It’s the system that prevents innovation!

I was in my 6th year and really coming into my own as a teacher.  I was teaching two Advanced Placement (AP) courses and several electives that I had personally created.  I was the unofficial head of the department and enjoyed a very solid reputation as a high quality teacher.  I had gotten into the habit of creating my own materials.  I would cobble together all kinds of snippets from multiple sources –the internet was in its infancy — so this was a ton of work at the time — and prepare handouts instead of relying on a single textbook.  I really liked to get viewpoints from all sides of an issue and give multiple perspectives and voice to what I was teaching.  This little bit of effort really made the kids think … it was not a dry boring and often confusing textbook and after 6 years, I had all kinds of what you would call HOMEMADE materials.

Late that spring my principal stopped me in the hall and asked if I would head-up the textbook committee to select a new United States Government Textbook for the whole department and without thinking I said “yes.”

What a mistake that was — we assembled all the teachers who taught at least one section of Government — ordered all kinds of sample textbooks with materials. The instructions were simple –select one textbook.  After two months of deliberations we were at impasse — mostly because of me. I despised the top selection from the group.  It was jingoistic — patronizing — and dreadfully boring. I actually used a section of this exact textbook to teach about Jingoism!  Yet my older — and more entrenched colleagues really liked the test generator and all the fluff materials it came with like worksheets!  I just cringed and finally simply refused to make a selection.  I became the hold-out — and told my principal that they can select whatever they want, I will simply not use the textbook.

That is when I felt the weight of the system come down on me — at first it was a plea from my principal —  we just passed a tax levy that promised parents that we would purchase new updated materials including textbooks.  My principal looked at me as said “you will cause me grief if you do not pass out and use that new textbook.”  Grief — from the superintendent, board members and community members who now have an expectation that students will have shiny new textbooks regardless of quality.

That was not the only pressure the system decided to bear down on me — the next weight added was a subtle insinuation that kids who got my HOMEMADE materials may not fair as well on the State Test.  Of course, you know the textbook is aligned to Ohio Standards and your HOMEMADE materials might be missing some key standards.  Despite my 100% passage on the Advanced Placement exam, it was suggested that my failure to use the textbook could become a data point used in my evaluation.

Oh —  but that’s not all the firepower the system had — the next weight added was the hint that maybe I could get reassigned to Freshman level courses, since apparently I do not play well in the sandbox.  This suggestion made me recoil in horror!  I loved teaching United States Government and the AP class was mine alone.  But my principal made it clear my failure to relent has consequences.

This persisted until June of that year.  It was then the deadline from the textbook company loomed — if you did not order before July the company could not guarantee delivery of said textbooks.  Then the final weight from the system was placed on my back — I received a personal phone call from the Superintendent who essentially asked me to relent — order the textbook — use it sparingly and continue to do what I am doing.

I relented — I buckled — I caved — despite knowing that was a horrible choice — kids despised that textbook and my colleagues used the FLUFF materials and the test generator to further deskill our profession,

The system itself prevented innovation and good teaching.  We all know the best teachers use multiple sources for information and in today’s digital age if you only used the textbook you would be a dinosaur of sorts.  But this is how we keep the status qou — how we fail to innovate — it is part of the reason why school looks and operates essentially the same way for 50 plus years!

All of the players in this illustration fed the system including me– which only makes the system stronger and further prevents simple innovations.  We have all kinds of examples of the system itself preventing simple — common sense — innovation.  From how the buses run, to how we award credits, to who gets to take what classes, to how we group kids by age instead of ability and the list is endless.

It is the monstrous often hidden system that prevents even basic innnovation.  Yet all the reformers talk the talk of reform — yet despite decades of “change” we look, operate and essentially teach the same way.  Very little change if any — its gives credence and voice to those teachers who will utter “this too shall pass” as each reform movement expects something different.

I really feel for those teachers and administrators who labor in such a system that not only discourages innovation and creativity — but will squash it at all cost.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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