Teacher Preparation

Four Teachers Share Their Experiences Leading Nonprofits and Businesses

By Alix Mammina — March 26, 2018 8 min read
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Conversations about ed-tech and education-related business initiatives often highlight the importance of including input from those working on-the-ground in classrooms and schools. But some teachers are taking this a step further—by pursuing their own entrepreneurial passions and starting companies and nonprofits in the field of education.

For Barnett Berry, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Teaching Quality, giving teachers the opportunity to incubate and execute their own ideas can benefit students and the educational system as a whole. A former educator himself, Berry emphasizes the importance of teachers’ pedagogical touch and day-to-day insight in solving problems in education at scale. “If we really want to revolutionize teaching and learning for more equitable and powerful education systems, we have to get practicing teachers—who work with children everyday—in the middle of it,” Berry said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. (Education Week Teacher partners with CTQ to publish a regular column by teachers who are part of the group’s virtual community.)

To get an idea of how teachers are taking on these dual roles, we spoke with three educators and instructors who balance their work in schools with their pursuits to lead innovation in education—and one teacher who left the classroom to do the same.

Redefining the Teaching Profession

After 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan overheard a colleague discouraging a friend from becoming a teacher, he knew he wanted to shift the narrative on education. That’s why he started Teach Like Me, Inc.— a nonprofit that’s trying to redefine how those both in and outside of education view the teaching profession.

“I felt that for too long, non-educators were controlling the teacher narrative,” Sheehan said in an interview. “We didn’t have enough teachers out there saying what was good about this profession—we were told by others why this profession was good, but we ourselves weren’t sharing stories about why we have a passion for this work.”

Teach Like Me started as a social media campaign in 2013, with educators posting their positive stories about teaching on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In the years since, teachers have participated in #TeachLikeMe Day each May. Last year, Sheehan launched a series of YouTube videos featuring educators from across the country sharing what they love about their work.

While Sheehan and his fellow Teach Like Me board members have big goals for the future of the nonprofit, Sheehan says that their work as full-time teachers often prevents them from moving forward with the campaign.

“The reality of still being a classroom teacher and being responsible for those students, helping them master algebra concepts and visiting with family and community members—therein lies the struggle of trying to wear two hats,” Sheehan said. “The role that’s going to take a hit is of course the nonprofit, because I am unwilling to sacrifice my own teaching at the cost of making this nonprofit bigger and better.”

But Sheehan says that his support system has helped him through the ups and downs over the years. “You’ve got to surround yourself with folks who are supportive of the cause,” Sheehan said. “When it gets hard, you will be dependent on those colleagues to generate new ideas and provide feedback. That’s critical to the success of any nonprofit.”

Two Educators, One Unconventional School

When Kim Bearden and Ron Clark met in 2000, they had both recently received awards from the Walt Disney Company for their work in education—Bearden as that year’s Outstanding Middle School Humanities Teacher, and Clark as the company’s Teacher of the Year. Seven years later, Bearden and Clark would open their own school: Ron Clark Academy, a nonprofit middle school in Atlanta, Ga., where they work in both teaching and administrative positions.

In addition to serving 5th through 8th grade students, the Ron Clark Academy offers a professional-development program for teachers across the country. Since its opening day in 2007, more than 48,000 teachers have visited the academy to observe classroom teaching and participate in workshops. Teachers can register for one- or two-day trainings for $450 and $900—fees that in turn provide the school with the funds it needs to keep running.

“What we realized is that in the world of teaching, sometimes there’s a disconnect with professional development because teachers don’t get to watch each other teach,” Bearden said in an interview.

Bearden credits her work as a classroom teacher with giving her the perspective and credibility necessary to attempt change in education. “I give advice, I give ideas, I give strategies, but I also acknowledge how hard it is,” Bearden said. “I don’t say there’s one quick strategy you can do that’s going to fix education or fix your classroom, but that it’s a combination of things, and it’s trial and error, and above all else it’s building relationships with those kids.”

For teachers who want to pursue their own ideas for changing education, Bearden offers three pieces of advice: Stay focused on what’s best for the kids, take your responsibility as a voice for education seriously, and be a positive voice for change.

“At the end of the night, when I collapse in that bed and I’m completely exhausted, I know that I’ve had a day that’s been significant, that’s made a difference in so many lives,” Bearden said. “And that’s kind of how I keep going, even when I’m tired.”

When English teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair first received an email requesting submissions to the Gates Foundation’s Redesign Challenge, she deleted it. As a self-described Luddite, Lamb-Sinclair didn’t think she had anything to offer to a technology-based competition. But later that night, she came up with the idea for Curio—an app for improving teacher professional development—and submitted her plan to the challenge.

After her idea was selected, Lamb-Sinclair developed the prototype for Curio at an ed-tech event in Washington. Over the next year, the idea stayed in the back of her head as she served as the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, worked as the Teacher in Residence for the Kentucky education department, and studied Finland’s school system through an Education First scholarship. While in Finland, Lamb-Sinclair met with the development team behind Angry Birds and shared her goal of making Curio a reality.

“I remember kind of picking their brains about it, and they were like, you need a team, you need a co-founder, go back and just do it,” Lamb-Sinclair said in an interview. “They were very inspirational about ‘just go and do it.’”

In 2017, Lamb-Sinclair left her full-time classroom position to work as an instructional coach and finish developing Curio with her co-founder Tarik Nally, a digital designer from Louisville.

Lamb-Sinclair describes Curio as a professional-development platform for teachers to share classroom strategies and collaborate with networks of other educators. Much like Pinterest, users can share and categorize links, YouTube videos, and images they find online, as well as browse other teachers’ profiles to find resources and discuss new ideas.

Lamb-Sinclair emphasized that while balancing her teaching—and, later, coaching—with her work on Curio wasn’t easy, it also wasn’t different from what most teachers do on a daily basis. “The truth is, most teachers are involved in a million things,” she said. Pursuing her own solution to a problem in education also helped her realize the power that teachers have—and the importance of bringing educators into leadership roles, a topic that she’s previously written about for Education Week Teacher.

“The more opportunities that we have for teachers to take the lead on education, the better off education is going to be as a whole, because we all know we have too many people outside of this profession who are trying to run it,” she said.

Bringing Equity to Schools After Leaving the Classroom

In 2016, Kate Gerson launched UnboundEd, a nonprofit organization branching off from the free online curriculum library EngageNY. Two years later, Gerson continues to serve as managing partner for programs at UnboundEd, which provides standards-aligned classroom resources, lesson plans, and curricula for grades PreK-12.

With the exception of the core operational team at UnboundEd, each staff member previously worked as a teacher or principal. Gerson herself taught high school English and served as a school principal in New York before leaving the

classroom to find an answer to what she sees as the major issue facing educators: How to provide equitable, rigorous learning environments for all students.

She’s found that part of the solution to that problem—and any issue facing educators and school leaders—is to create “an environment where a diversity of experiences and backgrounds have a voice and are heard.”

It was a purposeful move for most of the team members at UnboundEd to have teaching backgrounds, Gerson notes. Her own experience in the classroom shapes how she approaches her work with UnboundEd, which she says places a strong focus on being supportive to educators.

“Teaching is far and away the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Gerson said in an interview. “Once you’re working in the nonprofit sector—presuming that your work is about school and learning—you need real empathy for the intensity of that job. And you need to be able to provide support around the details of teaching and learning.”

Top image by Getty. Headshots courtesy of Shawn Sheehan, Kim Bearden, Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, and Kate Gerson.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.