Rise of the Teacherpreneur

You’ve heard the term “entrepreneur.” You’ve probably even heard the term “edupreneur.” But do you know what the term “teacherpreneur” means? As you can probably intuit, “teacherpreneurs” are teachers who create their own educational product or service to fix a problem they or their colleagues have encountered in the classroom. This is distinct from an edupreneur, which can be interpreted to mean any entrepreneur working in the education space – teacher or not.

There is no doubt that our educational system could benefit from this kind of internal entrepreneurialism – from that creativity, innovation, and lust for change. Ed tech companies, outside think tanks and nonprofits are an important force in creating and fostering these changes. But when innovation begins with educators who not only recognize the issues at hand, but who also have an immediate, textured, nuanced, and concrete firsthand experience with those issues in action, the solutions they develop have the potential to be extremely powerful, comprehensive, and long lasting.

Few know this better than, Charles Best, the former History teacher and founder of the popular classroom crowdfunding site, DonorsChoose.org. Best’s idea for this site came not out of any particular desire to start an organization, but simply because he and his colleagues were spending their own money on school supplies, and constantly felt frustrated at not being able to fund their more creative and exciting ideas for field trips and art supplies. As of the publication date of this article, 238,354 teachers had found funding for a total of 589,880 projects so far. As such, there is no doubt Best’s fellow educators were looking for similar solutions.

Says Best: “When you turn to people on the front lines and ask them to come up with projects for the exact people whom they’re serving, [they] will come up with better targeted, more innovative micro-solutions than those someone would come up with in the district office or in the ivory tower.”

What’s more, turning teachers into entrepreneurs can be an incredibly empowering experience for our educators, who are often left feeling powerless within a slow moving system, and within a society that often does not dole out respect or understanding in generous portions. This is true whether a teacherpreneur can be taken to mean a teacher who founds an ed tech company, or a teacher who is considered to be as essential within an ed tech as the business and technical arms.

Of course, the barriers for creating teacherpreneurs are many, not least due to limitations on teacher energy and time for anything outside of the classroom. What’s more, any encouragement for teachers to become teacherpreneurs should not be interpreted as a requirement to do so for teachers who simply want to teach. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at just who teacherpreneurs are, the potential impact they could have on our educational system, and how we might encourage more teachers to join their ranks.

AFS-USA photo of student smiling

Image by AFS-USA Intercultural Programs via Flickr Creative Commons

Why We Need Teacherpreneurs

1. Teachers Are Immersed in the Educational Environment

Imagine for a moment that it’s the week before school starts, and you’ve gathered in the gym for a presentation. Your principal rolls down a screen, hooks up her laptop, and presses play. There it is: your new LMS, which has been picked out for you by a district level administrator. This is the core piece of technology that will dictate how you teach for the next year. You’re excited when you see this, because man oh man, that old LMS is a clunker. But as your principal clicks through the demo, your heart sinks. Sure, this solution might be perfectly adequate in another kind of district with another population that has other needs. But in your classroom, with your students? Please.

Sound familiar? Perhaps not. Perhaps most of the new ed tech solutions your school implements are adequate, or even exactly what’s needed. The point is, working from the top down like this is kind of hit or miss. Sure, the ed techs do a great job of gathering teacher tester groups and polling beta classrooms. But how much better would these solutions be if they were designed by teachers in the first place – both former teachers and teachers who are in the classroom right now, navigating the rapid and diffuse changes to educational theory and approaches? What if it we began with teachers identifying the problems only they – the people who see them every day – can know exist, have them propose the solutions, and then have administrators make decisions and provide guidance, in a kind of middle-out approach?

Says Best: “Any idea, whether it’s a specific project funded on DonorsChoose.org, a company a teacher is founding, or any venture derived from primary experience is one that is going to be ultimately more awesome than something that was arrived at in a vacuum or in a purely intellectual setting.”

There is no evidence more concrete than direct experience—and there is no population with more direct experience than teachers.

2. Underfunded School Districts Need Creative Solutions — And Teachers Need Empowerment

Continually slashed school budgets combined with the unwieldy, bureaucratic nature of our public school system, make it difficult for many districts to be agile about implementing new solutions. This is a pressing problem, as agility is crucial in an age of such rapid change.

When administrators hand the experimental reins over to classroom teachers, giving them the space to get creative, they are essentially creating hundreds of little labs beneath one umbrella. When one experiment works, that experiment can be scaled to a school-wide or district level, with concrete results to justify its implementation. Perhaps more importantly, with this mentality, teachers will once again feel empowered in the classroom. They will feel more like those twenty-four-year-olds fresh out of graduate school, with big ideas in their heads and the energy to get them done. Trusting in teacher expertise while still emphasizing the need for reform, experimentation, and change, will mean injecting new energy into the teaching force – just as long as this talk is backed up with action, and teachers are given what they need to successfully take risks and thrive.

Of course, this should not be mistaken as a call for a free-for-all. While it is crucial for principals and district administrators to encourage experimentation, there still need to be approval processes in terms of determining just what those experiments are, how they’re implemented, and how much of a teacher’s limited classroom time should be devoted here.

3. Teachers Are the Best Salespeople

Selling from the top down is a difficult task, especially if teachers were not given a voice in the purchasing process. While districts and administrators must ultimately be trusted to make the final call, it’s teachers who must buy-in to the technology solutions they’ve been called upon to implement.

“Teachers are numb to panaceas and to the next great solution because they get hit with those promotions all the time,” says Best. “So it’s especially hard for products and services to cut through that noise. Teachers who [hear about products and services] from a fellow teacher are more likely to give [them] a try.”

Just as importantly, teachers know that they need to have parent buy-in at home in order for solutions to be successful. Because teachers are the ones who have a direct relationship with parents, they are the trusted source that will connect with parents at parent-teacher meetings and at curriculum nights to sell the solution at hand, and train parents on ways to support their student in using that solution at home.

This is all the more true as our educational systems must navigate the increasingly tricky world of student data and privacy.

“Any request that a parent receives to give permission to allow access to data is going to be met with skepticism,” says Best, “unless it’s coming from your child’s teacher, in which case there is a presumption of good intention and good faith.”

Teacher and students at deskImage by ilmicrofono.oggiono via Flickr Creative Commons           


Why Teachers Make Great Entrepreneurs

To gain a deeper sense of why teachers make entrepreneurs, we talked to several current and former teachers who have moved into the ed tech space. John Ruff, the co-founder of ScribeSense, is a great example of a teacher who has made the leap. As a 6th grade Teach for America fellow at a school in Houston, Ruff loved his students and teaching in general, but wasn’t too keen on the amount of time he spent grading. When his technical cofounder came to him with a prototype of a product that would automate grading but still allow for short answers and other more creative types of questions outside of multiple choice bubble sheets, Ruff was excited to offer his perspective. Thirty thousand students and seven thousand teachers later, Ruff constantly hears stories from teachers who are grateful to have more time – on average, four and a half more hours per week – to devote to the parts of teaching that drew them to the profession in the first place.

This is a great example of the kind of product that existed in name before ScribeSense came along – certainly, we’ve all seen automated grading technologies before – but for which there was still an urgent need for a better solution that came out of actual classroom experience and teacher perspectives.

Ruff is a big believer not only in his students and in teachers, but also in the concept of putting teacher perspectives at the center of education policy. When asked why teachers make great entrepreneurs, he first cautioned that teachers should be respected as teachers first and foremost – that if they want to just teach, that’s what they should do. Then he offered this rationale for why teachers who do want to make the leap into ed tech entrepreneurship make a great fit.

1. Constant Iteration is in the Job Description

Originally taken from the Agile Development Theory of software development, “iterative thinking” has become a big buzzword in the education world over the last several years. But good teachers have and always will be iterative thinkers, without the need for the label.

“Teachers have to test and hypothesize a million different ways to come at an issue,” says Ruff. “You might have to try two hundred times before you get an approach right. You have to constantly iterate, adjust, adapt. This is what teachers do on a daily basis.”

A good teacher, after all, isn’t going to insist on teaching a lesson plan the way it worked last year if it’s not resonating with their current student audience. Instead, a good teacher will brainstorm, create, and “ship” a new approach to its beta users, known otherwise as students. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.

What could be more Agile and entrepreneurial than that?

2. Teachers Have Grit

Starting a new business is difficult, and doing so requires the kind of grit that teachers demonstrate in the classroom every day. It is not uncommon, says Ruff, for founders of a startup to worry about their low bank account numbers, and ask themselves certain soul searching questions, like whether or not they want to stick this out, or if any of this will even be worth it in the end.

To teachers, this should sound familiar – all the more so for first year teachers who are scrambling to learn the ropes. Of course, it is worth it in the end. Teachers know this because they don’t give up.

“They’re stubborn,” says Ruff. “And in the end, they know it will be worth it.”

3. Teachers Are Great Entertainers, Storytellers, and Guinea Pigs

As noted above, these qualities make teachers natural salespeople. Keeping the class engaged during lecture calls on a very similar set of skills as selling an ed tech solution.

A teacher who launches their own ed tech has their user group right there. No need to gather up and pay other testers. With school sign off, they can test their own solutions within their own classrooms, and recruit fellow enthusiastic teachers to do the same.

This was especially true for Charles Best, who taught in a school that already gave him a lot of freedom to design his own curriculum and textbooks, and to teach the topics he wanted to teach—tasks that already felt entrepreneurial in nature. What’s more, his students were so enthusiastic about the concept of DonorsChoose.org, they volunteered during after school hours to help get the website off the ground, using their classroom as their very first office.

Still, the caveat here is that administrators do need to set appropriate boundaries, and in fact by doing so in the right manner, can spur the exact innovation their schools desperately need. In Ruff’s case, his principal took his idea to other principals whom Ruff would have never had access to as a teacher, bought them lunch, showed them the ScribeSense demo, and thereby collected data as to how pressing this problem was and how effective his company’s solution could be. With this kind of support, Ruff’s company had a big leg up in launching, while the school district benefited from a product it was confident it needed.

The Problems

If teachers make such great teacherpreneurs, how come there aren’t more of them already?

1. Limited Energy, Resources, and Time

Firstly, as any educator will tell you, being in front of a class is tough. Every moment requires being present not only in body but also in mind, and teachers often spend long hours outside of the school day grading and working with families and students. That leaves very little energy or time to design or experiment with ed tech solutions, especially if an educator has a family to support. What’s more, the general frantic nature of the day often leaves educators zoomed down into the nitty gritty details – like, say, why one student’s math homework is consistently missing, and why two other students have become mortal enemies – without the space to zoom back out and do much with the bigger picture. Throughout the school year, they are focused on taping a thousand Bandaids over a giant, dam; while they might see the water building up behind that dam, they hardly have the energy or time to do much about it.

2. Limited Connections

Unlike ed techs run by entrepreneurs who are entrepreneurs first and foremost, rather than full-time educators dipping their toes into entrepreneurialism, educators may not have the widest or most primed network on the business side of the ed tech space. This makes searching for funding a challenge.

“There is something of an educational industrial procurement complex,” says Best. “It can be difficult for a creator of a service or product to get it adopted because even though teachers are the intended front end user, it’s more often district officials who hold purchasing power who will decide what’s allowed and will be purchased. Many Ed Tech entrepreneurs feel they need salespeople and lobbyists to get in the door.”

Of course, education-themed crowdfunding sites like DonorsChoose.org are working to disrupt this, as teachers can fund their projects directly—and when they catch on, administrators will have to take note. In fact, Best’s team is increasingly contacted by district administrators to gather firsthand data on what their teachers are asking for.

Additionally, to further remedy this, teacherpreneurs could, indeed, benefit from partnering strategically with a person or firm who has business, sales, and marketing experience within the space.

3. Lack of District Flexibility

The bureaucratic nature of our public schooling system can make schools risk averse in terms of experimentation.

“Some district administrators just shut the door [to teachers],” says Ruff. “They say, ‘You can only use these specific products.’ This limits creativity, which is something we’re always trying not to do with our students.”

Many schools are also not open to the flexible work arrangements that would create the conditions for success, like letting a teacher work part-time so they can work on their ed tech solution. This means that if a teacher wants to become a teacherpreneur, they need to rely on outside partners, or quit their jobs entirely to take the plunge. This latter option is particularly disheartening, as effective solutions often come from teachers who at least still have a toe in the classroom.

4. Teachers’ Self-Conception

Chances are if you ask a teacher the question, “Are you an entrepreneur?” they’d look at you like you were crazy. It is difficult, after all, for a teacher to feel like they can really change the system when that system so often impedes their work. Additionally, tying the lofty goal of knowledge acquisition to anything that could appear in any way corporate can seem a fundamental violation of what a teacher is meant to be.

Teachers should have every bit of confidence that they can do this – if they want to. As Ruff says, “You go into a classroom full of thirty kids every day and manage to control it. That’s amazing, and something a lot of people cringe at the idea of even attempting.”

What’s more, teachers don’t need to feel they are barred from entering the ed tech world because they don’t possess tech or business skills. That’s what co-founders are for. Teachers should be considered an essential pillar in any ed tech firm.

5 Possible Solutions and a Model to Learn From

Student with iPadImage by Brad Flickinger via Flickr Creative Commons

On our quest to devise possible solutions for these hurdles to teacher entrepreneurialism, we reached out to Christopher Hull, a 7th grade Social Studies teacher and the co-creator of Otus, a comprehensive yet streamlined solution for 1 to 1 iPad classrooms. The idea for the product came out of early experiments with iPads in the classroom. Hull’s colleague, Peter Helfers, a 6th grade teacher in the same department, also saw the potential of 1 to 1 classrooms but was encountering the same hiccups. Together, these teachers founded Otus as a solution to minimize these challenges and unlock the potential of 1 to 1 classrooms. The Otus founders eventually joined forces with a local philanthropic hedge fund manager, Andy Bluhm, to roll out on a large scale. Hull continues to teach, while Helfers is now an administrator in Gurnee. Together, this gives both unique insight into life as teacherpreneurs. We’ve drawn from our discussion with Hull in our suggestions below.

1. Give Teachers Room to Experiment and Reward Creativity

Rather than burdening teachers with rules and regulations, says Hull, “We need to empower them.” That means showing teachers that they have the potential to have an impact on a national or even an international scale, just like any CEO.

This begins when administrators give teachers the room to experiment and grow, which in turn, comes from a school culture that encourages experimentation. This should not, however, be mistaken for the sudden implementation of ideas from the top-down, but instead providing support for teacher-pitched ideas. This will help foster an entrepreneurial attitude within school walls for a bottom up or middle-out approach.

2. Allow for Flexibility in Work Arrangements

While Hull and Helfers continue to work in education full-time, doing so is not an option for many teachers, and is one of the biggest road blocks to the launch of teacher-lead ed tech companies. Whenever possible, it would be helpful to encourage flexible work arrangements, like a part-time position during the first year’s launch of a company, or the granting of sabbaticals.

3. Create More Teacher-Centric Ed Tech Incubators, Accelerators and Hackathons

There are many wonderful ed tech accelerators out there, but few specifically target teachers. That’s understandable, as this is a little bit of a chicken or an egg problem – that is, there may not be enough teachers launching ed tech companies right now to merit an incubator or an accelerator. As such, launching either one would require true evangelism and recruitment, as well as substantial funding opportunities to incentivize teacherpreneurs to move forward.

One great example of an organization that does this right is Startup Weekend. In their education-focused weekends, teachers are encouraged to pitch ideas, while business and tech minds volunteer to work on their favorite projects. Alternatively, a tech or businessperson can pitch an idea, and a teacher will jump on board to help vet its relevance to the classroom. Within seventy-two hours, a prototype is built.

4. Actively Recruit Classroom Teachers to Ed Tech Conferences

Education conferences tend to target educators, administrators, and ed tech leaders, but rarely all three populations at once. Conferences like SXSWedu (where, notably, Charles Best gave last year’s keynote) are trying to remedy this and have steadily increased educator representation year over year. We need to push even further in this direction in order to reframe our perceptions about just who an ed tech founder or leader can be. As with the above, this will require active recruitment and incentives both from conferences themselves and from school districts, as well as careful scheduling around school calendars.

5. Host a District-Wide Pitch Competition

On the district level, administrators might consider further fostering an entrepreneurial attitude by hosting pitch competitions and shark tanks. For either of these ideas, both administrators and educators could pitch problems, vote on the most pressing ones, and then compete to provide the most popular solutions. Alternatively, teachers could come into the event with ideas already ready to go. Or, the district could sponsor a 24-hour hack-a-thon, uniting teachers with tech and business leaders to pitch both problems and solutions, and to put together a prototype then and there.

In Short

From the big guys to the solopreneur, ed techs are leading much needed experimentation at an unprecedented level. There is no doubt that this is a great thing. But it would be even better if teachers were a part of that conversation from the beginning – or better yet, viewed as the solution, and given the resources to be just that. An entrepreneurial mindset is a small but great way to start.