The Uphill Battle of Innovation

Landing at Dulles International Airport from California two weeks ago was a jarring return to winter; a runway full of snow after a week of 75 degrees and sunny is quite the adjustment. But my return has presented an even larger challenge for me: being innovative in a model that doesn’t preach innovation. Much like my colleague Desiree Smith wrote, I am also searching for my way to spread the ideas that I “received on the mountaintop.”

I returned to D.C. to find that many of my colleagues were interested in me being their eyes and ears with regard to innovation. Many teachers at my school are excited about the prospect of using personalized and blended learning to improve our school, which is often a very difficult place to teach. While an interested group of educators is always key for a new initiative, I found that it was very hard for many of my fellow teachers to truly grasp the change I have gone through in my thinking of how education should work. I began wishing that they had been with me, that they had visited the and had so many of the other experiences I did in California.

In that moment of clarity, I realized why we refer to what we are doing as innovation: We are changing the way that we, as a society, view how education fundamentally works. Not everyone will come to the same realizations at the same time, and not everyone will understand that you can’t just snap your fingers and become an Alliance or a Summit Public Schools. It’s a process, and moreover, it requires a buy-in from many people in a single building. So one of my missions is to help my fellow teachers see how amazing these changes could be for our students.

The second thing that innovation requires is a large group of people who are willing to be wrong. I am here to say that my first attempt at implementing a new blended learning idea in my classroom was a gigantic failure—and on top of that, I was being observed when it happened. I ignored most of my own advice: My pacing was off, I didn’t give the students a chance to move at their own pace, and I front-loaded my lesson too much; as a result, my classroom descended into chaos, and the lesson was probably a big waste of time for my students.

An experience like this might send many teachers packing or make them lose confidence in the strategies they tried. But for me, this “failure” highlighted the many things I can adjust and modify. Innovation is messy. Innovation is difficult. I now have the dirt under my fingernails to prove it, and I still believe that we can make the same results happen in DCPS that I saw in California.

Innovation is all about wanting change. It’s having the courage to say you don’t know if something is going to work and the commitment to not give up at the first setback. I hope that my sharing my experience (and the fact that it blew up during a formal evaluation) will show my fellow teachers that it’s okay to mess up. We should be learning just as much as our students are. We as educators need to push ourselves to think up the new ways of doing things, just like we ask our students to do every day. I know what I am talking about is a bumpy road. I’m just really glad that I have my cohort of Fellows to lean on and to show me I’m not alone in trying to make sense of this new world we have been exposed to.

I feel the proper way to close this out is with a quote from the famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. I think this quote is particularly for fitting for my cohort of Fellows, and it’s something for us all to keep in mind as we move forward on this journey to improve our teaching, our schools, and ourselves:

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Keep making the mistakes. Keep pushing yourself. If you aren’t messing up, you probably aren’t really trying anything new.​

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School


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