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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


November/December 2013

Fostering creativity like Pixar
By Joseph Fatheree

Joseph Fatheree is an instructor of technology at Effingham CUSD 40. He was named Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2007 and received the National Education Association’s National Award for Teaching Excellence and the cable industry’s Leaders in Learning Award in 2009.

It’s no secret that schools all across Illinois are feeling pressure from recent changes in the law. The adoption of Common Core State Standards and changes in the evaluation system have left school leadership scrambling for answers.

Administrators are charged with creating a system that promotes creativity and innovation at the highest level, while empowering students with the college and career readiness skills they need to find success in the 21st century. Unfortunately, one of the issues with the current system is that it has done little to encourage collaboration.

Over the years, great teachers have had few opportunities to share best practices with colleagues or administrators. Instead, they have been forced to teach in silos where their voices are rarely heard.

One of the positive things to come out of recent changes in the educational landscape is the willingness of leadership to think differently and look for new ways to create a change in school culture.

A friend of mine shared a model with me that is filled with possibility and worth considering. It is a nontraditional approach based on one of the most successful business platforms in the history of animation. The Harvard Business Review published “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” in December 2008. The article featured an interview with Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and focused on the discussion of what is more important: a great idea or people. 

I have read and reread that article many times over the course of the past couple years. Each time, it has left me wondering what a school would look like if Ed Catmull were at the helm. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him yet, but I think a school under his tutelage would resemble something like the following.

First, I believe Catmull would recognize directives like IDEA, NCLB, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), and the Common Core State Standards as what they are: guidelines.

I believe he would look at new mandates and laws with a “glass half full” perspective and see them as a way to create a myriad of endless possibilities for the students and staff under his watch and care.

He would make sure that staff members were not bogged down in an endless sea of red tape. Instead, he would meet with each staff member to outline expectations and then give them permission to dream big and push the envelope. Together, they would develop professional goals and hold one another accountable.

Second, he would create a culture where the free exchange of ideas was encouraged. He would set schedules where teachers had time to work together. Teachers would have the opportunity to team teach and develop lessons together. They would thrive in a school that asked for their input on how to solve tough issues.

Through meetings, classroom visits, emails, tweets, videos and outside dinners at the local pizzeria, Catmull would build a collaborative environment where teachers wanted to come to work. In fact, one of his biggest problems would be the need to turn applicants away.

I know this all sounds too good to be true. However, that’s exactly the way it is at Pixar. The leadership recognized the importance of great talent and worked hard to build a company where the best in the world want to work. The rest is history.

As a former Teacher of the Year, I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel to countless schools around the United States. I can tell you from experience that great teachers want to work in a stimulating environment where both their work and voice is valued. They would love to work at a school where the foundation was based on collaboration and teamwork.

Finally, Catmull would find a way to eliminate bureaucracy. Over time, most schools have developed a “chain of command,” which everyone is expected to follow to the letter. In fact, failure to do so in some schools is ground for dismissal.

At Pixar, the leadership believes that everyone should have the ability to talk to everyone. It is one of the fundamental reasons behind their success.

I believe Catmull would remove those boundaries and encourage teachers and administrators to work together by sharing, discussing and challenging one another to do their best. Everyone at Pixar knows who is in charge, but they are also encouraged to challenge leadership, poke holes in plans, develop solutions and offer new ideas.

Their collective goal is to make Pixar the most successful animation company in the world. And in the animation industry, Pixar is the standard by which all others are judged.

Wouldn’t it be great if the schools in Illinois became the standard for education? Ed, thanks for the inspiration.

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