Response: When teachers become entrepreneurs, is their core mission altered?

I just read a provocative post from Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a strange land called “Sleeping wth the enemy,” which questions whether teachers compromise their integrity by selling their ideas. Nancy seems to be asking the right question, and I was surprised at how much I had to say on the topic… though maybe I shouldn’t be since I helped develop the idea of the teacherpreneur in TEACHING 2030.

Here is my response, which I’m having trouble posting on the site at the moment:

Nancy, I am wondering about compromise myself. I have not yet come to a conclusion about it.

That said, I’m not sure that selling our ideas requires compromise. I think teachers can start small businesses that offer their expertise for money to those who might want to pay for it without compromising integrity. For example, right now I am writing a book on a curriculum method I’ve named Whole novels. I’ve been developing the program since I first encountered the idea from my mentor at Bank Street College (who has helped me immeasurably and whom I give due credit in the book). I’ve spoken to many teachers who are interested in learning more about the method, and so I’m writing the book to fill a need as well as to fulfill a dream I have of writing it all down in a book. The book will be sold by a regular publishing company, and I’ll get a small percentage of the profits. I might end up doing some consulting about it as well. I have benefited from many books I’ve bought over the years, written by teachers for teachers. Is this the entrepreneurial compromise you mean?

Maybe the issue lies in how we apply our expertise to policy initiatives. The method I’m writing about could never work as a mandated, one-size-fits-all kind of thing. The book is not written to suggest that, although I’d love for it to become a known idea, that teachers can pull from as they see fit.

Am I right that the issue you’re talking about is in selling our expertise to the organizations that are creating new oppressive structures for our profession? Ones that rely on tests to determine success and feed a corporate testing industry? If a corporation or district wanted to pay me to write Whole novels: The scripted curriculum, would I do it? Thank you for pushing me to ask myself that question. The answer would almost definitely be no.

But I’m tempted to ask myself: Would there be a way to compromise? Would Whole novels: The scripted curriculum be better than whatever other scripted curriculum is out there? Possibly, yes. There’s the rub.

When I first started teaching, Teachers College readers and writers workshop model, led by Lucy Calkins, was mandated in NYC public schools—or perhaps just those with low test scores. It was a scripted version of the program, which came to us in condescending form. It had not been designed for middle school, but was being forced on us as an experiment. We and principals were promised higher test scores, and there were sticks for non-compliance as well. (I later heard that Calkins herself was not happy with the watered down, force-fed nature of her curriculum as a blanket mandate). Teachers found it frustrating and limiting. I did what a lot of others did: I took the things that made sense to me from the program and combined them with other things I was trying—namely, whole novels.

The funny thing is that later, I realized I actually learned a lot from this exposure, albeit uncomfortable and borderline insulting, to the program. I also noticed retrospectively that during that time, NYC paid for every ELA classroom to have a good library of developmentally appropriate books, which was a real benefit to students (and teachers’ purses). This had not been the case before, when only textbooks and city-mandated whole class novel sets were provided. It is not the case now, since principals control purchasing decisions for their schools and may or may not decide to fund classroom libraries. The program also popularized the notion that teachers did not need to be at the front of the room talking to be teaching—helping teachers, principals, and other evaluators to understand that students need workshop time. These were some positives that came from the scripted mandate.

That’s just to say that I still don’t know where I stand on compromise. As always, thank you for pushing the conversation and for your unwavering integrity.


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