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What Happened to Creativity in the Classroom?

[Editor’s note: The author is a retired New York City public school teacher.]

One of the many luxuries of retirement that I now enjoy is time to spend browsing the newspaper, especially the Sunday Times. Occasionally I find myself glancing through the Business Section thinking there will be nothing there to hold my interest. Invariably, however, I become engaged in a human interest story, biography, or innovation that is detailed in this section.

Several Sundays ago a piece about creativity in the work place captivated my interest. A primary focus of the story was that architects and designers were formulating nooks, hallway spaces, etc. to encourage employees to sit and think quietly, reflect and think creatively. During the same time period I happened to tune into a documentary about the old Ma Bell business model. Since the telephone company was a monopoly for an expanse of time, funding was rarely an issue. Employees at Bell Lab were encouraged to invent and create without necessarily addressing specific needs or problems. A result of this environment was the invention of laser technology and early prototypes for cell phones. Indeed an astounding number of patents came directly from this lab on almost a daily basis.

This type of support for creativity and inventiveness is laughingly and obscenely absent in our current school system. Regimentation, data collection, assessment and standardization are now the goals of the system. Teacher input, teacher inspired solutions and creativity are becoming extinct. The DOE has latched on to acceptable “best practices” and teaching formulas that are thrust upon teachers in top down management style. The DOE and its administrative staff inform teaching staff about these practices through workshops, curriculum guides, and literature dissemination. Thinking outside the DOE box is unacceptable.

As a grandparent I have come full circle and I’m hoping that my grandsons experience great teachers in their academic futures. And so with the hindsight of raising my own children as well as thirty years of teaching experience I am reflective about what makes a great creative teacher. What do I wish for them as they approach school age. Of course I want them to have teachers that are smart, that know their subject matter, and know how to manage and talk to kids. In my heart, however, I know the most essential piece is how a teacher relates to kids, does she/he genuinely like children, is she/he encouraging, nurturing, and a sincere cheerleader for self esteem and progress. These critical traits are never talked about in the profession. Yet the importance of these characteristics overrides by far the type of reading program used, the core curriculum, the integrative projects, etc.

Curriculum components along with required practices (mini lessons, small groups, cooperative seating, carpet seating, de-briefing, sharing out) are ultimately secondary in the learning process. While clearly, an exciting classroom where a teacher provides individual and small group instruction is a good thing, it is not the essence of great teaching. The element that is most important is the relationship that the teacher has with a child.

The DOE’s philosophy that creativity comes in one size that parallels the current guru of the month just doesn’t work. For example, if a teacher decided for management or skill drill purposes to place his/her students in rows with individual personal space this would be an automatic red flag that would reflect extremely negatively upon the teacher’s professional abilities. This scenario is particularly ironic when considering the common physical arrangement of school computer labs whereby students sit separately at terminals that require focused screen attention. Clearly one type of personal space is acceptable while another is not. I am definitely not implying that children shouldn’t partner or work on some activities cooperatively, but the decision of when to arrange for these types of learning experiences is no longer left to the teacher. The professional in the classroom is not given credit for his/her own insights and creative solutions must fit the model. This begs the question of what creative teaching really means. Teachers cannot formulate reflective common sense solutions; nor can they personalize or align their teaching skills with their individual philosophies. They are working in a one size fits all structure that masquerades as inventive but limits the way professionals grow, experiment and implement ideas.

One of my favorite places to shop is Ann Taylor. I know the clothes in any of the chain stores will be cut well, stylish, and trendy without being outrageous. As much as I enjoy my shopping experience in Ann Taylor stores one of my great disappointments occurs when I travel and I discover Ann Taylor in every shopping center across the country. I want to see some local boutiques with styles and flavors that reflect the uniqueness of the location I am visiting. Similarly I believe standardization has gone too far in our school systems. Minimum standards that incorporate basic skills are necessary; however there is not just one best way to meet these standards. The most critical factor in student progress is never the program or curriculum format. The component that is always the most crucial is the teacher’s attitude. Is she/he encouraging, nurturing, patient and positively supportive. I believe the school environment that teachers are required to work in is actually crushing their spirit and their patience. Inflexible disregard for the teacher’s knowledge and solutions leave teaching professionals feeling voiceless, defeated, and disassociated with creative thought.