out to write. The idea is simple. Just write. The draft might be awful. The words might be clunky. But that’s okay. Just write. I might feel tired or anxious or scared or bored. But the good news about writing is that it’s not dependent on how I feel. It’s dependent on whether or not I can string together sentences.

The same is true in the classroom. When you take creative risks, you send the message that inspiration is about motivation and drive rather than momentary feelings. The passion comes from purpose not from the novelty of an idea or the assurance of success.

The typical symbol for an idea is a lightbulb (which began with Felix the Cat). But what if it’s less like a light bulb that turns on instantaneously and more like a seed that grows slowly? What if great ideas don’t come to life until you plant them and water them and nurture them? And what if the process gets boring and messy and there are moments you can’t see anything and even the seed itself seems to be buried so deep that you begin to doubt it? I don’t mean this to be negative. I’m passionate about creative work but at the end of the day, it is still work, complete with boredom, chaos, doubt, and, yes, even a little faith. And the whole time you wonder, “Is this even worth it? Will this be any good?”

When you are willing to plant seeds and trust the uncertainty, your students experience the hard, gritty, exciting, fun rollercoaster that is creative work.

 

#5: It’s the starting place for innovation.

Think of the biggest innovation you’ve made in your teaching practice. Chances are, it started with a creative risk. When you choose to take creative risks with your students, you are beginning the process of transforming education. Maybe you want to start a service learning program but you don’t have the resources or funding. Perhaps you want to start a makerspace but you feel like you don’t have enough experience with things like circuitry or Arduino or programming. Maybe you want to have your students film documentaries, record podcasts, or write blog posts.

These creative risks often lead to tiny innovations which move into larger innovations. One documentary leads to a whole multimedia movement and suddenly you’re telling stories in powerful ways. Student blogging leads to kids falling in love with writing and suddenly students are creating their own books and magazines and you have a whole digital journalism department. A simple service project turns into something that changes the world.

It doesn’t always turn huge. And that’s okay, too. Because, even if it’s not a big deal to you, it’s a huge deal to your students. When you take those creative risks, you become the teacher they never forget.

 

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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.

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