Here’s a paradox: the skill set that allows teachers to survive a school year also makes it very difficult for them to be as creative as they need to be.
Think about it. Reaching a place of competency as a teacher requires them to be able to juggle a million little moving details while planning ahead for a million more little moments to come. The to-do list is virtually endless: grading student work, emailing parents, designing lessons, adjusting lessons between classes, monitoring lunchrooms, chasing down late work, making copies, etc. Teachers learn to survive by developing heroic habits of hyper-productivity and efficiency involving early mornings, working in the evenings, limiting themselves to eleven-minute lunch breaks, and forgoing bathroom visits until the school day ends. In the end, this allows them to meet the requirements of the job, and in that respect, it works. At the same time, it feels a bit like toiling on a submarine out at sea. They don’t get many opportunities to surface for air and can easily lose sight of the stars for months at a time.
In my conversations with school leaders and in my capacity as a professional development coordinator and teacher, there is one refrain from teachers when asked what they need in order to refine their practice: time. In this, teachers aren’t wrong. Without affording sufficient time and space to develop new ideas in creative ways, we’re likely to continue working relentlessly, reproducing the same old instructional patterns we’ve always relied on. If teachers are being asked to design deeper learning work that connects students to God’s story, we need time to pause, to reflect, to spark new ideas, to collaborate and seek feedback as we develop these ideas into practical reality. Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek (whose book Start With Why harmonizes beautifully with the Teaching for Transformation practice of Deep Hope, incidentally) affirms this in a 2018 interview: “Constant, constant, constant engagement is not where you have innovation and ideas,” he warns. “Ideas happen when our minds can wander, and you see something and you go, ‘I bet [I] could do that.’ That’s called innovation.”1
The time we need to let our imaginations expand isn’t measured in 30 or 60-minute chunks, but in full days carved out of the school year for teachers to step away from the tyranny of the urgent and embrace the things that are most important. One source of strength at my school is that we have four full professional development days set aside during this school year. This sort of commitment doesn’t happen accidentally. Parents are unlikely to demand it, and the budgetary bottom line won’t suggest it’s essential, but human realities dictate that it’s necessary if we hope for teachers to re-think their patterns of lesson planning.
The creative process on such days will look different for different people. Some teachers spend such opportunities bouncing off the walls with ideas and delighting in the possibilities around them. Some folks will have an unpleasant experience, perhaps because they aren't enamored with the work they’re being asked to do, or because they just have a difficult time quieting the call of the “urgent.” Other teachers will look more like I often do in such circumstances - tightly focused and inward. I chuckled with recognition at the words of Bob Dylan, one of the most restlessly creative humans alive, when he reflected in a recent interview, “[Creativity is] a funny thing. When we’re inventing something, we’re more vulnerable than we’ll ever be…. To be creative you’ve got to be…unfriendly and distracted. You’re self-sufficient and you stay focused.”2 I’ve lived that experience more than once as I’ve wrangled some new idea into existence. Whether teachers in this state appear ecstatic or aloof, it’s unlikely that they would be able to access this internal space unless they were first granted the room in their work life to allow for creativity to make its way to the surface. It’s necessary to get out of the submarine every now and then.
Of course, time and space aren’t the solutions to every problem of stasis in Christian schools. But if your school has developed a mission that matters to your community, and you’ve got a teaching staff who are passionate about bringing that to life in their classrooms, then carving out space for creativity in the calendar is essential. Without it, teachers are likely doomed to work hyper-productively on the well-worn road to nothing new. When it comes to creative learning design, the solutions won’t be found in the submarine.
Bilyeu, Tom. “This Is Why You Don't Succeed - Simon Sinek on the Millennial Generation.” Team Fearless. YouTube, December 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNgQOHwsIbg.
Jeff Slate, “Bob Dylan on Music’s Golden Era vs. Streaming: ‘Everything’s Too Easy,’” Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2022