Innovation. It’s clearly an essential 21st-century teaching and learning strategy for principals. Why? Because as champions of educational reform, many principals realize the importance and potential of the transformational power of innovation.

Unfortunately, despite substantial efforts by principals to persuade teachers to embrace innovation within their classrooms, which involves new and creative instructional methods, teaching methodologies have largely remained the same. With full knowledge of the need for change, principals often find themselves shaking their heads, wondering where they went wrong or why their teachers don’t appear to share the same sense of urgency to reform educational practices.

What could possibly stall the compelling force of innovation from propelling teachers and classrooms into the 21st century? The answer lies in the reform approach. When principals pool their efforts into promoting innovation as a reform strategy, rather than cultivating innovative teachers through development of entrepreneurial school cultures, they unknowingly limit the probability for authentic change within their schools.

Consider this strategic illustration: First, a leader presents his or her followers with a new, superior pair of shoes to try on. Those who are convinced of the new shoes’ potential immediately try them on. Followers who swiftly experience benefits from wearing the new shoes will continue wearing them and promoting them among other followers. On the other hand, followers experiencing anything less than promised just as swiftly discard them, reverting to their old pair. Still others try the new pair of shoes on just long enough to be observed doing so, never allowing their old shoes to be out of sight. They wear them solely out of compliance, with no real intention of considering them as a permanent replacement. Finally, followers with an unyielding regard for the familiarity of their old shoes will refuse to try on the new pair.

Dismal Results

Sadly, when principals attempt to employ innovation as a reform strategy, the best-case scenario is dismal. Despite its transformative capacity, innovation is wrongly cast off to an abandoned island of misfit strategies, home to other “defective” methodologies that didn’t immediately deliver miracles.

The most effective way for a principal to unleash the potential of innovation within their school is to develop an entrepreneurial school culture. This approach differs from the latter in that it works from the inside out, altering every function within a school. Unlike trying on a new pair of shoes, developing an innovative school culture transforms the collective lens through which staff, students, families, and community members view the school and each other. Like wearing a new set of prescription lenses, the effects of transforming a school culture are lasting and enable its members to see possibilities they did not have the ability to see before.

Principals harness more power over school culture than they may realize. In fact, principal behavior has recently been found to be a determining factor over school culture. When principals exhibit entrepreneurial behavior, teachers are more likely to do the same.

Defining the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Consider embracing these entrepreneurial behaviors, which have been compiled from a review of research on innovation and educational entrepreneurship spanning three decades:

Vision: At the core of the most entrepreneurial schools are vision and mission statements that reflect school cultures that embrace innovation. Although these documents are penned by a range of authors including teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members, entrepreneurial principals are at the helm of coordinating the process. These principals understand the importance of empowering teachers to innovate through powerful messaging. They also understand that teachers feel reinforced in their innovative classroom efforts when they are directly aligned to a school’s entrepreneurial vision.

Risk taking: Risk taking is frequently identified in literature as an essential behavior of entrepreneurs or innovators. Often referred to as “change agents,” entrepreneurial principals are willing to take a first step forward in spite of potential failures or criticism by others. Driven by tenets of innovation, including continuous improvement and advancement, entrepreneurial principals do not shy away from out-of-the-box ideas, even when they possibly unravel routine or precedent. When principals are first willing to take a risk, teachers are more willing to do the same.

Proactivity: Entrepreneurial principals have been described as individuals who continually seek opportunities for improvement in their schools. These principals thrive on possibility and are willing to act without hesitation because their change efforts are driven by need rather than reaction. Teachers are motivated to initiate change in their own classrooms when they observe their principals leading by example.

Work discretion: Innovation flourishes when organizational structures are flexible and needs-driven. The same is true in schools. When principals elicit the feedback of stakeholders to make schoolwide decisions, they feel valued. Furthermore, teachers involved in such collaborative school decision-making processes are also more inclined to retain a sense of autonomy when making instructional decisions within classrooms. Entrepreneurial principals view classrooms as laboratories, empowering teachers to choose their own innovative adventures.

Rewards/reinforcement: Rewards and reinforcement are among the most frequently discussed behaviors linked to innovation, particularly within schools. For teachers, accountability and high-stakes assessment can put a damper on any plans to try anything new in their classrooms. However, when principals develop reward systems for teachers who endeavor to innovate, entrepreneurial efforts are affirmed and reinforced. Entrepreneurial principals actively seek to acknowledge innovative teachers for all their change efforts, whether big or small, that aim at continuous improvement.

Time availability: Time seems to be the most cited enemy of innovation by teachers. Despite the best of intentions, when time for innovation is not made available to teachers by principals, they often revert to familiar—and frequently outdated—instructional practices. Entrepreneurial principals adopt schoolwide practices that promote and protect tinkering in classrooms.

Genius Hour or 20 percent projects, which allow students to explore their own passions and encourage creativity, are rapidly becoming staples of the most innovative schools. These types of practices give teachers the opportunity to explore their interests, as well as the interests of their students, in order to collaboratively develop passion-driven projects with personalized learning outcomes. For teachers, these types of projects can rekindle long-extinguished flames, and for students they can ignite a spark for the first time.

Innovation is an unequivocal antidote for stale classrooms. While creating such classrooms might seem arduous to some, entrepreneurial principals freely seize the opportunity to begin the process. They readily act in response to their commitment to students, understanding the transformative ability of innovation to reconcile evolving 21st-century learning needs and demands.

Principals seeking to cultivate innovative teachers within their schools can do so. Studies have uncovered the unique ability of entrepreneurial principals to neutralize even the most stagnant environments and develop innovative school cultures. By demonstrating the behaviors described in this article, principals will unleash the entrepreneurial potential of their teachers and schools.

Jazmine Frias, EdD, is a school administrator, educational writer, and researcher affiliated with the California State University’s DPEL Center for Research and Publication.