An interesting email landed in my inbox this week from Amanda Gladin-Kramer, a policy associate at the Center for Teaching Quality. Committed to redefining teacher leadership, CTQ has a long history of innovative projects designed to elevate teacher voice into important policy conversations.
CTQ’s most recent project is a full length book being published by Teacher’s College Press that lays out a vision for what teaching might look like in the year 2030. Built from the voices of my brilliant Teacher Leaders Network colleagues and coordinated by Barnett Berry and TLN moderator John Norton, this book promises to be the first teacher-led conversation about the future of our profession.
Amanda wanted to pick my brain a bit about a concept that may be new to you: Teacherpreneurism.
As we’re working on the book on the future of teaching and learning, we’re trying to share a few present examples of advanced teacher leadership and “teacherpreneurism” – teachers who have found the flexibility and influence to act as social entrepreneurs in a way, both marketing their own skills and being catalysts for change.
We have in mind things like teachers blogging and Anthony Cody’s Teachers Letters to Obama project – and also the platform you’ve build through your blog and doing consulting work and writing your book with Solution Tree. We’re making every effort to share teachers’ direct voices as much as possible in the book, and here’s one area I’d love to get your thoughts on.
Amanda went on to ask me a series of questions about my work as a teacherpreneur beyond the classroom. I figured I’d convert my answers into an interview-style post here on the Radical. I hope you enjoy it.
AGK: How did you make the connections and build the platform that led to your current professional development work and book authorship?
BF: I think the first step in becoming an active teacherpreneur is embracing visibility. Our nation has literally millions of teachers working with children behind closed doors every single day. The work that we do is simultaneously remarkable and easy to ignore because there are few structured opportunities to be recognized by anyone other than the small handful of students that we serve every year.
That being said, teachers possess an intimate knowledge about our profession that is impossible to mimic. Everyone—policymakers, publishers, professional developers—tends to understand the value that one accomplished teacher can add to their work.
When they find a teacher who can translate lessons from the classroom to other settings—publications, policy implications, concrete proposals for professional development—they are almost always willing to embrace those teachers as intellectual equals and to create avenues for growth beyond the classroom.
The trick for budding teacherpreneurs is confidently taking first steps to break down the walls of their classrooms. For far too many years, teachers have been viewed as replaceable cogs in the education machine—an impression that has forced us to question whether or not we really have anything of value to add outside of the work that we do with students.
What’s more, we work in an egalitarian profession where everyone is seen as an equal. To move beyond the classroom and to seek a platform for expressing your professionalism is seen as an insult to your peers—a risk that many teachers are unwilling to take. With a bit of moxie, however, it’s not that difficult to turn teacherpreneurism into a rewarding second career.
AGK: Now it seems like your blog has become a major source of opportunity for you. How did you build an audience?
BF: I’d have to disagree with you a bit here, Amanda. My blog isn’t the source of opportunity for me. My insights, perspectives and ideas about teaching and learning are. My blog is simply the tool that I’ve chosen to use to make those insights, perspectives and ideas public.
What’s really interesting is that building an audience has been easier than I ever imagined. As a teacher, I stand at the forefront of every major policy initiative in education. I’m living our shift from an isolated profession to a profession focused on collaboration. I’ve struggled with making data a more important part of my practice. I’ve worked diligently to find ways to incorporate new digital tools into my instruction. I’ve been punished by standardized testing and coercive accountability.
And I write honestly about all of these topics. Through my bits, readers—regardless of what role they fill in education—can see the impact of their actions. They can rethink policies. They can redesign their instruction. They can restructure their schools and/or districts. I offer a looking glass into the hearts and minds of classroom teachers—and that’s a looking glass that concerned professionals everywhere are dying to peek into.
The whole process of writing reflectively, by the way, has improved who I am as a teacher, a leader and a learner. Knowing that others are going to read my work, I think carefully about everything that I write. Generally, before I even publish a strand of thought, I’ve revised both my practice and my presentation to the point where I’m proud of what I’ve done.
Then, I wait for the feedback which inevitably improves my thinking. Readers push against my original thoughts, challenging, prodding and outright disagreeing. Sometimes that feedback forces me to revise my original positions. Other times, it forces me to find new ways to articulate what it is that I know about teaching and learning. Always, I improve as a thinker and a teacher.
Wild, isn’t it? In some ways, teacherpreneurs are intellectually selfish, aren’t we? Not only are we sharing with our audiences, we’re learning from them too.
AGK: Eventually, though, Bill, you turned that audience into concrete opportunities. You write for several major publications. You moderate ongoing conversations between authors and their readers. You’ve published two books and you’re starting to offer professional development sessions. How did all of that happen?
BF: Strangely enough, Amanda, EVERY opportunity that I’ve embraced as a teacherpreneur has come to me! Early on, the Center for Teaching Quality spotted potential in the thoughts that I was posting in the Teacher Leaders Network conversation and asked me if I’d be interested in spending a summer as a Teacher in Residence studying the results of North Carolina’s Teacher Working Conditions survey.
Editors from both NSDC and ASCD spotted my writing online and asked me to write full-length articles and regular columns for their magazines. Publishers from nearly every major publishing house have contacted me to gauge my interest in writing books for them after seeing something that I’d written posted online.
I’ve never gone looking for opportunities simply because I haven’t needed to! Making the choice to be visible and being committed to freely sharing what I know about teaching and learning—recognizing that my knowledge and experience has value—has brought others to me.
AGK: I’m guessing you don’t see being a dedicated teacher and a professional compensated for your talents as mutually exclusive – and that this is a good thing for education in the end. Why?
BF: It would be impossible to argue that teacherpreneurism is a bad thing for education. At the simplest level, being professionally compensated for my talents beyond the classroom has enabled me to stay in the classroom full time for far longer than I ever dreamed possible.
As the primary breadwinner for my family, making ends meet on the ten paychecks that I get as a classroom teacher each year is simply impossible. Writing and presenting beyond the classroom is my way of working full-time. Without the extra pay that I make, I would have moved on—into administration, into full-time consulting work, into the policy arena—a long time ago.
But I see benefits for teacherpreneurism that stretch far beyond my own wallet. Every time I create a new resource for classroom teachers working on professional learning teams or trying to integrate technology into their classrooms—decisions that I make based on my desire to be compensated for my ideas—I know that my peers will have access to quality tools built from the experiences of another full-time practitioner instead of the professional dreamers that haven’t set foot in a classroom in decades.
How can that be bad for teaching and learning?
I also know that every time I post a thoughtful reflection or criticism of an under-informed educational policy—another decision that I make based on my desire to be compensated for my ideas—that there is hope those ideas will seep into the local, state and/or national debate on what works in schools.
I kind of see my work as a teacherpreneur as that of an activist. Sure, I want to be noticed because being noticed means opportunities for compensation will come my way. But each time I’m noticed, I have access to new audiences—and access to audiences means I can work to insert the voices of teachers into important conversations about what our schools will become.
Does any of this make sense?