May 17, 2014
When I first started teaching fifth grade science at KIPP Academy in Houston, Texas, I had no idea that I would end up parlaying that experience into my current role as a consultant to education technology companies. I was simply a teacher on a mission to do right by my students, and that drive just happened to coincide with an inclination towards figuring out how to use technology to solve problems.
Looking back, however, I realize that I took some steps that other teachers who are interested in getting into technology can absolutely replicate. I also took quite a few missteps that I hope I can help others avoid.
So here's a guide on how teachers can get into education technology, written in partnership with four other educator-entrepreneurs who have found their own unique way to combine their love for education with their love for technology.
Step 1: Understand Your Strengths
Education technology companies need educators. Not only do you bring expertise in teaching pedagogy and educational content, you also serve as the voice of the ultimate end users--teachers and students. As a teacher, you have an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn't. If you can turn this intuition into an ability to articulate teacher and student needs, then you're worth your weight in gold.
Furthermore, as a teacher, you have honed a particular set of leadership skills that makes you invaluable within education technology companies. As you explore potential roles, understand that your experiencing managing students and leading your class has most likely resulted in transferrable skills such as the ability to create a strong company culture, to plan purposefully, and to execute successfully.
Step 2: Understand Your Potential Areas of Growth
While you bring many strengths as an educator, you may also be missing some knowledge and skills that would help you add value to an education technology company, especially if your entire professional experience thus far has been in the classroom.
As you consider transitioning into education technology, consider growing your skills and knowledge in the following areas.
Education technology companies, particularly early stage ones, need people who can build the product. If you're very technically inclined, you may find it enjoyable to learn and hone skills as a developer or a designer. You don't need to be a developer or designer, however, to be valuable, so long as you're able to clearly express how the product could be built to solve the problem your company is trying to solve. Technologists use industry jargon that is as important as, while being different from, the language that educators use to describe their craft. Being able to translate between education needs and technological needs is crucial. In addition, education technology companies are constantly making decisions concerning what features to prioritize and build given limited time and limited resources. You need to understand the design and development process in order to contribute meaningfully to this decision making process.
How do you build a budget? Market a product? Sell to schools? Determine whether a good idea is aligned with your company's overall strategy? There's a lot of room at edtech companies for people who know how to do this, and more, and in order to understand education technology, you need to understand the business side as well. As a teacher, be curious about how money at your school is being allocated, why your school makes the purchases it makes, and how the purchasing process work. Explore different education technology products and take notice of how they're being marketed and sold to schools and teachers. Attend conferences and stop by the trade booths and chat with the vendors. You may find that you enjoy the business side of education technology through these experiences.
How do you create strong internal systems and processes that make work effective and efficient? Support a new school or district implementing your product? Plan and execute an event flawlessly? As a teacher, you can demonstrate your operational abilities by planning events at your school, deliberately tweaking your classroom or school procedures to be more effective, and supporting other teachers in implementing education technology. This skillset makes you very effective in operations, account management, or customer service at an education technology company.
As a teacher, you most likely spent the majority of your day as the only adult in the room. You also had complete autonomy as the leader of your classroom. However, within a company, you need to collaborate extensively within a team. You're also not the boss, unless you've started your own company, which means you need to learn how to negotiate, set, and meet manager expectations. Furthermore, work at an education company is often more fluid than work in the classroom. You will need to adjust the way you prioritize your work, structure your time, and make decisions amidst ambiguity in order to be successful in a startup company.
If you've only ever taught in one school, grade level, subject, or geographical location, you may be missing the broader context of education. Make an effort to gain different perspectives by collaborating with teachers who teach in very different situations. Read up on education policy and politics. Talk with school administrators and district-level professionals to learn how to see things from their perspective. Understand that your personal experience could potentially make you blind to the limits of your expertise.
Step 3: Just Start
The opportunities to become involved in education technology as a teacher are virtually unlimited, especially because education technology companies need teacher contributions at every stage of their development process.
Teachers Who Are Just Starting To Use Education Technology:
Identify a pain point in your classroom and try to solve it. Implement a solution, reflect on how well it did or did not work, and give extensive product feedback to the development team. After you've comfortably integrated one technology solution, add a new product that solves a different product. The more you try to solve problems using technology, the more comfortable you will get with technology and the more you're able to articulate what works and what doesn't. Finally, giving extensive product feedback is a great starting point because it helps you learn about the development process, practice expressing your product ideas, and often leads to opportunities such as beta testing new features and joining advisory boards.
Teachers Who Have an Idea:
Take advantage of opportunities like Startup Weekend Education to validate your idea and to build a prototype. Hack together tools that approximate your ideal solution on nights and weekends and share with fellow educators for feedback and encouragement. The first time I ever asked for feedback on something I built was when that something was just a couple of drawings on a piece of paper.
Teachers Who Want to Stay in the Classroom:
Check out programs like the Google Teacher Academy, the Merit Program, and other fellowship programs that build your network and give you opportunities to contribute to the education technology ecosystem while staying in the classroom.
Teachers Who Want to Start a Company:
Consider joining an incubator such as 4.0 Schools' Launch Program to launch a company. Apply to education technology competitions like the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition and SXSWEdu's LAUNCHedu to force your idea into the limelight for feedback and support.
Teachers Who Want to Work at an Edtech Company:
Network in the space by attending education technology meetups, joining Twitter chats, and getting to know entrepreneurs. Build skills by contributing to education technology products and initiatives. Join a startups board of advisors. Consult. Check out The Edtech Jobs Board for opportunities.
Ultimately, working in the education technology space, whether as a leader in you school or as a member of a company, means contributing significantly to the practice of teaching and learning. If you're interested in learning more or have your own experiences to share, please leave comments below.
Final Thoughts From Post Contributors
Many thanks to the educator-entrepreneurs who contributed to this post! This post could not have been written without their guidance. For their final thoughts on the intersection of teaching and technology, please read below.
"Being a teacher helped me identify needs in the companies I've consulted or advised. Whether it's a product I actually use or not, I can imagine what students would do in a particular situation and how they would interact with the platform--will it be useful or not. Sometimes, I imagine uses for the product that the entrepreneurs wouldn't imagine, and that can help them plan for future iterations. It's important for them to get feedback from someone who knows the pitfalls and victories technology can bring to classrooms of all types. I wouldn't be helpful to companies if I weren't teaching."
"Being a great teacher requires wearing a lot of hats simultaneously, investing students in a vision larger than their day-to-day, planning backwards from an ambitious goal, engaging audiences day in and day out, and making complex decisions that impact many stakeholders. Replace "great teacher" with "entrepreneur" and "students" with "teammates" and all of this still rings true. At Coursera, we have a lot of former teachers-- and the skills we learned in our classrooms make their way into our thinking every day."
"My years at Citizen Schools demonstrated the power out-of-school time programs have to experiment with innovative teaching tools and practices to improve learning outcomes for students. As one of the first national organizations to pilot blended learning practices we served as a link between many edtech startups and K12 schools, our team of educators connected school day teachers, students, parents and community partners in a unique way to dramatically improve STEM/PBL experiences for students. Managing all these stakeholders is a valuable skill that our educators then used to provide feedback as beta testers to various edtech startups in the Bay Area and beyond."
"I didn't come up with the idea for Edthena while I was science teacher. It was several years later. But when I did have the aha moment for how video observation could help solve the system-level pain around providing support to teachers, I also realized that this was the same pain I felt as a first-year teacher who was observed exactly zero times by someone with science expertise. In some ways, I was able to combine my system-level and first-hand understanding of the problem with a variety of other experiences along the way to make the transition from 'educator' to 'education technology do-er.'"