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The Coming Age of the Teacherpreneur

By Barnett Berry & The Teachersolutions 2030 Team — October 06, 2010 9 min read
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While we are all for entrepreneurism in public schools, we have a different view of what it takes to be a successful and enterprising change agent in education. Our co-author Ariel Sacks used the term teacherpreneur during one of our team writing sessions. She predicted that the schools of 2030 will need growing numbers of teacherpreneurs, which she described as teacher leaders of proven accomplishment who have a deep knowledge of how to teach, a clear understanding of what strategies must be in play to make schools highly successful, and the skills and commitment to spread their expertise to others—all the while keeping at least one foot firmly in the classroom.

And we need to begin to cultivate such teachers now, she says:

Many teachers like myself could play any number of teacherpreneurial roles depending on the needs of my school and the funding source—community organization, think tank, or university. Right now, many of us are developing curriculum materials, mentoring teachers, or creating partnerships between our schools and other organizations. And I can imagine more: I could do policy work outside my school and/or be a freelance writer, with perhaps only half of my salary paid by the school itself.

Teaching 2030 Cover

This article is excerpted from Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools─Now and in the Future, scheduled to be published by Teachers College Press later this year. The book was written by Barnett Berry and the TeacherSolutions 2030 Team, a group of accomplished educators assembled by the nonprofit Center for Teaching Quality. It aims to identify “emergent realities” that will shape education and teaching in the coming decades and to prescribe possible policy directions to help schools leverage these trends.

Author Barnett Berry is founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, a North Carolina nonprofit that seeks to improve student achievement by conducting research, crafting policy, and cultivating teacher leadership. CTQ is the parent organization of the Teacher Leaders Network.

The TeacherSolutions 2030 Team includes: Jennifer Barnett (Alabama)* Kilian Betlach (California) * Shannon C’de Baca (Iowa) * Susie Highley (Indiana)* John M. Holland (Virginia) * Carrie J. Kamm (Illinois) * Renee Moore (Mississippi) * Cindi Rigsbee (North Carolina)* Ariel Sacks (New York)* Emily Vickery (Florida)* Jose Vilson (New York)* Laurie Wasserman (Massachusetts).

More information on the project is available at: www.teaching2030.org

The beauty of a hybrid, teacherpreneurial role is that I would always maintain a classroom teaching practice. Teaching is the soul of my work in education. If I lose that, I think I’d feel disconnected from my purpose and passion—and my colleagues. At least in my own mind, my work would lose relevance and, understandably, I would lose credibility with my teaching peers.

Too many reformers have romanticized the marketplace, relying on choice and financial incentives to drive changes in the teaching profession. We believe in risk-taking teachers who are recognized and rewarded for innovative practices. But as our collaborator John M. Holland makes very clear, it’s not really about the money:

We are talking about teacherpreneurs as an aspect of teachers’ “ownership” of their profession. An evolution. Many of us aren’t selling anything but a vision for a better educational future for children. We aren’t necessarily asking to be compensated for this future so much as to be incorporated into the marketplace of ideas.

There is no need, says Ariel Sacks, for the false dichotomy of teachers either teaching for the love of children or to earn a professional income:

Our principal motivation isn’t money, but to make education better. Nonetheless, our ideas need to be valued financially even though our “clients” (students) don’t pay us. It’s easy for other professionals to work not “just for the money” because there is so much money to be made in their field. Teachers should not shy away from the money issues—because it can make us more visible to our colleagues and the public.

Not only do these differentiated, entrepreneurial roles increase the “stickiness” of the teaching career by creating fresh challenges and opportunities as well as rewards, they preserve and enhance the body of knowledge and expertise that defines a profession. Our co-author Kilian Betlach offered his own ideas of teacherpreneurism and the hybrid opportunities that would have kept him in a teaching (rather than a purely administrative) role:

These new teacherpreneurial roles would replace the old notions of mentor, master teacher, or department chair, which insufficiently diversify professional standing and function as poor replacements for promotions that are part of a recognized and organized professional system. These new roles would ground the profession in the work of teaching, while recognizing that teacher leadership has a place and a value and a function beyond honorific titles and extracurricular duties. Leadership would no longer be a thing you ascribed to “after” teaching, or when you were “done” teaching. Nor would teaching need to be seen as something to master and move on from.

There are nearly endless combinations of endeavors that could compose a hybrid teaching position that promotes teacherpreneurism. . . . What remains central is the repudiation of the dichotomous nature of the profession: You’re either a teacher or a principal, a mentor or a follower. The “or” in the equation represents an inauthentic choice, and one that limits the effectiveness of both individuals and the system as a whole. The removal of this “either-or” barrier would bring a far greater array of skills and strengths to bear on student achievement, improving academic performance exponentially.

In our conception, the teacherpreneur is always engaged with students, while also investing know-how and energy into important projects, including those supported by the district, the state, or a partnering organization. Early examples of teacherpreneurs aren’t hard to find. Our co-author Shanon C’de Baca is a trailblazing online educator who, not only brings her science knowledge (and student-management skills) to Iowa’s virtual high school classrooms, but also trains new teachers via distance and face-to-face mentoring in Asia and the Mideast. Our Teacher Leaders Network colleague Lori Nazareno is co-leading a new Denver public school that’s entirely run by teachers. In Rhode Island, Marti Schwartz, another TLN member, mentors new teachers for Brown University, contracts privately to provide professional development in several community school systems, and also serves as a literacy teacher and coach at an inner-city high school.

Many other colleagues are providing professional development and training to peers who are gaining expertise in teaching children with different learning needs—or helping build effective professional learning communities in high-needs schools. As TLN member Sarah Henchey says, “This shift, at least instructionally, has already begun. More districts and schools have developed literacy and math coaches to support teachers. AIG and ESL specialists provide pull-out, push-in, and professional development.” As we imagine it, teacherpreneurism will build out from these teacher-leader-coach beginnings. As entrepreneurial roles evolve, it will become more and more commonplace to select a cadre of the most highly effective and creative classroom educators and give them the independence and financial incentives to innovate in ways that—in Phillip Schlechty’s memorable phrase—“shake up the schoolhouse.”

After a dozen years teaching in a suburban Birmingham, Ala., high school, our co-author Jennifer Barnett returned home to rural Talladega County to teach English and social studies at a small K–12 school. Her use of digital tools and the Internet and her commitment to project-based learning soon attracted the attention of district administrators, who were considering an ambitious plan to make that instructional method a mainstay in all schools in the countywide district. Today, Jennifer is beginning to serve as a teacherpreneur, leading major innovations at Winterboro High—the first Talladega school to transition to project-driven instruction. It’s her job to support both the integration of 21st-century skills and teaching strategies and to promote collegial collaboration. Her report, one year into the initiative, illustrates both the powerful effect of a change agent and the important quality of collaborative leadership that will be essential in the teacherpreneur role:

Winterboro School has become a very rich school. It would seem more likely for an extremely rural school with over 90 percent free and reduced lunch status to become part of a Top 10 list of at-risk schools, but this is not the case. A 21st-century transformation is happening.

After searching for a curriculum redesign and settling on schoolwide adoption of a project-based learning experience for all students in every course, we can see that this school’s students are changing. Only the “old thinkers” of the nearly 400 visitors we’ve welcomed this year have asked about our students’ test scores. (I’m so humored by their impatience in trying to prove our work invalid.) Most see what I see. Our students present themselves as confident young professionals placing value on what they are doing and why they are doing it. They believe they are relevant.

Much can be said about what our students are doing now, but I’m most interested in why it is working. It may be a worn-out concept ... but collaboration is the key. It is happening everywhere. Teachers are working with each other. It has become our addictive drug and not one of them is ready to let go. Students see it and follow the model. ...

This collaboration is not happening by chance or because of fantastic technological advancements. Collaboration is happening by design. Before they could model collaboration, the teachers have had to learn how to work in concert with one another. One thing most people don’t realize is this: Most of us don’t know how, as a group, to exchange ideas, create plans, and distinguish between what’s good and what’s great. Embracing ambiguity is the key to successful collaboration and many teachers struggle with that. We want a decision, a plan, and we want it immediately. Unfortunately, successful collaboration takes time, patience, and a great deal of knowledge and skill.

Here’s the rub. Our Winterboro staff is very young and inexperienced. They have very little time and even less patience with themselves. Yet, the sessions are carefully designed to bring the right mix of knowledge and expertise to the collaboration table. The teacher leader in the hybrid role can make this happen in every school in America. I want every “poor” school in this country to offer its students the opportunity to become rich in confidence, value, and relevancy. We haven’t reached the mountaintop yet, but we can see the sun shining on the other side.

There is good evidence of Winterboro’s early progress: The isolated high school, which shares building space with students in grades K–8, was selected by U.S. News & World Report as one of the “Best High Schools in Alabama” for 2010. The magazine’s selection methods are “based on the key principles that a great high school must serve all its students well, not just those who are college-bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.”

Ultimately, teacherpreneurship is about propagating a new culture of innovation and creativity in a sector of education that has been woefully lacking in one. Most importantly, teacherpreneurship is not promoting a free-market visionfor the profit of a few—but rather how our society can invest substantially in teachers who can expertly serve millions of children and families who are not in the position to choose a better school somewhere else or find the most erudite online teacher anytime, anywhere. Teacherpreneurship is all about the public good, not private gain.

Used with permission from the Publisher. From Berry, Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future, New York: Teachers College Press, ©2011 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved. To order copies visit www.tcpress.com or call (800) 575-6566..
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as The coming age of the Teacherpreneur


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