If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be working for an edtech startup in San Francisco, I would have thought you were crazy. I’ve had many jobs as an educator over the past 16 years, but at my core, I’m a 7th-grade middle school teacher. Nonetheless, here I sit in the heart of Silicon Valley ingenuity and innovation, exactly where I’m supposed to be—surrounded by engineers, business gurus, and dozens of fellow educators who have also made the switch.
For any educators who are considering a switch from education to edtech, here are six lessons I’ve learned from my first year since the transition.
1. Pick a Company That Shares Your Passions and Values
Not all edtech startups are created equal. Some startups are focused on improving niche areas, like virtual reality. While others tackle more meta issues, like building learning management systems to support the entire classroom. What are you most passionate about and qualified to advise on? Start looking at companies that reflect that passion.
When considering a company, ask yourself how does the company approach the problem it’s trying to solve? What intrigued me about AltSchool was how the team is working to achieve its vision of enabling all children to reach their potential. Instead of developing technology apart from teachers and then pushing it into schools, AltSchool brings experts—including teachers—together to co-create the tools in real classrooms. That means I’m not sitting at my desk all day theorizing about what might help teachers. I work alongside educators and students in various public and private schools. I also work with product designers and engineers to prototype new features based on real-time feedback from those teachers and students.
2. Get Ready to Embrace Constant Change
Education and edtech are both trying to help children get a better quality of education. But where education is mired in bureaucracy, edtech moves at the speed of light. That means you’ll likely set aggressive objectives each quarter. Colleagues and supervisors will expect you to tackle simple problems in hours and larger problems in weeks. Emails get answered in minutes, not days.
Where education provides stability and routine, edtech is fraught with risk and routines can change daily. It can be a shock for seasoned educators to enter a lifestyle without tenure or even retirement plans. And your goals may very well change next quarter as the company constantly reevaluates its game-plan. Being able to embrace the spirit of iteration and adjust to a faster pace is essential. It takes practice.
3. Expect a Little Culture Shock
Step inside any startup and the differences are apparent immediately. Imagine the cliche Silicon Valley set-up -- open floor plans, informal attire, glass-walled conference rooms and ping-pong tables. Every component is designed based on research about how to increase collaboration and productivity. It’s normal to experience some culture shock.
School and district offices are inherently (and often rigidly) hierarchical. Superintendents and principals generally have the biggest office with their own reception area and designated parking spaces. In a startup, it’s not uncommon for the CEO to sit at a desk next to the IT person and Uber in each morning with colleagues. In a lot of startups, performance is deemed more important than status. The lack of “authority” empowers every team member to assume responsibility for his or her own actions.
Startups also use a unique combination of resources and policies to incentivize staff. Coming from an academic setting, expect a brief learning curve with the abundance of new technology, from video conference software to internal communications apps. At the same time, be ready to experience a far greater degree of autonomy and flexibility in your workday, whether you’re setting your own goals or simply taking a break whenever you want. A good edtech startup will surround its team with the scaffolding necessary to sustain the high productivity demands.
4. Be Open to Exploring a Whole New Way of Thinking
You are entering a whole new world full of techies, business minds and visionaries. Given the professional landscape they’ve steeped in throughout their careers, just imagine how your startup colleagues might approach things like deadlines and goal-setting and problem-solving. I continue to be awed by the sense of possibility pervasive in AltSchool’s product team.
But also be wary of mindsets that are too focused on the “what” (technology) instead of the “how” and “why” (teaching and children). What is possible in our world continues to evolve because of how technology enables us to connect, learn and do more than ever before. Yet, the focus on integrating technology or adding specific tools is the wrong focus. We should not use new tools because we can; we should use them because they are integral to improving our lives -- in how we interact with people, gain new knowledge, and create. Nowhere is that more true than in schools.
5. Your Educator Experience is a Huge Asset in Edtech
To encourage meaningful change in education, we must understand and communicate how any new technology can create opportunities for powerful learning. If we don’t focus on how it will be new and better for learners, we run the risk of burning out teachers by adding more and more to their plates without a clear understanding of why these new approaches are important. That is a fine edge to balance. Anyone who has not stood in front of a class of 30 students for days and weeks and years, can’t possibly understand the struggles and opportunities that exist in diverse classrooms and school systems. This is where your experience is priceless.
Smart companies value and act on your input as an expert. Your guidance is golden to your company’s bottom line. If the voices of educators and students are not at the very heart of decision making, then I fear you are not in the right place. I highly recommend you push deeply on these areas in any interview processes.
6. Don’t Lose Sight of Why You’re There
If you are like most educators, you went into education to make a positive impact in the lives of kids and set them up for success, now and in the future. Keep that mission central to the work that you do every single day. It will make your company’s product development more valuable and make your days so much more meaningful. Over the years, I’ve evaluated each job through this lens: does this opportunity fuel my passion to teach, to learn and to make a positive impact in children’s lives? I use this lens as a decision making test before saying yes, and as a barometer to ensure I’m still on the right track down the road.
The bottom line is edtech needs visionary leaders like you who will create the conditions for meaningful change. That is imperative to support the monumental transformation our education system is currently undergoing, as it attempts to shift from an industrial era model to a learner-centered model that can meet the demands of our post industrial world.
But we also need passionate and talented educators like you in the classroom and leading our schools, people who are empowered to meet the needs of those they serve. There is no substitute for a teacher who designs authentic, participatory, and relevant learning experiences for her unique population of students. The role of the teacher is to inspire learning and develop skills and mindsets of learners. We don’t necessarily need to transform the role of teachers, but we do need to create a culture that inspires and empowers teachers to innovate in the pursuit of providing optimal learning experiences for their students. Educators who get to know the learners and build relationships and help learners see how they are, where they can go, and develop the skills and mindsets to get there are critical.
So whether you stay in education or make the leap to edtech, you have the incredible opportunity to change lives. I encourage you to take whatever you know to be the challenges that exist in education and lean into the possibilities.