The difference between a teacherpreneur and an education entrepreneur

By Kristoffer Kohl 

Kristoffer Kohl is a former classroom teacher working currently as a policy associate at CTQ to further the vision of TEACHING 2030. He previously collaborated with a team of accomplished teachers to produce the report “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve.” 

How do you create space for innovation when a system is already in motion? In education especially, it often feels like we’re trying to build the plane as we’re flying.

What would our schools look like if we solicited the expertise of teachers and recognized classroom problems as opportunities for innovation? How might learning outcomes be transformed if teachers were equipped to investigate and design solutions?

Given that most teachers aren’t afforded such opportunities, the education-reform world has been captivated in recent years by other another model of innovation: the incredible efforts of education entrepreneurs. Their accomplishments engage and inspire the public with seemingly endless possibilities for our schools. New Tech Network, Harlem Children’s Zone, School of One, and Khan Academy have rocked the foundations of the education establishment by transforming the identities of school and classroom.

Though these schools have been successful, their ideas have proven difficult to scale and sustain in a way that benefits all communities. Fortunately, there is an untapped reservoir of expertise that can generate even more profound change in our nation’s schools.

Enter the teacherpreneur.

As defined by the authors of TEACHING 2030, a teacherpreneur is a teacher leader of proven accomplishment possessing a deep knowledge of how to teach, a clear understanding of what strategies must be in play to keep schools highly successful, and the skills and commitment necessary to spread their expertise to others — all while keeping at least one foot firmly in the classroom.

Entrepreneurs may have brilliant ideas that often require venture capital and years of planning, but teacherpreneurs’ innovation is grounded in their daily experience in schools and classrooms. While education entrepreneurs experiment with novel theories for student learning, teacherpreneurs serve as action researchers by hypothesizing, implementing, troubleshooting, and learning from their daily interactions in the classroom.

Prioritizing their responsibilities to students, teacherpreneurs are making a name for themselves by creatively packaging and delivering instruction. Some are ‘flipping’ their classrooms by allowing students to watch lessons online and using class time to complete work traditionally reserved for home. Others are using social media tools to develop a more modern take on classroom discussion, effective writing, and community action.

The prevailing form of teacherpreneurship occurring regularly in schools across the nation is teacher leadership. Running everything from their departments and grade levels to professional learning communities, teachers are cropping up as managers, directors, mentors, and guides. Outside their buildings, teacher leaders are transforming unions, community organizations, after-school programs, and online professional-development communities.

CTQ works directly with three teacherpreneurs: Jessica Keigan and Dana Nardello in Denver, and Noah Zeichner in Seattle. In addition to their primary roles as teachers, all three are involved with education policy work for the New Millennium Initiative. Jessica and Dana also work alongside the Colorado Legacy Foundation, and Noah collaborates with Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association to increase teacher leadership opportunities. These teacherpreneurs will ideally serve as models for other organizations and districts that want to support similar hybrid positions.

Both teacherpreneurs and entrepreneurs play valuable roles in advancing the development of a 21st-century school system. While entrepreneurs inspire a vision of what schools can become, teacherpreneurs demonstrate the caliber of individuals we need in schools to realize that vision. Teacherpreneurs elevate the entire profession by ensuring that colleagues, policymakers, and the public know what works best for students.