Driven to develop lesson plans that meet curriculum objectives, not to mention preparing tests and grading homework assignments and exams, teachers barely have the time to think about doing new things, or trying to do anything differently.
“Teaching is a head-down occupation,” says Anthony Pisapia, explaining why Tower Hill School hired him two and a half years ago as chief information and innovation officer even though he had no prior experience in a K-12 education setting.
Preparing students to be innovators, risk-takers and change-makers requires teachers who can do more than deliver the content outlined in the course syllabus, says Trisha Medeiros, president of Ursuline Academy. Having a staff member responsible for innovation gives teachers essential support and “assures that we are at the forefront of best practices.”
And so, it is that at least four of Delaware’s private schools have designated a staff member to be responsible for innovation, a role that can include not only developing new instructional programs but also guiding teachers to discover fresh approaches for delivering course content to the next generation of students. Underlying those needs is an even greater issue, notes Erin McNichol, Ursuline’s head of innovation and leadership: “How do you prepare students for careers that don’t even exist right now?”
Interestingly, three of the four private school innovators have backgrounds in the arts, but McNichol doesn’t find that surprising at all.
“For the artist or the innovator, it’s a similar process,” she says. “You’re creating from a blank canvas, making something out of nothing, expressing something you think is important.”
Aaron Bogad directs Salesianum High School’s arts and innovation program.// Photo by Carlos Alejandro
Bogad came to Salesianum four years ago to lead the school’s fine arts department, but soon found himself dismantling, restructuring and renaming it. “We weren’t really offering a full range of fine arts courses, so we reorganized it as the department of arts and innovation,” he explains.
Innovation, he says, “isn’t a specific activity or an academic pursuit, but it’s a kind of thinking that’s now being prioritized…. We’re putting creativity-driven activities under one roof and labeling it as ‘innovation.’ If you ask me, I’d say that’s what art teachers have been doing for a couple of thousand years.”
The yearlong freshman innovation program that Bogad directs emphasizes the development of skills and characteristics related to creativity—curiosity, critical thinking, collaborating and networking—to serve as launching pad for lifelong learners. It’s so important that the class is required for all freshmen. “We’re not keeping this to a select group. Every kid is given this training, this vocabulary, this toolbox. This is the skillset that they will need at the next level.”
Erin McNichol brings skills from both the corporate and art world to her role at Ursuline Academy.// Photo by Carlos Alejandro
McNichol, who continues to chair Ursuline’s fine arts department in addition to her innovation responsibilities, came into teaching after working in marketing communications for DuPont and as an artist. (She still has her own freelance design business.) In developing her art career, she says she learned about many of the skills entrepreneurs must develop in order to succeed. “Part of our preparation is to be collaborative,” she says. “You don’t have to know everything, but you have to know how to find someone who can provide what you need.”
After taking on her innovation role at Ursuline, McNichol was trained at the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware, and that led to her participation as a mentor at the Dual School, an experimental project-based learning program in Wilmington that brings together entrepreneurial-minded students from schools throughout New Castle County. Several of her Ursuline students have also participated in Dual School.
McNichol believes that the development of entrepreneurial skills will be “a differentiator” for students as they apply to colleges and seek financial aid to pay for their educations. “This may be the thing that helps them get across the line,” she says.
Sheehan emphasizes the importance of “nontraditional education” and character development at Padua Academy.// Photo by Carlos Alejandro
Unlike his peers at the other schools, Sheehan doesn’t have an arts background. Rather, he’s a curriculum developer and team builder who focuses on creating student leaders and helping teachers learn how to bring out the best in their students.
What Sheehan describes as “nontraditional education”—things like learning about ambition, fortitude and self-control—helps students develop their character and makes them better learners. “That’s why we infuse character into their daily diet,” he says.
The character development initiative took about two years to take root, but it’s now starting to show results. “The research isn’t something you could get published in an academic journal,” he says, “but our students have grown in awareness of the importance of these character traits.”
He remembers being asked to give a talk to a math class about fortitude and resiliency, and he chose to focus on the bane of all too many algebra students—quadratic equations. “You have a problem. You have a set of instructions. You recognize the problem and you work through to the solution,” he says. “That’s what fortitude and resiliency is all about.”
Today’s students have much at their disposal, but requirements like high-stakes testing have placed them “in a legitimate pressure cooker, where they’re trying to achieve things that are nearly impossible,” Sheehan says.
Through its steady focus on character development, Padua is finding a way to relieve some of that pressure, he says. “We’re giving our students the tools to better understand the process.”
Pisapia sees his role as information and innovation officer at Tower Hill School as that of an enabler.// Photo by Carlos Alejandro
Now doing double duty as information and innovation officer and assistant head of school, Pisapia was assembling computers when he was 8 years old and followed a winding road through technology to become the founding director of Zip Code Wilmington, the nonprofit computer coding program. Along the way, however, there were a couple of detours into the arts—both paid and unpaid—working in a recording studio, starting a music school and reviewing grant applications for state arts agencies in New Jersey and Delaware.
He sees his role as that of an enabler, finding ways to help teachers (and students, too) turn their fresh ideas into reality. In their “head-down occupation,” Pisapia likens teachers to race car drivers, adding “there’s a reason you need the pit crew to help the teacher be all he or she can be.” In this analogy, he acknowledges that he’s the pit crew.
Collaboration is a key part of innovation, and one of his early achievements was to arrange a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania in which Penn faculty members visit Tower Hill to teach a class in social entrepreneurship. “And we’re actively seeking other university partnerships,” he says.
Like McNichol, Pisapia believes that high school students who develop the skills to become innovators will stand out when they apply for college. “Colleges are asking for more. The world is asking for more,” he says. “It’s not just about academics. It’s about turning out great people who are prepared.”