Becoming a Teacherpreneur: A Long and Winding Road, Part 1

By Ryan R. Goble, M.A., author of Making Curriculum Pop

Becoming a Teacherpreneur: A Long and Winding Road Part 1A few ideas on ways teachers can expand their careers beyond the classroom.

Most of my working life has been an interesting mix of creative teaching in a traditional day job as a teacher and in nontraditional educational roles. Many educators benefit from extending their work beyond the customary classroom walls. However, if you are looking to move beyond your day job, it should not be in search of big monetary rewards. Almost all of the successful teacherpreneurs I know have had success because of their passion and curiosity about learning experiences that they felt uniquely qualified to bring into the world for others.

There is an important truth about money and education: People, organizations, and governments often undervalue and underspend when it comes to education. However, as John Lennon said, “You may say I’m a dreamer,” but I think—especially given the state of affairs in our world today—our primary focus should be on doing educational work that serves greater purposes, such as expanding our collective senses of humanity, possibility, interconnectedness, and responsibility to the places we live.

To that end, I would not take a Silicon Valley state of mind and obsess over the “-preneur” part of teacherpreneur. If you are looking to share your educational energy beyond traditional classrooms, I can’t suggest a single pathway or ten-point list to do this. However, as I reflect on my journey, I have noticed some themes and patterns that you might find useful on yours.

Your Life Experiences, Interests, and Curiosity Center Your Educational Energy
Learning, education, and teachers are everywhere. In every human endeavor, someone is learning from someone or something else. If you are attentive and curious about yourself and the world around you, all kinds of powerful learning experiences can be realized by your unique mind.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked for about six years in various facets of the entertainment industry. After completing my degree in education, I was naïve enough to consider making a living as a teacherpreneur. I figured there would be a huge demand for my curricular interests in popular music, literacy, and education.

For that reason, I didn’t chase a traditional, full-time teaching job right away. Through my master’s degree advisor (who created projects and programs dedicated to entrepreneurial education), I was connected to an alternative school outside Detroit that was looking for some unique educational experiences for their students. I pitched a two-week-long curriculum that would integrate the history, music, business, and culture of Motown Records into the high school’s courses and would culminate in a visit to the Hitsville U.S.A. Motown museum.

A small grant from one of the school’s administrators brought the idea to life, allowing me to work with their teachers and a good friend, who collaborated with me as my undergraduate intern on the curriculum. Together we developed learning experiences around Motown for all the students in English, science, and art classes.

This passion project opened up a lot of new doors for me. Students loved the curriculum, and it was an interesting portfolio piece that helped me land my first traditional high school teaching gig. In the classroom, I continued integrating popular music into my normal English curricula.

I ultimately earned a job serving as an educational advisor for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio—a consulting project where I headed a team to develop a free curriculum based on the music of Ben Harper and a series of really cool (but not financially viable) Rock and Roll Learning Experience Organizers (LEOs).

At this stage in my career, I could not support myself without my day job. On the flipside, like the musicians who informed my teaching, I started writing “hits” and teaching grooves that would be rich for exploration and expansion as my career evolved.

Some colleagues have had similar journeys to mine. Lavie Raven teaches high school in Chicago and does large-scale graffiti projects inside and outside of school that are linked to a wide range of curricula. Nick Sousanis is a college professor who integrates his love of comics into all kinds of interdisciplinary work. This ultimately led to the publication of his graphic novel Unflattening and invitations to host workshops on comics and education across the country.

Others have their primary career outside the classroom and find ways to bring their work to schools. Rhys Daunic studied film and felt a need to bring his passion for media creation and literacy to students. This led to the development of The Media Spot, which brings project-based and student-centered media production to schools along with professional development for teachers. Similarly, D.C. Vito worked in politics. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he was inspired to create The Lamp to get students to “comprehend, create, and critique” media with the goal of developing “future Jon Stewarts, not future Steve Jobses.”

By growing their unique skills, interests, and curiosities into business ideas, these teacherpreneurs have expanded what people think education and schooling can be.

Seek Edges and Create Porous Borders
Schools at every level tend to be overly concerned with the disciplines and labels for different types of knowledge. For that reason, I’ve found that the edges, borders, and overlaps of traditional disciplines are spaces rich in intellectual diversity and serendipity. These spaces are ideal for the creation of new ideas and ways of doing, learning, and being.

The first high school I worked at had a film class and a bunch of literature classes, but there was no class that combined the two like colleges do. I worked with a gifted co-teacher to create a fiction-to-film class that built on our backgrounds working in the entertainment industry.

Of course, being young, we didn’t realize that the school board would need to approve this new course. There was no way that it could be approved in time to be offered the following school year. There was, however, a work-around. I could teach the course as an independent study for twenty students after school and on weekends. While we were not formally paid for this work, it was teacherpreneurial in spirit.

We developed a course in which students would participate in learning experiences around books and their related films. Collaborating with students and their parents, we raised almost $50K to support the course over two years. The class culminated in a trip to Los Angeles where we met the people who turned the stories we studied into films. That trip (and one the following year to New York) allowed students to meet actors like Robin Williams and Julianne Moore and many other creatives who tell stories on the big screen.

While the class trips and a lot of our time together was magical, working at the borders is always challenging and filled with many flops and false starts. In this class, all of us—especially the students—were engaging not only with English, but also with business, filmmaking, marketing, history, and science. While learning to collaborate in a wide range of disciplines, we expanded our ideas about what an English class could be.

There is a history of educational innovation coming from enrichment and other after-school programs. It’s easy to imagine that one reason for this is because these programs purposely blur the borders around and innovate established disciplines. One recent example would be the maker space movement that now permeates K–12 and post-secondary library spaces.

Two other colleagues nicely illustrate people blurring borders. Shayna Marmar worked first as an early childhood classroom teacher, moved into the world of food and cooking education, and ultimately became an administrator at a large preschool—all while developing Honeypie Cooking. Based in Philadelphia, her company is dedicated to “engag[ing] people of varying ages and abilities in the process of cooking affordable, comforting foods . . . through high quality hands-on classes, responsive educational program design, and original recipes.”

And speaking of original recipes, Santina Protopapa was a jazz musician turned museum educator who used those skills to develop her nonprofit, the Progressive Arts Alliance in Cleveland, Ohio. This organization started by building classes around hip-hop culture, creating artist-in-residence programs for local schools, and developing summer and after-school programs that “develop and nurture critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.”

Anecdotally, the more porous you make a subject, the more value it has for students and teachers. Countless teachers can develop an algebra curriculum. Not many can integrate algebra and music, algebra and social justice, or algebra and environmental issues. These unique approaches are often missing in traditional curricula.

Learning is about seeing things differently or looking beyond what you already know. This is essential for teacherpreneurial work. You have to bring something to the learning space that can’t possibly be provided by a big textbook or testing company. These stories illustrate how you can develop ideas around and beyond traditional disciplines.

Author Ryan GobleRyan R. Goble, M.A., is the teaching and learning coordinator at Glenbard Township High School District 87, a doctoral candidate at the Teachers College at Columbia University, and founder of www.mindblue.com.


Making Curriculum PopRyan is the coauthor (with his mother, Pam Goble, Ed.D.) of Making Curriculum Pop: Developing Literacy Across Content Areas.


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