How to go from "teacher" to "teacherpreneur"
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. In this blog post, Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, offers tips to develop "teacherpreneur flow."
Today, I'm going to dive into a framework for how to effectively bridge the gap between the role of teacher and that of teacherpreneur. These concepts have taken me years to develop, implement, and hone on the fly. Their usage has lead to massively positive results within my contributions as a teacherpreneur. It's an honor to share them with you, in the hopes that your overall practice and approach are enhanced as well.
Rule #1: People only do business with people they like.
I’m not talking about the clichéd high-pressure movie scene, in which the young ambitious rookie meets several business execs for drinks at a posh country club to talk shop. I’m talking about reality -- about taking incremental, tangible steps to improve your interpersonal stock so that when the chips are down and you need community support, you’ll have it.
The perfect example in the world of teaching is found with the office staff. These are the people who handle the constant stream of to-do’s pouring in from every type of person within the school scene. They are on the front lines and they pull massive strings. So ask yourself, do you know every one of your office staff members by name? If not, the time has come to do so. Be open with them about who you are, converse with them when you don’t need something and model what it means to pull your weight in respect to them. Because without fail, at some point you will need their help, and you’ll need it immediately. The business of your teaching will suffer if you forgo that vital alliance.
My friends in the office have come through for me time and again when I was in a pinch. Several times, when I was set to film a lesson, after much planning and preparation to set up the right day, my costume, props, etc., it turned out that the air conditioner wasn’t kicking in enough. The students were getting squirrely due to their discomfort, and the increasing heat was getting them closer to the point of no return. So I called the office and told them about it, and in a matter of minutes it was fixed. This happened on multiple occasions. I like to think that they prioritized that effort based on our relationship, besides the obvious fact that they do stellar work.
Why is this so important? For anyone who wishes to transcend beyond the traditional duties associated with classroom teaching and towards projects that require wider collaboration, including the inevitable bureaucratic red tape slaloming, your mission will be only possible with the aid of critically situated alliances. These are real alliances, based on human connection, not implicitly contractual alliances, based solely on “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Nothing of deep and lasting value will ever get off the ground if you live on an island, rogue-style. Offer your heart, time and vulnerability, and watch as people leap to help you reach your goals.
Rule #2: What if I don’t have an idea?
Welcome to Idea Generation 101! In this module, you’ll learn the systems by which to create solid ideas that will seamlessly merge your strengths as a teacher as well as your natural prowess as a budding entrepreneur.
To gain some perspective, let’s learn about what some up-and-coming comedians do to generate their ideas. I learned this from a podcast featuring an interview of one of my favorite comedians, Chris D’Elia. In this interview, D’Elia shared that on any given night, after he and his comic friends perform their sets, they all grab a bite at the local diner. For hours into the night and early morning, they’ll gab away about anything they find funny. One conversation spills into another, and thoughts and ideas riff around the table to keep their minds actively flowing on their craft. Quite an appealing way to brainstorm!
To my educator colleagues, if you don’t have an idea, ask yourself: How much of your time and life-energy have you invested in fleshing one out? Find like-minded teachers and simply talk about anything that matters to you relating directly or indirectly to school life. Point out the funny, the frustrating, the inspiring, the aggravating, the fun and the boring. Talk about what you’re really good at, and what you are not. Eventually, you’ll stumble onto minor pet-project ideas. Run with them. This may be a small presentation about a system that works well in your classes. Or it could be whipping up an intuitive Google Drive system for your particular department. Mark my words: It is within this space that your golden ticket ideas will be conceived, as opposed to passively going through the motions of your days without any emotional thought or connective commentary behind what you do.
Fellow teachers are not the only collaborators in our midst. The students are also the perfect partners to discuss ideas that bear potential for significant positive change. Your students will be the ones who introduce you to an app that already does what you’re suggesting, or recommend an easy-to-use video software tool or confirm or refute whether your idea resonates with members of their demographic. Plus they have a jaw-dropping capability to communicate with exponentially connected social media networks. In a mere day, you could learn from hundreds of Gen-Y members about whether a certain thought you have resonates with them. That type of instantaneous market testing at our fingertips is beyond invaluable.
Rule #3: Read, watch, write, immerse, engage, create.
Commit to always learning; it will undoubtedly elevate your craft. By reading this piece, if you’ve gained at least one idea that you can directly apply to your goals as a teacher, entrepreneur, or both, then I’ve made my point. As a lifestyle, set aside time to read articles, watch videos, journal/blog and create any form of media that will get your head and heart beyond the walls of your day-to-day teaching life. It will keep you whole, connected, thoughtful, modern and interesting.
Of course, I deeply believe in the merits of unplugging from technology at the appropriate times. We need to prioritize our health, set aside time with loved ones, time for sleep, and definitely time for ourselves. But when it’s green-light-on-tech-time, you’ll find me in constant information saturation mode. Yes, I read articles and watch inspiring talks in the bathroom, and I don’t apologize for it. I am only the product of everything I learn, so it would make sense that the more I learn, the better version of me I can create and offer.
And when you’re in that type of creation headspace, in which you contribute to conversations, comment on others’ ideas, and subsequently generate ideas of your own, you’ll be primed to take on those pivotal projects and ideas when they reach you. In truth, the concept of “teacherpreneur” is just as much a way-of-life as it is a nifty job title.
Every day, we have the chance to make a difference. Just today, I pointed out to a student that her inappropriately-timed laughter was due to what I believed to be her personal discomfort with a very real moment we were having in class. Naturally, I don’t blame her in the least, and I remember being like that myself. But I also remember having no voice for my discomfort. The moment made me think of an article I coincidentally read today as well in the New York Times, about challenging white privilege. The piece features a student project showcasing pictures of students holding up signs confessing what each one of them believes justice looks like.
So what if my students could create a similar type of photo collection of themselves, confessing the types of situations that make them uncomfortable? What if we got permission (from administrators who thankfully have my back, see rule #1) to put these pictures up in class, or around school, to raise some community awareness and empathy? The level to which my antennae are raised is the foremost reason I could sniff out an idea like that.
This is teacherpreneurism at its finest; it’s entirely about awareness, engagement and creation. Unequivocally, any teacher involved in such a photo project would passionately talk about it with friends and family, or at a job interview, or anywhere else relevant during her career. It might lead to offshoot ideas generated by students or colleagues, which could be picked up by The NY Times just like the article I read today. Then who knows? With all my heart, I recommend living in a state of thoughtful engagement, and you’ll begin to see your process as teacherpreneur flow.
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.