As an instructional technology coach, I’m the number one advocate of divergent thinkers in a school environment.  Technology integration is the easiest entry into twenty-first century teaching, but it can also be one of the scariest things teachers attempt.  What keeps me from being invited into classrooms always seems to come down to one thing: fear.

In a school environment, fear is like a virus.  It can enter inconspicuously and spread, causing even those teachers who were confident in their practice to question themselves.  Those teachers who once enjoyed the freedom of autonomy in their classrooms are stopped in their tracks, unable to move forward.  The notion of risk-taking becomes preposterous, which inevitably leads to stagnant practice.

But where does this fear come from?  It’s a question that’s constantly on my mind, because identifying the root of the problem is the key to solving it.  My suspicion is that in schools, fear emanates from a multitude of sources.  It could develop in a culture, co-constructed by administration and staff members who encourage compliance over thoughtfulness.  It could build up as a result of a lack of trust and communication between staff and administration.  It could emerge from years of isolation without support or professional development.  More often than not, though, it comes from the silencing of divergent thinking and the dismantling of disruptive innovation.

The Importance of Disruptive Innovation

Divergent thinking is essential if we want to innovate in schools. This type of thinking amongst our students is what we can nurture to grow students who love learning and continue to strive to understand the world around them.  The same can be said about teachers.  But as adults, we fear divergent thinking perhaps even more.  “Rocking the boat,” as they say, can cause tempers to flare, damaging relationships that are more difficult to repair in the adult world.  So, the presence of a divergent thought, or the introduction of disruption to the system can create contagious fear.

So what do we do about it?  As a coach, I’m faced with this problem every day, but there are ways to help yourself — and your staff — overcome these fears.

Delicately Nurture and Encourage Divergent Thinking

It’s my job to nurture those divergent thinkers who are ready to push forward past the fear, and rejuvenate their practice to best meet the needs of the kids in the seats today.  And in order to do this, we have to take the ego out of teaching.  Teachers don’t get a lot of regular, constructive feedback, and the buzz about education in the media is rarely positive.  As a result, teachers are forced to rely on themselves to determine whether or not they’re doing a good job.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that things are running smoothly, it’s more difficult to be open to the idea that you could improve something you feel you’ve mastered.  And that’s where my job comes in.  The process is delicate, but with a little time, many can be nurtured outside their comfort zone.

Identify the Fear

But it’s also my job to help people recognize the fear that may be holding them back from being their best teacher selves.  All too often, I hear, “why do we need to change something that works well for us?”  To a coach, this is a dead giveaway that fear is drivingKaty loves being a tech coach!that discussion.  Continuing what has worked in the past is a way to maintain control, to avoid risk, and to reside in a comfort zone.  My best course of action in this situation is to reframe the suggestion in a way that brings it back to the students.  Fear can keep us from engaging in divergent thinking because we don’t like change, but it should never keep us from doing what is best for kids.

Have a Little Empathy

If I push too hard, too fast, I’ll lose the trust I’ve worked so hard to build.  But the challenge remains that every day, kids stream through the school doors and into our care, and I feel the same weight of the responsibility to educate kids in a way that truly meets their needs that other teachers feel.  As a result, the craft of coaching  requires a balance of critical feedback and empathy for the people that give their all every single day in classrooms.

Katy the Coach
Follow @KatytheCoach!

Lessons Learned

Disruptive innovation is not an easy feat.  Any time you’re in a position where you have to support and encourage the disparate view amongst a resistant majority, you’re bound to encounter defensiveness and frustration.  Remember that fear drives that irritation, and that it doesn’t have to last.

I’m going to stay the course, work equally hard for both the people that challenge fear and those that live in it.  Because, eventually, that thinking that seems divergent now will catch on and grow, and I want to be there when it does.


Katy (@KatytheCoach) is an instructional technology coach in the suburbs of Chicago. She pioneered a 1:1 iPad program in her 5th grade classroom, setting her on an edtech journey. Now, she strives to help teachers improve their effectiveness through the integration of tech tools in the classroom.  Find Katy on LinkedIn!

3 thoughts

  1. Great piece, Katy. I’ve seen that same fear you described, disruptive voices get silenced so why rock the boat? “Because we’ve always done it this way” is the sure sign that there is deep seated fear of change, that at some point individuals, teams, buildings, systems have been punished for taking risks. The balance of supporting but at the same time creating disequilibrium is a coaching skill that comes with practice and as you describe, trust. and as you say we need to do what’s right for kids! too often people in education do what’s comfortable for adults instead.
    Thanks Paul for the post!

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for reaching out! I wonder how we can help teachers see different ways of thinking, and how we can create disequilibrium by letting issues reveal themselves. A lot of times, the ways that we collect data and the ways that we monitor progress actually shield us from the true problems. Perhaps changing the way we think about assessing “what’s working” and “what’s not working” might help teachers to see that “what we’ve always done” actually isn’t working anymore — or perhaps never worked in the first place.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Paul, I agree that we need a new way to think about communicating the need for change. Just telling people “this isn’t working you need to change.” isn’t going to get people to move. Also pouring data on them isn’t going to do it. We need a way to ignite their passions and get them to see that doing things the same way isn’t working. Data is part of this discussion but I think its more than that. We need a way to find out what motivates each person to improve and tap into that. And that is the $25,000 question, how to do that in the system that we are working in.

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