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Starting the conversation on teacherpreneurship

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Welcome to SmartBrief Education's original content series about the unique stories of teacherpreneurs. These are the innovative individuals confronting challenges, creating solutions and bringing them to market. Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of
yaymath.org, helps us kick off the series with a conversation with his mentor -- and teacherpreneur -- Bruce Powell. Powell is the founding Head of School of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif., where Ahdoot teaches.

Entrepreneurship and teaching traditionally have been mutually exclusive endeavors. Entrepreneurism stirs images of the self-starting creator of products or services. This business-savvy person grimaces at the thought of being bound by systems or conventions, while also understanding that to be successful, he must strategically navigate those very systems.

On the other end of the spectrum, the concept of “teacher” conjures iconic images of chalkboards, desks, walls, rambunctious students, grading papers, and apples on wooden desks. But over the past decade, a quiet movement has been taking place: These two worlds have proven their ability to exist simultaneously. It is between these two zones where I work, live and breathe. I am a teacherpreneur.

In the coming months, I'll be helping SmartBrief Education shine a light on teacherpreneurship. To start things off, let’s bring our attention to a wildly successful teacherpreneur in the flesh, Bruce Powell. He is a valued personal mentor, who took a chance on me 10 years ago, with no more to go on than his instincts and a conversation we shared on a late August afternoon, only days before the school year began. This interview has been edited for style and length. Read the full interview.

RA: How does the term “teacherpreneur” strike you?

BP: I love the term. I think it’s descriptive of a lot of what we do here, and it was the subject of a meeting we just had on the topic of innovation. What I’ve discovered is that you have to be motivated to take part in this idea. You have to have initiative. People may choose to come in and only teach their classes, and they can do a great job, but they are not invested in a larger vision for their school, a community, and frankly, for our nation. Those teachers, who are truly teacherpreneurs, have the initiative, ideas and motivation to go out and execute.

RA: So how would you define "teacherpreneur"?

BP: Teacherpreneurs need to have new, innovative ideas. They are motivated to initiate action. They execute, which is a key idea, because there are many new ideas out there, but without the execution of getting it done, it remains just an idea.

RA: I definitely agree with this notion of innovation, which to me is a core human condition. Innovators take that further leap, beyond the initial idea of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…

BP: … to getting it done. Another facet of teacherpreneurs is that they know how to get it done. There is a capability component, which entails partnering with the right people. Take the idea of the transistor, for example. The person with the idea didn’t build it, manufacture it, or integrate it with evolving technologies. Collaboration needed to take place, so that such an innovation could go on to positively alter the course of history.

RA: Prior to the launch of any significant enterprise, the person or persons at the forefront should think of their cause, or mission. Last time we spoke, you posed the question to me, What if your organization were to go away and not exist tomorrow? Who would care? Then you find those people who would care the most and who would be the most upset, and craft your mission statement around this group. Can you build on this message, and on how you have put it into practice?

BP: So we’re talking about new ideas. The question is: Does it matter whether those ideas exist or not? Did unicorns ever exist? I don’t know, but it probably doesn’t matter if they did. This is the challenge of the people in the ecology community. They have to convince everybody that all the species that are going extinct matter. Maybe they don’t matter? I have to be convinced, for example, that it’s worthwhile to my existential being that the snail darter exists. If you can’t convince me of that, or that climate change is a real issue, then nothing’s going to happen. The same applies with building an institution. It has to matter that if that institution goes away tomorrow, or if it never existed at all, what difference would that make?

This notion has to be based in several factors. The overriding one is, for those of us who believe in God, and thereby believe there exists an absolute meaning in the universe, then those things that we create which enhance that higher meaning we can’t do without. The second factor is whether the idea in question affects my existence. Take for example, penicillin. Yes, if penicillin, or antibiotics, stopped existing, we’d all be in trouble. You could die from strep throat; half of our faculty and students would be dead without those medical advances. The third factor is to what degree does the idea add to the joy and meaning in my life right now?”

RA: Would you say to those who may want to try on the teacherpreneur cloak that they should approach their work from the eternal? In addition to the concept of creating joy in people’s lives?

BP: I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I think every teacher who wins a national teacher award sees what he or she does as a calling. Well, who’s calling them? Every great teacher has a bigger purpose. Every great entrepreneur has a bigger purpose. Take the creation of the computer, for instance. The people who created it were not focused on making billions of dollars. They were focused on winning World War II. They were focused on enabling people to communicate, and tie the world together. That’s a much bigger purpose than simply building computers and making a billion dollars.

The same goes with Alexander Graham Bell. When President James Garfield was shot, it took him three months to die. He died of an infection, not from the bullet itself. During that time, Bell worked feverishly trying to perfect his machine that could locate metal inside of a body. Now, it’s no big deal, we have x-ray machines, MRI machines, or you could go to the beach and see people with metal detectors. But at the time, it was a huge deal. Bell wasn’t doing it because he was going to get paid for it. He was doing it because he wanted to save the life of the president of the United States. It’s always about the greater purpose. The same goes with an institution. If we created our school just because we thought we needed another high school and for no other purpose, then we’d never get off the ground. Who’d want to support a purposeless organization?

Sometimes, organizations create something in which people don’t know they need until after they are created. This may be the ultimate genius. Who knew that I needed Google? Now the search function has transformed everything. It democratized knowledge to the nth degree.

Every day I ask myself what difference would it make if this school were to not exist. I think it would matter to the 850 graduates we have. We may have added a layer of culture to their lives that they didn’t know they needed until after they experienced it.

RA: Do you believe communal obligation -- the notion that communities should look out for each other -- is a blueprint for anyone who wishes to take on the role of Teacherpreneur?

BP: They have to have a greater purpose; that’s the whole point. I believe that all education is a communal obligation to raise our young people. John Dewey, a great American educator, spoke of education’s need to raise great citizens of a democracy. He wrote a book called Democracy in America. He felt that the only way America could remain a democracy and a free and open society was through a liberal education. Not liberal as compared to conservative. But liberal in the sense that its open purpose was to create great citizens. This was revolutionary at the time, in the early 20th century, because while some people attended traditional schools, many people did not and instead learned through apprenticeship. They learned a trade. Even today, what percent of Americans today attend a four-year college? [turns to his computer to Google it]. Here we are, last year, 65.9% of people who graduated high school in the spring then attended college in the fall, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It also says that this figure is up from 45% in 1960. So you can only imagine how few people went to college in 1910; only the rich people went. My message is that education is a communal cause for the betterment of society, and by extension, so too is teacherpreneurism. Teacherpreneurs need to have a higher purpose, to create a situation by which students can understand their obligation to contribute something back to society, through their own unique task or unique gift.

RA: Today we’ve discussed how you believe the terms “educator” and “entrepreneur” collide. We touched on many such collisions: innovation, motivation, initiative, execution, capability, creating the language, having the larger vision, and collaboration. To your mind, when, if ever, don’t they collide?”

BP: I think that one can go into business and regard it as a sacred task. Truly great businesspeople did that. Take Howard Schultz, the chairman/CEO of Starbucks. He is providing a nice service, a nice cup of coffee, and a fun place to be. But he also gives benefits to his part-time employees, and he came up with a program to pay for his employees’ college education. Because making coffee, and making hundreds of millions of dollars was simply not enough. It was empty. So Howard decided he was going to make it more fulfilling, rather than just continue to expand. To create a large business, and not give back, is so empty. If the sole purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of money, it creates a life of meaninglessness. I have met so many people, who are so miserable from doing so. But, I’ve also met people who are exceptionally wealthy, whose goal for making the wealth was how to turn it into fixing society, or creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Rockefeller comes to mind. History shows that in the year 1900, his total net worth was one sixty-fourth of the entire gross domestic product. In this regard, he was the richest man in American history; no one has ever come close to that ratio, not even Bill Gates. But what did Rockefeller do? As a religious Protestant, he knew that it wasn’t enough. So he started the Rockefeller Foundation, which among other tasks, worked to eradicate ringworm cases in the southern United States. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does the same work against malaria.”

RA: So whereas before, when only education has been regarded as a sacred act, you state that business must be as well.

BP: Yes. People have to use money for something greater than themselves. Otherwise, it makes you miserable, and it destroys your children. Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. He says, ‘Give it all away before you die.’ Business can be wildly sacred.

RA: I’m dubbing my last question ‘The Spontaneous Soapbox.’ Imagine that instantaneously, you are standing in front of thousands of teachers who are fresh out of the gate. The newer generation of teachers. They are interested in the service of education, and in what education stands for. But, they also want to make their mark individually. They each want to offer something unique, that only they themselves can do. You now have their ear. What would you say to them, on your spontaneous soapbox?”

BP: Thing 1: Don’t be boring. Don’t bore yourself, don’t bore your students. What I mean in the macro-sense is come up with something new. Inn-o-vate! Learn your trade, learn from mentors, and then change it to make it greater. Find your gift.

Thing 2: Develop a well-honed and powerful sense of humor. If you can’t see the divine comedy in children, then you’re going to take everything too seriously. It’ll depress you. But you must see the humor, the joy, in kids. One of the requirements we have when hiring new faculty is that you have to think teenagers are funny. If you don’t think teenagers are funny, and you start to take that angst seriously, then…”

RA: … you’ll fizzle out, or take it out on them.

BP: Right. Which goes to the third thing: you have to know in what to take seriously in life. There is a different answer for every child, for every age.

The fourth thing: In your teaching, really know what’s important. Not everything you’re teaching is important. When I teach my Israel history class, all the dates and events that I use to make my case are not that important. So what is important? How do we distill the absolutely existential, vital information that a person needs in order to advance whatever cause they are working on?

The fifth thing: understand what courage is -- real courage. When someone is shooting at you on the battlefield, and you shoot back, and you save lives, that’s one form of courage. That’s physical courage. But political, spiritual, and moral courage are much more difficult. When someone is shooting at you, it’s clear: either shoot back, get killed, or find a way to survive. Perhaps it’s also a matter of survival, as well as courage. My father served in World War II, and he didn’t think he was courageous; he just wanted to survive. Jack Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage was all about political courage… moral courage.

Do the right things for the kids, and take risks, but not risks for the sake of risks. And not political courage for the sake of political courage. Comport with a moral vision.

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is author of the upcoming book One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.