User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Courage to Be an Outlier Educator

with 28 comments


Today, during a podcast interview, I was asked what it takes to be an educational thought leader. My response was, “courage.”  In this test driven, accountability-laden era of education, it takes courage to be an educator driven by authentic, constructivist, and student-centered values and practices.


Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.  Moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss. According to Maya Angelou, “Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”


“Outlier” is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier. And while we have a very good understanding of why summer days in Paris are warm or hot, we know a good deal less about why a summer day in Paris might be freezing cold. I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

I have been an outlier educator in a number of educational settings including elementary and college levels. I rarely stood in the front of the class as a sage on the stage. The only time I did so was to provide short snippets of information as mini-lectures, ten to twenty minutes in length, or to provide information about how to do the class activity. My classes were loud and seemingly chaotic (it was controlled chaos – I gave students lots of choices with the only rule being that you need to be engaged with a learning activity) with all students engaged and interacting with one other, computers, and with hands-on and experiential activities. I often was asked to quiet my students down and questioned about my classroom practices by other teachers and administrators. The other teachers did not like how I was teaching-what I was doing but my students did like it . . . a lot. Many students shined in this learning environment especially those who did not fit into or thrive in a traditional classroom. I knew in my heart that I was doing the right thing even in these climates where I was an outlier, where my techniques were under constant scrutiny and ongoing questioning. So today, during that podcast, I realized I have been courageous in standing my ground about what I believe encompasses good, student-centered teaching and I also realized that I am proud of that courage. And in this new year, I toast all of those courageous, outlier educators.

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 23, 2015 at 12:55 am

28 Responses

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  1. Taking pride in being an ‘outlier’ in educational and academic practice is important. In my work around academic innovation however I am trying to encourage a normalising of innovation. I wonder if some university teachers see innovation as a place where only ‘outliers’ live? Unusual (because I love what you write here) I also have concerns with the idea of courage – for the same reasons. I see being professionally innovative as an important habit that should be a dimension of our practice. It certainly involves risk taking, and that can bizarrely me we feel we are stepping outside of ‘normal’ behaviour. I say bizarrely because a learning environment thrives through innovation, so surely it is in all of our interests to be taking risks. I understand that can feel particularly difficult when standards dominate and constrain our practice. In reality, therefore, courage is not so bad a word, but I would rather we express this more positively i.e. conviction and clarity.
    I am doing a seminar on this in the New Year, so framing my message! Thanks for another stimulating post.


    December 23, 2015 at 11:46 am

    • Thanks for your response and reflection. I wish innovation was the norm for educators of all grades including college. I hope you blog about your seminar. I’d love to know more!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      December 23, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      • I will blog about it. I would like to incorporate comments from academics who I think are habitual innovators or at least innovative thinkers. In addition to being courageous can you suggest how an academic innovator might rethink their professional identity?


        December 23, 2015 at 3:57 pm

  2. […] How useful are terms like ‘mavericks’ or ‘outliers’ (see Jackie Gerstein’s User Generated Education blog post Courage to be an outlier educator)? […]

  3. I, too, consider myself an “outlier educator.” Three cheers to us, and may we hold fast to that courage all the days of our lives!

    Cassie Hewitt

    January 4, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    • Keep outlying, Cassie!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      January 4, 2016 at 6:53 pm

  4. Reblogged this on JO'C's blog.


    January 11, 2016 at 9:23 pm

  5. I’m a teacher who likes to reinvent what I’m doing all the time. I read, I go to PD, I take courses. I may teach the same concept twice, but rarely the same way. I’m always changing. Colleagues will ask me why do you do that? You don’t have to do that? Or they will remind me that I’m not paid any extra do do all the extras. I like doing it. Most importantly – my kids are learning and loving it. If that makes me an outlier – than I will take it as a compliment.

  6. When I met you in Northern Ontario at Unplugd, I brought this piece of writing with me:
    Reading your post uplifts me and reminds me of how awesome it is to be connected to amazing educational outliers like you, and Donna Fry (who led me to this post) and to others we recently connected with in Denver at ISTE.
    It takes courage, and you inspire me to be more courageous… Thank you Jackie!

    Dave Truss

    October 3, 2016 at 5:07 am

  7. This article resonates with me on multiple levels. I feel as though we are all “outliers” in some capacity. I love the notion of doing things differently but more importantly, doing things which are in the best interests of your students. I am constantly looking to not only change but improve upon my practice. That comes in the form of PD, conferences, and feedback from my students. I consider myself a progressive educator and often look for new engaging ways for students to not only learn but feel empowered. I feel as though there is a huge separation between engagement and empowerment and that these outliers are improving the dynamic for their learners.

    Derek Tangredi

    October 19, 2016 at 1:58 am

  8. Funny – my previous administrator once said the same thing to me about the level of noise in my classes when she was evaluating my teaching. I never noticed or thought that my class was noisy and I still don’t get that feeling. I do know that I feel uncomfortable when there is silence during a collaborative activity. Just this past week I have caught myself saying a few times “It’s okay to talk with your group right now…”. I teach FSL and create most of the programming myself because my number one goal is to have students buy in. Usually this involves designing activities that are relevant and interesting for my students. Personally it’s weird for me to think that promoting student discussion and student interests are qualities of an outlier. Shouldn’t we be looking for ways to get students personally invested in their education?

    Michelle M.

    May 13, 2017 at 7:42 pm

  9. Courage is indeed the most valuable virtue. It is articles like this that help us to be courageous enough to be outliers in the world of teaching, thanks for shining a light for us!

    Nicki G

    July 13, 2017 at 11:10 am

  10. I feel that I can relate quite a bit with what you have described. My classes are often noisy, seemingly chaotic, but focused around a particular activity, process, etc. In my own classes I have learned that exploring ideas related to design based learning, gamification, and inquiry driven investigations requires being a facilitator much more than a lecturer. From my own personal experience it is this switch from imposing to facilitating that seems so out of control to my colleagues. Courage is vital in making this switch, and is an important lesson in modelling ideal virtues for our students as well. Simply demonstrating that you have the courage to move your students in a direction that you believe is more beneficial for them, especially if it goes against the flow, is an important aspect of effective teaching in its own right. What better way to teach students to be courageous than to be courageous yourself.

    Darrin Bausch

    October 9, 2017 at 3:10 pm

  11. This is a very interesting read. Very courageous, if you will, to write and share. As a young teacher, I have sometimes felt the same way. We are encouraged to try new things and bring a new outlook to the classroom but the second it is different/new or less conventional, people tend to think the worst. The activity is pointless, without purpose, and a waste of time. It does take courage to stick to what you feel will provide the best opportunity for your students. After all, as their teacher, you are the one who understands what they need most. I appreciate your analogy of the term outlier. It changes my understanding of certain situations I have and will encounter in the classroom, whether it be students or my teaching. The outliers will be the ones who help us improve at your profession and keep us on our toes. They will challenge us the most, but give us the greatest reward.

    Brendan Parent

    October 19, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    • Agree!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      October 20, 2017 at 12:46 am

  12. This was an eye opening article. I now see that I am an educator on the edge of becoming an “outlier”. I did not realize that until now, until I read this. As a core French teacher student engagement it crucial to maintain interest and build student confident to try speaking a foreign language. My classroom is always loud and full of energy and at times I close my door or apologize/explain my methods to other teacher feeling like I am doing something wrong. However, students are on task and are having fun! I need to embrace my “outlier” nature! Thanks for this:)!!

    Caren Driscoll

    May 2, 2018 at 12:04 am

  13. What an inspiring story! I agree and think courage is such a strong motivating factor. You need courage to take risks and try something new, innovative and out of the box. After all, every new idea starts with one courageous person and act. I think if the students are benefitting, learning and having fun… why not?! It is not harming them but instead empowering them to make their own choices and taking accountability for their own learning. Keep on being an outlier! Show students, teachers and admin that always being cookie cutter isn’t what works for everyone… after all we are all different and unique in our own ways!

    Chantel Slusarek

    May 9, 2018 at 4:09 pm

  14. Great story! As a new teacher I am constantly reflecting on my practice and asking myself “am I doing it right?” because part of me thinks learning still needs to look and sound like it did when I was a student. I love your message about believing that choices in the classroom are in the best interest of oneself, and ultimately the students.

    Jeff Mc

    July 10, 2018 at 12:51 am

  15. Thank you for sharing your story!
    I love that you stayed true to yourself and your students. You, the educator, know what is best for your students. It would have been easier to just conform with the norm but great job persevering and making a difference in your students lives.

    K. Pick

    July 11, 2018 at 11:39 pm

  16. Everyday I aspire to achieve “controlled chaos” in our classroom where student-centered teaching results in students truly being engaged with the learning activity. Establishing mutual respect and agreed upon norms is fundamentally important to the success of this manner of teaching. It requires a great deal of finesse and experience to create an environment where students want to learn for their own sake, not because someone tells them “it’s in the curriculum”. Sadly, in some classrooms, “loud and chaotic” is simply loud and chaotic. And therein lies the difference between being a courageous educator and an apathetic one.

    Sue Milne (@MrsSMilne)

    February 16, 2019 at 4:56 pm

  17. It takes a lot of skill and courage to be an outlier. I love that even though you were scrutinized for your style of teaching you didn’t give up because your students enjoyed it, needed it and were successful with it, that’s all that matters.

    J Salter

    February 20, 2019 at 12:08 am

  18. I can relate to this on so many levels. My board is very “data driven” so when I’ve made changes to my pedagogy or my classroom environment, I’ve often been questioned about the motivation behind it. You see, I think that people like to talk a good game but when they don’t understand something it’s often easiest to try and shut it down. I, like you hate being at the front of the classroom so I conduct my mini-lessons much in the way that you do. I often teacher from the couch I am sitting on with the group of students I’m working with. Yes it’s loud, yes it may look confusing but I don’t care because I’m there for the kids. I want to provide an environment that they can thrive in, not one that is based on someone else’s ideals.
    Very well done. I commend you from one outlier to another.


    July 9, 2019 at 1:07 pm

  19. I can appreciate the courageous outlier. The ones who do different, think different and are different. The ones who’s classrooms I’m trying to peer into to see what’s new. The brain I’m trying to pick to gather new ideas I can use with my students. Innovative ways to engage and connect with my students. Thank you for being that courageous outlier, when it seems that most are looking in making snap judgements, just remember that there are also those who can’t wait to see what you will come up with next.


    July 10, 2019 at 1:02 pm

  20. To be truly successful in any field, is to take risks and have courage to be that outlier. In education, it is even more important because we are role models for our audience, the students. It will show our vulnerabilities because there will be times mistakes will be made when carrying out ‘out of the norm’ practices but that is when we reflect, learn, collaborate and revise to come out with more innovative concepts and/or products. And, students (especially younger ones) need to know that this is a process that everyone, even adults, go through.


    July 7, 2020 at 12:10 pm

  21. Being an outlier in today’s educational climate is very challenging. It’s hard for teachers to go against the norm and stand their ground when they are doing something that others aren’t. In my early days of teaching, I tried to conform to what everyone else was doing but as I progressed through my career I developed more of a risk-taking approach and branched out from the norms by experiencing “controlled chaos” in my own classroom by focusing on centres and inquiry-based learning. This article really resonated with me as I feel I’m one of those outliers and I’m proud to be one.

    Drew Ritchie

    July 7, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    • You were courageous, Drew!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      July 7, 2020 at 8:18 pm

  22. We are all outliers in some way. We all have different talents and abilities to offer, and sometimes having the courage to be different is just apart of truly being ourselves. As teachers, we should ‘dare to be different’ by taking risks, trying new ideas and finding times to experiment with our practice. We should also try our best to gracefully take accountability when our plans don’t always work out or when we make mistakes. Making mistakes, for me seems to be common, especially as a Family Studies teacher. I find I almost have allow for them to happen and teach students that it is part of the learning process. We might have a Lab, where a groups of students has followed the recipe and directions carefully, and their dish still did not turn out! It can be frustrating, but I try to teach the students, that everything is a learning experience, it is part of the process! I’ve done demonstrations for the students where what i’ve made doesn’t turn out! Being an outliner, I think is having the courage to be ourselves; all the good and all the mistakes included.


    July 9, 2020 at 5:14 pm

  23. I think to some extent we are all outliers in some aspect of our careers and/or life. I often think of the analogy of a road map. There is always a common way to get somewhere, Although most take this route, there are other ways to get to the same destination. Instead of the highway, you take the scenic back road. What is orthodoxy is not always the only way to get the result. I am a relatively new teacher, and I think this idea is one that all new teachers struggle with. We all come with new and/or innovative ideas but may be held back by the established or traditional way of doing something. I have taught in a high school classroom as well as a community college classroom. the HS school is quite a bit more structured and strict and there are more checks and balances, where the college is more result-driven and encourages creativity. Working the college job has helped me find the courage to be more creative in the HS classroom. It also gives me the courage to instill this idea within my students. Rules are there for a reason, of course, but i’ve learned, as i hope the students do, that there still needs to be room for expression.


    July 12, 2020 at 1:33 am

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