Becoming a Teacherpreneur: A Long and Winding Road, Part 2

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

Becoming a Teacherpreneur: A Long and Winding Road Part 2More ideas on how teachers can expand their careers outside the classroom.

The famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said, “The teacher is . . . an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”

Like Freire, I believe that a teacher’s (and by extension a teacherpreneur’s) main goal is to create the conditions in which people can learn. When you do this well—especially if you want to teach in a variety of settings—you are a learning artist. Extend this metaphor by looking for ways to exhibit your work. Your blog, website, or online community can—at least in part—collect the things you’ve helped people uncover and discover in traditional and teacherpreneurial settings.

Online Spaces Are a Big Canvas
In my day jobs, I’ve developed some high-energy science learning experiences with an emphasis on literacy and popular culture. I reimagined some of this curriculum to develop proposals to work with high-profile science-related organizations. While I had some fascinating meetings, none of the proposals resulted in any funding. However, I received an email from an educational coordinator at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. The coordinator had explored my website and was looking for someone to help her make climate change curriculum come alive in the way I had in other settings. My unfunded proposals helped me engage in this new opportunity. For six years (and counting), I’ve been able to consult on some exciting and transformative work around the Climate Change in the Classroom Project with NASA and the emerging nonprofit Real World Matters.

In a similar way, my co-teacher of the fiction-to-film course, Jen Boylan, uses her website Food Considered as a collaborative space and gallery. Jen now works in the New York City Public Schools, where she designed a course called Gastronomy 101, an English class centered on food readings and experiences. The course is accompanied by the after-school EatNYC club. Her website showcases her work, writing about her class, and student work (with permission, of course). Her site has helped her move into teacherpreneurial roles with many top professionals in the food world.

A former student from the fiction-to-film class, Ali Hussain, is now a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. He connected with the Huffington Post in response to a call for bloggers to write on Muslim issues. He also collects his formal academic writing, blogs, and research at his website. This has led him to be an invited speaker at educational retreats across the country.

Your online gallery is for you and your collaborators first, but it is also a way for people to discover your ideas about what is possible in education. You can develop your online space through many forms of writing (blogs or articles for journals, organizations, or other publications), video, and any press your work might receive.

Always be wary of “tooting your horn” when making creative work public. You want to share your stories in the spirit of showcasing learning and new ideas, not for the purpose of selling it. Sharing your projects allows people to imagine the unique educational experiences you might be able to develop with their organizations.

Embrace Your Tribe
One of the most informative (and breezy) business books I’ve read is Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. The thesis of the book is that one of the most important things you can do if you want to build a business is to create a following—through a blog, network, mailing list, or face-to-face meeting group—of people who want to be in your kind, sharing tribe (not to be confused with warring tribes). Additionally, he suggests that you join tribes—formal or informal organizations—that will introduce you to other people that might share your purpose and vision.

I read the book when I was working as an instructional coach at a high school in the South Bronx. I spent an insane amount of time finding and sharing curriculum with teachers in every discipline, looking for ways to make their curriculum pop. I realized there might be other people who would enjoy sharing and talking about cool, pop culture–influenced ways to engage students. This led to the creation of the Making Curriculum Pop social network in 2009. As of this writing, the network is home to more than 8,000 teachers from all over the world collaborating on ways to engage students in all kinds of learning.

I also worked with my wife Nicole and advisor John Broughton at Columbia University to develop a face-to-face community. For three years, we hosted the “Teach, Think, Play” course and conferences in New York City to bring teachers together around integrating popular cultures into traditional curricula.

I’ve also been a member of “tribes” that have been essential for the development of who I am as a person, educator, writer, and consultant. Early in my career, one of my former high school English teachers invited me to become involved in the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) Media Collaborative. Fourteen years after joining that group, the people I’ve met through NCTE continue to be some of my most important collaborators.

The colleges I’ve attended have been informal tribes, with formal organizations like the Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of Michigan and the Film and Education Research Academy at Columbia University that continue to be some of the richest collaborative groups I belong to.

Organizations help expand your horizons and allow you to meet fascinating people with similar ideas about what education can be. For me, these organizations have led to many speaking engagements (most unpaid) that allow me to interact with people who may see value in working with me in more formal, paid collaborations.

One of my NCTE colleagues, Frank Baker, started his career as a TV weatherman before moving into media literacy education. In the late 1990s, he saw a need to develop a place for media education resources. This led to the creation of his tribe, the Media Literacy Clearinghouse.  Since its creation, the site has become an extremely popular resource community. Frank’s generous work has led to the publication of multiple books and speaking engagements all over the world.

Journalist and prize-winning newspaper editor Bill Zimmerman created an interactive, syndicated student briefing page for Newsday to teach young people about current events. He built on the interactive techniques he learned in journalism to develop a community around his comics creation site, As of this writing, more than 13 million unique visitors have come to his site since 2006! He generates income through ads on the site and an ad-free iPad app that you can purchase.

Marek Bennett began his career as an elementary teacher while developing his discovery-based comics education workshops. He started using comics in the classroom through his own practice. He developed a community of educators that bring him into schools as a teaching artist. Now, he does comics workshops full time. He grows his community by drawing about his educational adventures in full-length graphic novels sold at his website.

Both Zimmerman and Bennett have expansive visions. While they focus on serving traditional school populations, they have also developed comics-based learning experiences to support special needs and under-resourced learners.

None of us would have been able to expand our educational work had we not been a part of and developed our respective tribes.

Take the Art and Craft of Educational Work Seriously
This may seem obvious, but I’ve met a lot of folks interested in expanding their educational energy who have not put enough attention into developing their own educational art and craft. It’s important to take reading and learning about education and content areas you’re interested in very seriously.

Teaching is never easy, but moving beyond the classroom can be even more challenging because you have to find ways to develop more interesting and more engaging learning experiences than you would find in an average classroom. This is hard work, but it can be joyful if your projects are animated by a meaningful purpose.

By definition, people engaged in entrepreneurial activity are innovators. Innovators tend to see things others don’t notice, and they tend to be more engaged with and attentive to the world around them. This is how they expand educational spaces—by meeting unsolved needs or building on existing ideas.

None of the educational practices I described above came out of nowhere. Everyone I’ve mentioned has read vastly about their areas of interest and explored the world in unique ways.  When we go beyond thinking about schooling and think instead about designing unique learning experiences or resources with other people, many educational and entrepreneurial pathways appear.

Be Mindful of Intellectual Property but Focus on Giving
I’m often asked questions about intellectual property. In my early days, I made rock ‘n’ roll study guides for sale online with my mom and wife. We licensed music lyrics and slapped lots of ©’s on our work with the name of our consulting company.

One year, my wife and I did a particularly rocking presentation—with a live musician—at a national conference with some of our collaborators. For whatever reason (this is never the norm), the workshop had more than 200 people in attendance and was standing room only. We shared some very cool educational materials. Based on that presentation, a large textbook company asked us to come to their corporate offices to present what we did at the conference. When we asked them to sign a nondisclosure agreement, the communication stopped. Two years later, they launched a spin-off curriculum/company clearly inspired by our work.

A year after the conference, my wife attended a workshop at her school presented by a large educational company. The literacy activities they shared were nearly identical to what we had presented. Their activity was too idiosyncratic and specific for it to be a coincidence.

In both cases, we might have been able to pursue some sort of legal action. We did think about this briefly, but doing so would not have been an effective use of time or money. This all happened in the early 2000s. Neither the spin-off company nor the workshop program still exists.

Since then, I’ve made a practice of giving lots of ideas and materials away, often using Creative Commons licenses on materials. At the Making Curriculum Pop social network, I have a page called “the playlist” where I share and blog about Learning Experience Organizers (LEOs) I’ve developed or collaborated on. I look at most of the things I design (or codesign) as an opportunity to share ideas publicly with educators who might find them useful. That is the point of my work—to help teachers make classrooms more exciting places for students to learn.

All of our work builds on other people’s ideas—you simply have to have faith that your ideas are unique and strong enough to stand on their own. You also have to hope that people who reuse or remix your work are kind enough to give you credit. I’d like to believe that the odd experiences narrated above are the exception, not the rule.

Ultimately, the things you write or design can be shared formally in articles or books you develop over time. One of my favorite educational bloggers, P. L. Thomas, collects and edits his blogs into books. This is a way many teacherpreneurs and entrepreneurs function in the digital age. Again, you should have the confidence to remix or reuse your work in powerful ways if you are consulting, developing curriculum, or writing a book—these are the places where your “-preneur” suffix meets your “teacher” prefix.

If you read Wharton psychology professor Adam M. Grant’s excellent book Give and Take, he explains the power of freely giving and sharing with others—with a few caveats. His research has found that giving is a very successful strategy in work and in life. His research is an affirmation of the giving nature of many teachers and teacherpreneurs.

Remember You’re “Always Becoming”
Traditional educational settings can be limiting and constraining for creative educators and even more so for their students. Few other areas of life—outside of, perhaps, the military, marching bands, and the zoo—put such an intense emphasis on control, order, and accountability.

Curious and creative students, teachers, and teacherpreneurs always look for openings in the system, places they can find and shed light on. These people are—in the words of the famous educational philosopher Maxine Greene—“always becoming.” Bell hooks elaborates on this idea in her book Teaching to Transgress, stating, “the engaged [teacher] voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.”

Hooks’s sentiment is one of the most accurate descriptions of the great teachers and teacherpreneurs I’ve met. This attitude of openness, humility, flexibility, and invention is what enables you to craft cool learning experiences in a variety of settings. If you care deeply about developing educational spaces filled with creative energy and flow, you will always find ways to engage people inside, outside, around, and beyond the walls of traditional classrooms. With thought, effort, and some luck, you might even get paid to do the work.


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

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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