Empowering those who lean into creativity

When John Malloy, Ed.D., discusses the future of education, there is a passion that takes over the conversation. The passion is not only a culmination of 30-plus years as an educator dedicated to the students and administrators under his watch, but also to continue to encourage ways to bring more creative approaches to teaching to today’s classrooms.

At the heart of Dr. Malloy’s edict is to get the K-12 thought process to go beyond the “status quo” approach it has followed for decades upon decades. As Superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which includes 36 schools serving 32,000-plus students in Contra Costa County, California, he continues to practice what he preaches, which includes how administrators get the most out of their kids—academically and creatively.

“Over the past couple of decades of doing this work, I have found there is a profound power to keep the status quo—a comfort and affirmation to adhere to emphasize math and science and social studies [etc.],” Dr. Malloy says. “That is important, but we need to understand that today’s workforce is looking for different qualities in our graduates than simply being able to remember and retain facts.”

The strategic plan would be to shift the thinking and teaching process toward more creative approaches; ones that reward students not only for grades, but also for inventiveness, problem-solving, and collaboration. “We want kids to be academically strong, but as long as we are so subject-specific in our approach, we will never get them to that creative sweet spot,” Dr. Malloy says. “Hitting that sweet spot means our students will be more aligned with today’s colleges and workplaces.”

Translation: Opening up the creative channels in today’s students offers them more avenues into visionary and entrepreneurial thinking. Creativity, Dr. Malloy says, is about being able to approach students in a new way of instruction, giving them the opportunity to learn by trial and error. “Students should not be afraid to fail. It simply is about taking the learning process, and going deeper and wider. We are giving the kids the opportunity to own the process. By doing so, it is better for everyone.”

Dr. Malloy is not on an island with this way of thinking. He draws much of his inspiration as a member of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) “Learning 2025: National Commission on Student-Centered, Equity-Focused Education.” The group, a collective of thought leaders in education, business, community and philanthropy convened by the AASA School Superintendents Association, is calling for holistic redesign of the public school system by 2025.

AASA believes these challenges facing today’s K-12 demand that the public school system evolve so that it can equitably and effectively meet the needs of all types of learners—from students who have been systematically marginalized, to those with disabilities, to those who benefit from more independence, and everyone in between. “We believe that superintendents, principals, teachers, school boards, teachers unions and community leaders all must accept responsibility for addressing this challenge and play a central role in defining and leading systemic change in our districts and schools,” Dr. Malloy says. “Achieving this level of accountability will ask all of us to redefine our roles and responsibilities in the education system.”

Part of this strategy simply involves designing different, more creative ways to teach—a process that includes what both teachers and students want and need. In Dr. Malloy’s district, six of the 36 schools are involved in a pilot program using these principles. Following the process, the San Ramon Valley District will share the lessons learned and move forward with the appropriate adjustments.

“It all comes to being able to think outside of the box,” Dr. Malloy says. “It’s about giving kids everything they need to succeed.”

“It all comes to being able to think outside of the box. It’s about giving kids everything they need to succeed.”

— John Malloy, Ed.D., Superintendent, San Ramon Valley Unified School District

Contributions = belonging = commitment

In a recent meeting Allison Schultz, Coordinator for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Episcopal Academy, was leading with fellow educators, the discussion veered toward the inability of teachers to be creative in their classrooms. Using creative teaching methods can be draining, especially day after day.

What Schultz and her colleagues found is that some of the schools that are working in closer to normal situations are creating opportunities for teachers to share their innovative ideas. “Creativity really builds resilience and connects us to our passions,” Schultz says.

Schultz says today’s K-12 system should look to models like the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, commonly known as the The design thinking institute, based at Stanford University, has become one of the most highly sought-after academic programs in the country. “Innovation comes from giving smart people time to ponder, tinker, create and iterate. Teachers need—and deserve—that feeling too, and honestly, it is needed when we’re still facing lots of challenges in a quasi-post-pandemic world.”

Ask 10 people which education problem requires the most urgent attention and you are likely to get 10 different responses. Schultz emphasizes that this is not to say education is in a horrible place because wonderful things happen in classrooms every day. But each individual school and every district across the country faces different challenges. Roles within schools are fairly well defined: teacher, administrator, coach, etc. Even in schools where someone is looking at the big picture, it is hard to get the input of all those different constituents in consumable data that can be used to drive change.

“Effective K-12 leadership requires strong relationships and strong communication, and the ability to create meaningfulness for everyone in the organization,” Schultz says. “People will work hard toward a well-articulated vision that aligns with their identity. A connected leader understands the strengths of their teachers and seeks to create situations where teachers can use their strengths to benefit the students.”

Schultz believes there is a delicate balance that leaders must strike when making changes or setting policy, which includes soliciting the opinions and ideas of others to increase buy-in. But there also must be a willingness to make a decision and help everyone—even those whose ideas could not be incorporated—get on board. Having teachers take on tasks that feel like meaningful contributions connects and unites a community. Leaders then must continually remind everyone of that connection—and lead by example while also trusting teachers to work autonomously.

“Contributions = belonging = commitment,” Schultz says. “When we think of the best schooling environment, committed teachers have to be a big part of that picture. Teachers are the ones with the kids each day, making the impact. So find a way to allow teachers to contribute to their community in a way that makes them proud. And then recognize those contributions. It’s important to think about belonging as a mirror. We see ourselves the way others in our organizations see us. Therefore, never miss an opportunity to praise that which is done well and aligns with the school’s mission.”

“When we think of the best schooling environment, committed teachers have to be a big part of that picture. Teachers are the ones with the kids each day, making the impact.”

— Allison Schultz, Coordinator of Center for Teaching and Learning, Episcopal Academy

If you give praise for effective work, you open the door to creativity, which allows the surest way to increase the efforts of your administration, your teachers and your students.