Creative Teachers Must Be Stopped!

When my wife and I took Florida’s Gifted certification courses several years ago with our (fantastic) district Gifted Specialist, she took the Creativity course one summer. When she finished it, she got the instructor a present: a bumper sticker that said, “Creative people must be stopped!”

The sticker, of course, was ironic and satirical, and my wife gave it in a spirit of irony. Sadly, in much of our culture, and especially in teaching, that bumper sticker represents a real idea for many people. It is this anti-creativity stance that the bumper sticker was parodying.

As someone who has always, from a very young age, enjoyed being creative, I have always found this fear and loathing of creativity rather baffling. I recently read a book, though, that gave me some insights about this fear of creatives and their creative work. Inspired: Understanding Creativity – A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul by Matt Richtel was an addition to my ever-growing library of books about creativity, but I think it may be the first book in my collection to address people’s negative attitudes toward creativity.

He cites the work of Jack Goncalo, who has studied how people say they feel about creativity, versus how they really feel about it. Most people say they love creativity. Seems obvious, right? But that isn’t the reality. The next part of the experiment involved participants seeing words that either implied creativity or practicality and then choosing one of several images to click on in rapid-fire fashion that left no time for conscious thought. Given words that implied creativity (like “novel” or “original”), “People actually had a strong association between the concept of creativity and other negative associations like vomit, poison, and agony.”

So people say they like creativity but appear in reality to actually be disgusted by it.

Another insight is that teachers “dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking.” I found this to be a very broad generalization… but also remember running into a former student at an art festival once who told me I was the only teacher who ever encouraged his creativity.

What Jack Goncalo says about his research is that we like creativity, but we like stability as well. Creativity can be disruptive. Creativity changes things. Creativity is unpredictable.

I have watched the teaching profession go from almost complete autonomy, to almost complete micromanagement. Complete autonomy meant I developed the ability to think, big picture, about a school year as a journey I took students on, a journey that had a trajectory, but which allowed for course corrections and detours based on the students I had in the room. Now I am expected to follow a map that makes very little sense to me in order to check off standards so we can say they were “covered.”

My creativity as a teacher also involves trouble-shooting problems closeup. My best ideas as a teacher have come about as solutions to student problems. I have come up with ways to get students to be more vivid in their writing, to go beyond the five-paragraph formula, to go beyond using canned transition words, to avoid clunky, awkward sentences, to write ironies in fiction that actually make their stories end well. We talk endlessly about standards, but there are usually hidden standards – sub-skills students need to meet the standards – that need to be identified and taught. Identifying and finding ways to teach those hidden standards is an act of creativity.

Is teaching an act of compliance to a preset teaching template or textbook – Teach-By-Number – or is teaching an act of creativity?

It seems obvious what the system is looking for these days. And things have only gotten worse in our current climate. We are afraid to teach the wrong book, to bring up the wrong topic for discussion in class, to allow students to chose their own topics to write about (who knows what they might write?).

But teaching, at its best, involves seeing what obstacles are preventing students from learning, and then coming up with a way around those obstacles. That demands creativity. But apparently creativity is too dangerous to be allowed. One of the many ways we stifle it is to say everything we do has be “research based.” Obviously a new, creative idea can’t be research based since there has been not time for research.

I have experienced both attitudes toward creativity. My creativity has been encouraged and celebrated. It has also been viewed with alarm as dangerous and subversive.

But I wonder, 20 years into the standardization of teaching, how many great, creative ideas have been stifled by a system that doesn’t encourage teachers to have them. I wonder how many great ideas have never come to be because the teachers who might have had them have left the profession, tired of their talents being stomped on and frustrated by their lack of autonomy.

Now that we’ve standardized the profession into a massive teacher shortage, my state, Florida, is getting very creative about filling teaching positions. We’re letting military veterans and their spouses and first responders to teach. Because, you know, anyone can teach!

I wonder if hiring non-teachers to teach has a research base to support it?

Creative teachers are so dangerous they must be driven from the profession! Creative people must be stopped!