Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Tedx Talk...

“What if a Jewish person turned into a vampire?” Kirin asked me one day.  “Would that vampire be afraid of a Star of David like regular vampires are afraid of a cross?”  “That’s the great thing about vampires,” I replied.  “Because they are a literary devise, they can do pretty much whatever the author wants them to.  So I guess the real question is what to you think would happen, Kirin?”

We talked for about fifteen minutes about Kirin’s Jewish vampire, specifically, weather or not he will cringe at a Star of David, and what that decision might mean.  Would it mean that Kirin has replaced the exclusive rightness of Christianity with an exclusive rightness for Judaism?   Or will it be more multi-cultural, where the vampire is really cringing at our symbols of goodness and righteousness where all vampires cringe at all holy symbols marking out the many paths up the mountain of faith?

In a deferent year, a puzzled-faced fourteen-year-old girl stuck up a conversation with me one afternoon. 

“I was reading here in Hammurabi’s code.” She began.  “I get how it says that if the farmer doesn’t keep the levees on his land in good repair, and when the river floods, the levee breaks and ruins his neighbor’s land that he’s responsible to repair the damage and pay the neighbor for the neighbor’s ruined crops. I get that,”

“But what if the farmer was renting the land?”

An old friend of my from our undergraduate days is now in a teacher credential program, becoming a teacher herself.  She wrote me the other day,  “I am currently placed in a 7th grade CORE classroom at a nice, though technically failing, middle school. My CT has 22 years of experience teaching English and World History and is a master at it. He's amazing. However, I only observe him teach English. I then teach the history portion, one period a day. Because I can't observe him teach history first, I am never quite sure of what I should be doing.”  She wanted to come back to my school and spend time with me, watch me teach and then talk about instruction.

I wish I could.  I wish I could invite my friend back to my classroom.  I wish I could explore this semester’s deep questions with students.  I wish I could keep better track of the Vampire Goldberg.  I wish I could, but I can’t.  I’m no longer in the classroom.

It’s a bittersweet problem.  You see, my school is redesigning our structures.  We’ve received a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant to organizing our students and teachers into smaller learning communities.  Now, I’m the site coordinator for that process.  I love my new role, but I miss teaching.

This brings me to the big idea of this talk.  TED is all about big ideas, and this one comes from a group of incredible educators I’m working with through an organization based in North Carolina, the Teacher Leaders Network.  The idea is the “teacherpreneur.”

What the heck is a “teacherpreneur”?  Well, imagine the system we typically work with now.  People who work in education are, for the most part, isolated in their roles.  Teachers are isolated in their classrooms, teaching students.  In another part of the campus, the principal (typically a former teacher) is spending her day running the school.  Downtown, offices are filled with administrators running the day-to-day business for the school district.  There are also coaches, professional development experts, curriculum designers, and a myriad of other roles being filled by former teachers and teachers on “special assignment” like myself.

Meanwhile, in the universities, professors, some former teachers other not, are training the next generation of teachers.  For the most part, they are also writing the textbooks and instructional guides.

Meanwhile, over in our state capitols and in Washington DC, policy makers, many of whom haven’t been in classroom since they themselves were students, are writing policy that will guide (some say dictate) instruction.

In fact, just over 50% of the people who are paid with educational dollars are NOT in classrooms working with children. 

Right now, for the most part, teachers who want to write, or be involved in educational policy have to do this in the evening and on weekends.  Relying on the loving understanding of their spouses and loved ones, Right Wendy?

“Teacherpreneurism” is an idea by which educational leaders can maintain a foot in the classroom where the rubber of their ideas and policies hits the road of instruction and learning.  “Teacherpreneurism” is an idea by which more classroom teachers can have more of a voice in national, state and local educational leadership.

Teacherpreneur is a hard concept for educators to fall in love with.  It sounds too much like “entrepreneur” which we commonly think of as someone who has a new idea and wants to use that idea to make a lot of money.  Many teachers, like myself, think that far too many people have for far too long seen opportunities to make far too much money “fixing” what is “wrong” with education with their latest silver bullets.

Teacherpreneurs isn’t like that.  It’s more closely aligned with the idea of the social entrepreneur that my collegeaue John Norton recently wrote about.

“A social entrepreneur is motivated by a desire to help, improve and transform social, environmental, educational and economic conditions,” he writes.  A social entrepreneur is not satisfied with the way things are – we are not satisfied with the status quo.

How often are we hearing these days that teachers and teachers’ unions in particular are defending the status quo, defending bad teacher at the expense of students – as if there are horde of bad teacher who, like zombies, are after the children’s’ brains!  Because teachers and teachers unions don’t support the triumvirate of education reform current en vogue, high-stakes tests, accountability, and market-based school choice, we are casts as somehow in favor of drop-out factories and failing schools

Social entrepreneurs, and I offer “teacherpreneurs” say, no, neither.  “No” to the status quo, and “no” to the triumvirate.  But while teachers and teachers’ unions are saying  “no” we aren’t spending enough time imagining and communicating what educational reform we ARE in favor of.  It is my vision that teachers being in these hybrid roles will have the time and resources to envision a better way.

“Teacherprenuers” are not a way to make money fixing schools.  Rather it is a way to honor the social entrepreneur work that many classroom teachers are already doing, by giving them time during their workday to do this important work.


A high school math teacher, who at lunch meets with her co-principal to discuss the morning’s events and prepare for her afternoon of school leadership while the morning principal is off to teach his classes.


A middle school history teacher who works at the local university in the mornings with classes of prospective teachers before heading back to the middle school for his afternoon students.


Teachers who have one or two hours everyday to do research and write about instruction.

Teachers who have one or two hours everyday to plan and organize the professional development they are going to lead their schools in later that week.

Master teachers who co-teach with first and second-year teachers and have the time to do daily mentoring for their apprentices.


An elementary school teacher who works Monday through Wednesday before turning her class over to her co-teacher so that she can spend Thursday and Friday at the state capitol advising the Department of Education.

What would educational policy look like if Arne Duncan took five weeks off from being Secretary of Education in July to teach sumer school?

If you can imagine these things, then you can visualize a “teacherpreneur.”

But were not there yet.  I was in a workshop just two weekends ago listening to an amazing program this one school has for their teachers’ professional development.  They’ve got teachers organizing themselves in to professional learning communities.  The teachers are deciding for themselves what aspects of their craft they would like to get better at, finding the resources and time to work together and help one another become even better teachers.  Unfortunately, one of the goals of this program is to identify the really great teacher leaders and get them into administrative or coaching positions for their city.  I had to ask, “Do you mean that one of the goals is to identify your best teachers and get them out of the classroom?”  Sadly, the answer was “yes.”

We’re still a big mind shift away from understanding the power of these new hybrid-roles of “teacherpreneurs.”

So imagine what the educational landscape might look like if we had hundreds of thousands of teacherpreneurs.  I can imagine that the first thing they would do away with are the high-stakes bubble-in tests that are driving creativity and critical thinking into the ground.  I imagine that when the leaders of the schools districts and the leaders of the teachers’s unions are the same folks, we would lose the adversarial teacher evaluation systems we have now and design something that makes sense for students and teachers. 

I want to be a “teacherpreneur.”  I want every teacher who want to do this kind of work have the opportunity to do so, and still spend a part of their workday or work week in the classroom with kids.

I imagine that my friend could come visit my classroom, watch me working with my students, and then we could talk about how my school is changing and growing.

I imagine that there would be less room in schools for drill and kill curriculum designed to improve test scores.  There would be more room for critical thinking.  There would be more room for collaboration among teachers and students, more project-based lessons and assessments.  I imagine that there would be more room for creativity.  There would even be room for Jewish vampires.


Jennifer Barnett said...

Congratulations on a wonderful message for your TED presentation! I'd love to hear more about how it was received and other feedback you've received from your audience.

I was struck by your story about one of the goals of the PD program at the school you mentioned was to provide teachers a "way out" of the classroom. Right now, teachers find very few pathways and opportunities for contributing beyond their classroom assignments, unless they are willing to do this on their own time. This may be one of the most crucial reasons to communicate the concept of a teacherpreneur. If we can envision a DIFFERENT pathway that combines teaching with the opportunity to use our talents, skills, and experience, we can move closer to a system ready to embrace this new structure. Simply stated, we must do more of what you started on this post - imagining. In fact, maybe we need an "Imagine Series" of suppose-alls. Except they need to be as real as possible. Maybe we can help others "see" this idea and embrace it as their own.

Again, congrats on the presentation and looking forward to more chats with you and others on this exciting topic!

Dave Orphal said...

Hi Jennifer,

The audience generally liked the idea - especially the 1/2 about our current educational leaders and policy makers getting back into classrooms for a part of the year. I got lots of positive remarks when I mentioned that Arne Duncan should take 5 weeks off to teach summer school! ;-)

Some folks are turned off by the "edubabel" of the word "teacherpreneur" and I think that's understandable.

Thanks for the congrats - I slept until 10am this morning - what a day yesterday! Phew!

David B. Cohen said...

Dave - sorry I missed the big event, but from all I've read and heard, you came, you saw, you rocked it! But that was yesterday. What's next? ;-)

Dave Orphal said...

Hi David,

No worries, my friend. I would have loved for you to have boon there, since it was your encouragement in the first place that got this ball rolling!

Next for me personally is three-fold.

1) continue working on the transformation of Skyline into smaller learning communities. As I'm doing that, I need to find a way to teach at least one class next year - and I think I've got something. Our Education Academy Director mentioned to me the other day that she may need one more section of Intro to Education for next year - so I may be able to teach that class. Either way, I need to go back into the classroom after this 2-year TSA gig is over.

2) Anthony Cody and I are working on a team to design a teacher-led think tank for CTA. Our idea is for a group of teachers to grapple with some of the important reform ideas of the day (tenure, measuring learning, etc.) the idea is for the teachers' union to have a reform agenda that teachers are FOR rather than constantly be on the defensive from the agendas of folks like Koch, Gates, Broad, etc...

3) CTQ/TLN is working of creating an Institute for Teacherpreneurship. The idea is going to be about promoting the concept of "Teacherpreneurs" as a way for current educational leaders to get to spend some time in classrooms and get classroom teachers the ability to spend a part of their working day doing leadership roles. You know, maybe better than I, on the costs for teacher-leaders who currently have to do the bulk of their leadership as an after-school voluntary position.

For other teachers, I hope they take away the message that if they are asked to leave the classroom to fill a leadership role, that they negotiate that role into two part-time jobs to be shared by two teacherpreneurs rather than one full-time job for a former classroom teacher.

For school admin and educational policy makers, I hope they take away from this talk the idea that they can return to the classroom, even if for only a small part of their jobs. I hear so many school principals or district office people, the ones whom I have the most respect for, saying how they wish they could be back with kids. My point is, they can!

This week, I'm going to write a letter to Sec. Duncan and CA Sec. Torlakson, inviting them both to come to Oakland and teach summer school. Wouldn't it be great if they accepted?