Net Profits

March 01, 1999 4 min read

Every year, when biology teacher Robert Doltar asked his classes to dissect frogs, a few squeamish students refused. Not wanting these kids to miss out on the lesson, he decided to write a software program that would allow them to simulate the dissection on a computer. Now the teacher at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, earns between $10,000 and $20,000 a year in royalties from that program as well as from three others that he has sold to a local software company. “I’ve always done something in the summer” to earn extra money, he says, “but nothing that would dovetail into teaching the way this does.”

Doltar is just one of a growing number of teachers who are making a name--and a few dollars--for themselves as technology experts. These teachers are being invited to speak at national and international conferences, write books about educational technology, create software and online curricula, and test products for companies.

Observers point to two main reasons for the demand for such educators. With schools sinking millions of dollars into high-tech gadgetry, they need teachers who understand technology and its applications to train those who don’t. Meanwhile, technology companies that want to tap the booming school market need advice about what teachers find useful. “We want people who can help ease everybody else into the world of technology,” says Paul Thomas, general manager for Discovery Channel Education. A unit of the Bethesda, Maryland-based Discovery Communications Inc., Discovery Channel contracts with teachers to write online lesson plans and run online forums.

To snag such lucrative opportunities, teachers have to stay ahead of the curve, according to George Cassutto, a social studies teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Maryland. Cassutto runs a Web forum about world empires for Discovery and has written the Pocket Internet Guide for Teachers, to be released this spring by Genium Publishers. “You’ve got to be innovative,” Cassutto says. “You can’t just do the average stuff.”

For some teachers, technology know-how has taken them up the career ladder--and out of the classroom. School systems hungry for good technology
coordinators and systems administrators are hiring from within the teaching ranks, says Cheryl Williams, director of education technology programs for the National School Boards Association. And because most teachers are women, acquiring technology skills has become a new way for them to break into the predominantly male ranks of administrators.

Karen Bryant, for example, was hired five years ago as a K-12 computer coordinator for the York Central school district in New York state. Though the job didn’t pay more than her salary as a teacher, she considered it a promotion after 20 years in the classroom. “It’s given me an opportunity to explore some new areas and gain some new skills,” she says.

Former elementary school teacher John Drag Jr. parlayed his technology skills into a job as assistant principal of Eagle Ridge Science and Technology Magnet School in Coral Springs, Florida. When Drag was a teacher, his knack for using technology creatively in the classroom brought a slew of offers from companies wanting him to test and demonstrate software. Even now, he says, companies load him up with products to try out. “It seems every time I latched onto a piece of new technology, it opened new doors,” he says.

Other teachers have been lured away from the classroom to consult or work in the private sector. For two years in the mid-1990s, Bonnie Bracey more than doubled her school salary of $56,000 by giving speeches and working for federal and nonprofit technology initiatives. But last year, she left her job in Arlington County, Virginia, when a software company hired her to advise schools about technology.

Bracey says educators who can inspire teachers about educational technology are in great demand. “You must show and share with people what’s possible,” she says. “Most school systems haven’t given teachers the time to explore.”

Of course, many teachers enjoy what they are doing and don’t want to leave the classroom. Such is the case with Ceil Jensen. An art and social studies teacher in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Jensen is also an expert on integrating technology into the curriculum. Author of a book of Internet lesson plans for teachers, she has helped craft an online curriculum for the Annenberg Foundation and has spoken at international teacher conferences. Jensen views such outside work not as a stepping stone out of the classroom but as professional development. It strengthens her commitment to classroom teaching, she says.

“Sometimes when you first start out and you’re the only one trying something new in your building, you have doubts about whether you’re on the right path,” Jensen says. “When you find out you’re part of a global faculty, it’s invigorating.”

Getting involved with computers revitalized Joe Hofmeister’s career. A mathematics teacher turned technology director and computer science teacher for the private Cincinnati Country Day School, Hofmeister has co-written eight books about teaching with technology and is often invited to advise other schools. Such work has paid off financially--one of the books earned him $10,000--but he also enjoys his newfound prestige and clout. “How many math teachers who start out teaching Algebra I get to have a part in a national movement like this?” he asks. “It’s an ego trip to have all these people who are interested in what you’re doing.”

--Mary Ann Zehr