Making the Leap From the Classroom to the Edtech Industry

Making the Leap From the Classroom to the Edtech Industry

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As a tech-savvy teacher, breaking into the edtech industry should be a piece of cake, right?

Not in my experience.

A teacher friend recently asked me for some advice on shifting from teaching to edtech. I had made the move because after a few years in the classroom, I knew that I wanted to have a bigger impact. I never stopped dreaming up ways I could become a better teacher (I think the best ones never do), but I felt like it was time to start expanding my reach outside the walls of my classroom. The 100-ish students I saw daily in my high school science classes filled my heart to the brim, but what if I could help 100 teachers reach their students in more meaningful ways? What about 1000 teachers?

Making this jump was harder than I thought it would be, and it took me a year and a half to learn all of the lessons that I was able to organize for my friend. I went through gut-wrenching rejections, bouts of introspection, and, while I was teaching in Hawai’i, had a literal ocean between me and the hub of edtech—San Francisco. In the end, after much learning and luck, I was able to finally make the move.

Here are the lessons I have since walked away with:

1. Learn to Speak Entrepreneur

Teachers, if you showed up to a professional development session and the instructor couldn’t tell you the difference between a summative and a formative assessment, how much attention would you pay? Now, how many of you have actually been trained by someone like that? (OK everyone, put your hands down). Well, it’s the same in the world of business, and this is where the edtech industry lives. If you want to walk the walk, you have to talk the talk.

I’m not talking about terms like “business development” and “human resources” either. Entrepreneurs are a unique, daring category of business folks who are out to take risks and change the world, and they have their own trigger words. To start understanding the culture, I joined local chapters of entrepreneurial organizations and started attending meetups (which are easy to search), even if I didn’t know what I was going to walk away from an event with. Eventually, I got drawn into a Startup Weekend where I got to experience the rush of developing, producing, and marketing a product all within 54 hours, which I highly recommend. There’s even an educator’s version!

If you prefer good reading, many entrepreneurs swear by The Lean Startup, and Startup Nation is a fun look into Israel’s innovative economy. When you are ready for your interview, you better know the difference between a developer and a product designer, and what it would take to get your MVP off the ground (and I’m not talking sports).

2. Choose Your Role and Develop Your Skill Set

One of the phrases that set me back the most was “I will do anything, I just want to be in edtech.” If you don’t know how you fit into an edtech startup, then neither does anyone else. I wrote to Mark Phillips at HireEducation who was generous enough with his time to teach me this. There are some roles that most edtech companies are looking for: developers, product managers, salespeople, marketers. These positions exist at any edtech company. There are also specific roles unique to companies and products, especially some of the more innovative ones. Which role speaks to you? If you are willing to do anything, then you haven’t done enough homework. Different roles are better for different personality types, and you need to find the one that you can contribute to the most and will make you happy because you are passionate about it.

Once you have your role, start developing the skills needed for that role. When I realized I wanted to be in schools working with the teachers who used the products, I sought out a position as a STEM resource teacher with my school district, and I left the classroom to learn how to deliver PD to teachers. If you want to learn how to code, there are sets of “learn it yourself” videos that you can come across. For any different role, there are numerous resources available and many intersections between these skills and what is needed in schools. I bet that if you offered your services to your school district, they would be glad for the voluntary services, which would help boost your resume and your expertise.

3. Become the Expert on the Product You Want to Work With

Notice I didn’t say “an” expert - I said “THE” expert. If you already know what company or product you want to work with, great! Make sure that everyone you work with knows you are the person to go to when they have a question or need help with that particular tool, and good things will follow.

At Illuminate Education, where I work now, the first people we try to hire are the power users. Their names are generally ones that we have heard even before we decided to hire them. You can make an impression on a company before arriving there by impressing them with your drive to learn about their product. They will probably make room for you. Big names like Google might be hard to break into no matter what, but smaller companies aren't too hard to penetrate with a handful of emails and shaking some hands at a users’ conference.

4. It’s All About Who You Know

There are few job-finding powers more potent than personal references. If you know someone or are able to establish a relationship with someone who works at that company you’ve been eyeballing, leverage it. When a trainer comes to work at your school, make sure you stay after and grab their card. Then send them an email letting them know about your interest. Next time they swing by - oh hey! You’re the expert on this product at your school. We should talk.

Don’t know anyone in the company yet? Maybe it’s time to attend an Edsurge Summit or another edtech meetup. You never know where your relationships are going to lead you, so it pays to just be a positive presence. I flew all the way from Hawai’i to San Francisco for an Edsurge weekend summit, and although I didn’t find my position there, I walked away with an amazing friendship.

In my case, I had a lot of connections with the recruiter who picked up my resume from the pile at Illuminate; she happened to be born in Hawai’i, also be a TFA alum, and was also a former classroom teacher (thanks Leilani!). So luck definitely had a lot to do with where I ended up.

But what is luck if not what happens when preparation meets opportunity? If you want to make the left turn from the classroom into edtech, you will have to do the same thing you tell your kids: set your goals, put the work in, and learn from your mistakes. It also doesn’t hurt to have some fun along the way.

Mark Adato is an implementation manager at Illuminate Education. He formerly worked as a STEM Resource Teacher with the Hawai'i Department of Education.

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