How Working at a Startup Helped My Teaching

How Working at a Startup Helped My Teaching

Four lessons learned in my first semester as an Academic Liaison

By Ben Stern     Jan 25, 2014

How Working at a Startup Helped My Teaching

For me, 2013 was the year of teacherpreneurship. A middle school teacher and technology integrator during the school year, I recently entered the edtech world. I wrote about my experience as Ponder's Academic Liaison last summer, before the school year began. Quite a few teachers asked: “Sounds great, but what will it be like to wear two hats during the school year? Is this something I would like and could handle?”

Now, a semester into the year, I can say: “Yes, but here’s what you’re getting yourself into.”

1. In some ways, working at a startup is the complete opposite of teaching

My work at school as a teacher and tech integrator is well-structured. I have set meeting times with teachers and administrators, regular class periods, time slots for assemblies, a day to meet with parents in person, days off, and a finite amount of work to take home. It's not easy, but for the most part, it's predictable.

The work of a startup isn't quite as neat. At Ponder, important tasks aren't divided into class periods. There aren't discrete assignments to grade within a somewhat flexible timeline. There are no units that build till the end of the year. A teacher we contacted months ago will suddenly be ready for a full demo and have 20 awesome questions to ask. And since every single added teacher is a win, I have to answer all the questions AND get my grading done.

2. In the best ways, working in educational technology business is exactly like teaching

My fondest teaching moments are when my students have gone above and beyond the call of duty, whether they offer a well-researched answer to a difficult question left open from the day before, or turn in a challenging project that turns into a magnum opus.

I can expect the same of our teacher customers at Ponder. For example, a colleague of mine at my school heard what I was doing and eagerly translated ALL of the Ponder features into colloquial Spanish just because he wanted to try out a new tool in his class.

Similarly, one of Ponder’s favorite teachers, who we call Mr. V, invited us to his classroom and walked us through every aspect of Ponder he liked and others that could be improved. Much of what he said was already on our to-do list, and those that weren’t before, certainly are now. He knew our product inside and out and gave us incomparably valuable feedback to make it a better tool for his students. I've had similar conversations with teachers from all over the country who just wanted to share their thoughts and chat about edtech in general all in the name of improving their students’ education.

There are a lot of passionate educators everywhere waiting for someone to call on them when they raise their hand. If an edtech company believes that every customer, like every student, can accomplish great things with the right approach, it’ll be rewarded with exciting results.

3. Transparency helps to balance school work with company work

Having two jobs that sometimes overlap can be really tricky. At school, I have students to teach and colleagues to assist with technology integration; at Ponder, I give demos to teachers and troubleshoot integration strategies, consult designers on feature implementation, and market to potential collaborators. Juggling all these responsibilities, especially when they conflict, has been made easier by being as transparent as possible.

From the outset of this school year, I made sure that my school contract permitted me to take on this role and told my principal in advance. Still, there have been situations that could potentially have been conflicts of interest, such as a meeting with a teacher after school that conflicted with a startup competition, or a Ponder customer who needed an email response at the same time that a student needed a paper back to study for a test.

Where the two conflict, I will always choose the school as the priority. My colleagues at Ponder have been very understanding, and my school has never once questioned whether I should continue my outside of school work. Being open with both groups and keeping the students and teachers as the priority has allowed me to balance the workload with ease.

4. Working in edtech and in a school will make you better at both

As Ponder's Academic Liaison, I've spoken to hundreds of teachers from all over the world. Through these meetings, I've gained a new perspective on my students and colleagues at my school. I've been able to evaluate what of my teaching and professional development work I do because of circumstance, habit, or belief, and what I believe to be sound pedagogy regardless of my own experience.

I ask myself questions like: How would students in one of Ponder's classes in Ireland respond to an article I have my students read here in New York? I also find myself incorporating ideas that Ponder's customers have given us into my own classroom, like "flipping" a humanities class by having students do text analysis at home in groups on Google Drive and debate interpretations in class. Just as working in a school has made me a better Academic Liaison, being an Academic Liaison has made me a better teacher and professional development leader.

It’s evident that teachers’ expertise is vital to products’ success, whether edtech companies know it or not. Though juggling the two jobs can be a difficult balance at times, sharing your insights with the company is often as rewarding as working with your students. You can expect to be busy, but as every teacher will understand, work you love isn't really "work" at all.

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