#Be Fearless in the Classroom

I just can’t wait anymore!  There is such a sense of urgency when it comes to innovating public education.  As an educator, I am charged with guiding students to their fullest potential. I am not a sage or an expert or even a guru.  I am a teacher. And for me, that means stepping aside and letting the students shine; letting them discover their passions and play out their curiosities.  It takes courage to admit that you don’t know all of the answers, and bravery to step aside and lead from the side. Teachers are fearless.

Jean Case, from the Case Foundation, writes about five principles common to the people and organizations that change the world.  Teachers are charged with changing the world and in order to do so, we must be fearless. Being fearless means “setting audacious goals, acting urgently and boldly, being unafraid of risk, being willing to strike unlikely alliances, and accepting the possibility of failure while still pressing forward” (Case Foundation, 2019). 

I want students to believe that they have the ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance for engineering real solutions for real problems.  In order to create a culture of innovation in the classroom, I prescribe to Case’s Be Fearless principles: (1) Make big bets; (2) Be bold; (3) Make failure matter; (4) Reach beyond your bubble; and (5) Let urgency conquer fear.  Here is how I translate these into my work disrupting public education.

Make Big Bets and Make History

What worked in the past cannot work today.  In fact, doing what you did last year is taking the easy road.  Plus, it will only allow you to inch along incrementally; taking small steps toward improvement.  Trying to do better every day is difficult. Trying to reinvent your pedagogical practice every year is really difficult!  Thomas Edison didn’t set out to make better candles, he wanted to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”  Similarly, the goal of every educator shouldn’t be to just move students along to the next grade level. Think bigger! What if your goal was to have every single one of your students make 3 years academic growth?  The Case Foundation states, “History suggests that the most significant cultural transformations occur when one or more people simply decide to try and make big change,rather than move incrementally.” I’m not suggesting making arrogant, foolhardy or reckless goals because you think that you have all the answers.  I’m saying that it is often easier to make exponential progress toward an impossible goal then it is to make incremental progress toward a small goal. So, think big and make big bets in your classroom!

Here are some guiding questions from the Case Foundation:

Can we categorize our work into ‘big bets’ versus ‘small ones?’ Have we noticed a difference in effect when we’ve funded one or the other?

What is our riskiest initiative? What do we hope to gain from it?

If fear wasn’t an option, what are some big bets we would take in respect to our work?

Be Bold. Take Risks.

Both in life and in your school, it is difficult to go first.  It is more comfortable to let an early adopter test out a new product or an idea before you decide to spend your time or money on something brand new.  Educators feel the same way. We are often inundated with a new “best practice” and many feel that trying something new is like prescribing to a new fad.  Still, others get that tingly feeling when a new opportunity presents itself and they get a chance to respond creatively and experiment with a new idea or technology tool.  This is what it is like to teach in beta mode. It isn’t just picking up any new idea and running with it because it sounds cool. Taking on a software developer mindset in the classroom is about using every attempt at something new and treating it like the first in a series of iterations. Jennifer Gonzalez discuss how having an iterative pedagogical practice allows you to use repetitions of a process with the goal of making improvements each time around.  Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to go first, be bold and take smart risks because the result of not doing so is maintaining the status quo.

Here are some guiding questions from the Case Foundation:

Could we apply the minimum viable product concept to the tools or programs we develop?

Are there changes we can make that allow our nonprofit partners to experiment more freely?

What processes and procedures do we have in place that encourage or impede experimentation? What policies could we put in place to make experimentation the norm?

Make Failure Matter

There is a difference between failing and being a failure.  John Spencer and A.J. Juliani describes how important it is to learn how to fail. “We want [students] to revise and iterate based on what they learned from failing – all on a path to real success” (Empower, 2017). Failing is temporary; failure is permanent.  This applies to both students and teachers and requires support, guidance, and most importantly, the time and space to reflect on their failings. We should be asking students (and ourselves), how did you fail today?  This subtle shift from failure to failing can reduce the unease of judgment or acceptance that may be holding students and teachers back.


Not only is it important to begin asking yourself Am I sure this is going to work, it is also vital that we practice living in that discomfort of things not working.  Being innovative is not about never failing; being innovative is about failing over and over and over again and making those failures matter.

Here are some guiding questions from the Case Foundation:

Do we honestly talk about failures? How do we respond to them internally and publicly?

As social sector funders, do we give our grantees permission to fail, talk about failure, and course correct?

How could we create a regular forum for staff and grantees to discuss and learn from failure?

Reach Beyond your Bubble

Innovation is a team sport.  Sure, we all may fantasize about being the lone creative who has a Eureka! moment in their classroom, and then implements it flawlessly.  That just isn’t the way the real world works. Innovation requires us to break through our silos and reach outside of our comfort zones. The Case Foundation calls for “forging new partnerships and collaborating within and across various domains, fields, and sectors” (Case Foundation, 2019).  In education, we call it collaboration. In exponential education, we call it radical collaboration. Forming partnerships, not only with our colleagues, but those outside of education, will allow us to gain differing and fresh new perspectives and execute on ideas in ways we couldn’t have imagined alone.  Educators need to be encouraged and even incentivized to reach beyond their bubbles!

Here are some guiding questions from the Case Foundation:

Which organizations do we admire in our sector and in other sectors? How can we with them?

What are our most common areas in need of improvement? What partners can help fill those gaps?

Let Urgency Conquer Fear

I started with this principle because I am tired of waiting for change to happen from the top.  Whether it is the government’s legislation to “improve” schools, or school districts buying technology and fancy furniture in an attempt to innovate, things are moving slowly.  Too slowly compared to the rapid pace of change in the world. The challenges we face in public education are dynamic and complex. They can seem daunting and almost impossible to address.  The old way of doing things is simply no longer effective in this new world. We must rethink and redesign our traditional model of education. This may seem audacious, but every day we continue to do the same thing in the same way, we are robbing children the opportunity to be creative and innovative.  We can’t wait for change to come from the top down. We need to wipe the slate clean and design an educational experience that propels students into the future. We need to act. You can’t think your way to being more innovative. You’ve got to do things. You’ve got to act. Don’t worry. Your mind will follow.  Continue to disrupt yourself. In the face of resistance, this principle will push you and your students forward.

Here are some guiding questions from the Case Foundation:

What are the most important issues for us right now and why? Where could we streamline?

How could we balance tested solutions with meeting immediate needs?

Reading Be Fearless by Jean Case from the Case Foundation really affirmed the work we do as educators.  Now that we have started this conversation, let’s keep going! Let’s commit being a Legendary Educator and creating amazing learning experiences every day for each of our students.  We need to continue experimenting and sharing what works and what doesn’t work. As the Case Foundation encourages:

Being fearless means going beyond just talking about it; it means experimenting with taking risks, going beyond your bubble to collaborate, making big bets, and failing forward. And, we should all act now. The more we all work together to challenge ourselves and overcome our fears, the more impact we will have.