What Are ‘Teacherpreneurs?’ An Interview With a Teacher Turned Software...

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What Are ‘Teacherpreneurs?’ An Interview With a Teacher Turned Software Engineer

By Blake Montgomery     Mar 29, 2016

What Are ‘Teacherpreneurs?’ An Interview With a Teacher Turned Software Engineer

This article is part of the guide: So You Want to Work in Edtech?

For some teachers, the job is a lifelong passion. As for others, they're looking to apply what they've learned to new roles outside of the classroom. But what does it take to make that successful transition? And where should you go?

As the edtech industry grows, an increasing number of teachers have found a natural fit within it. The experience they’ve logged in schools translates into skills and insights that education companies and nonprofits value for their understanding of the target customer demographic: other teachers.

This is the first in our series of interviews with “teacherpreneurs,” as they’re called, about their lives in the classroom, in business and in between.

Brandon Barrette is a full stack software engineer at TES Global’s WikiSpaces—used to teach Algebra at City Arts and Tech High School in San Francisco, CA. After building blend2learn.org, a learning management system and social network for his students, he became increasingly interested in coding and eventually left the classroom to become a software engineer.

EdSurge: What was your path from teacher to engineer?

Brandon Barrette: In my first year at City Arts and Tech, I was working with a blended learning coach. We were starting with Chromebooks, and I was very into it. We didn’t have a whole lot of money for a pilot; I had one cart of Chromebooks, and we were using Khan Academy. But nothing quite worked right. In every class, there was always some technical issue with the computers or, more often, the online materials.

Over spring break, I came across tutorials on building social networks in the computing language PHP. I built one for the class that turned out to be a great platform to upload quiz data and share it with students so they knew how they were doing.

The platform wasn’t scaling well, though, so I started exploring Rails so I could rebuild my site. My classroom was a great environment to learn to code because I could use Blend2Learn for teaching, build a new feature, and test it immediately with students. They would find bugs and help me improve. It was fun and exciting. I would teach, prepare for the next day, then go home and code all night.

Wasn’t that exhausting?

No, coding actually rejuvenated me because I was excited. I could see teaching in a new way. It was a hobby that I was using every day as I worked to help students.

Brandon Barrette

Do you think teaching was good preparation for being a software engineer? Or was it all the coding you did on your own?

I think teaching is good preparation for any job, not just being a software engineer. Teachers spend countless hours preparing lessons and most are given just one period of prep a day. You learn to multi-task and get all your work done during that prep period. I've become super efficient in how I work and often prefer to have a couple projects going on at the same time.

Why did you leave the classroom?

As I entered my fifth year of teaching, I was enjoying coding more and more, and I couldn’t see teaching as a lifelong career. I couldn’t find a work/life balance. I knew that I needed to make the switch.

I wanted to stay in education because I had seen the power we can have. I saw the effect of my site, and I wanted to do that in a broader context. My initial goal was to make Blend2Learn its own startup, but I didn’t have the money to do that. It’s still being used by a few teachers, though.

I still have a toe in the classroom, however, teaching coding at City Arts and Tech once a month.

What do you miss about the classroom?

I miss the students a lot. While teaching is a delayed gratification job—meaning you often don't see your impact for at least a year—I miss inspiring and pushing my students to be the best they can be. Thankfully, I still bump into my students while running through Dolores Park or downtown at the mall and they are always excited to share their grades and progress in school.

Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur? An educator? A teacherpreneur?

I still think of myself as an educator. While I'm not in the classroom anymore, I do lend my opinions as a former teacher when new features are considered for products at my current job.

Were you nervous about changing careers? Did you feel like your departure from the classroom would fall through?

No, I never felt like it wouldn’t happen. I was more nervous about technical interviews. I don’t have a degree in computer science; I never looked at a computer science book. I do have a master’s degree in mathematics, though, so I had learned the logic that’s required to think through computer code. Translating that logic from math problem solving to computer code problem solving worried me because I thought my lack of experience would show. Luckily, it wasn’t a problem when I interviewed at TES. They were examining thinking—how do you think, how do you work, how do you persevere through a problem—rather than, “can you name off all these functions from the top of your head?”

What advice would you give to other teachers thinking of doing the same thing?

This was three years of work. I was coding for two years, studying on my own, before I decided to leave my classroom.

You’ll know when you’re ready to leave. If you’re coding, you’ll know by when you can code on your own and build stuff without Googling things. That told me I was ready for more challenge.

Reach out in your networks to learn from friends about both skills and jobs. My software engineer friends were invaluable.

I knew I was leaving at the beginning of my fifth year of teaching, and that actually made my last year of teaching better. I could focus on kids instead of the drama of returning like renegotiating contracts and things like that. I was able to make sure my students were learning and having a good time.

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