The teacher as entrepreneur

There was an arresting moment on the radio show This American Life this week. Host Ira Glass interviewed award-winning science teacher Jason Pittman who’s leaving the profession. He was making less than $60,000 and hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. For the past five years his position had been funded by a nonprofit, started by parents and community members who wanted to keep him, but this forced him to dedicate a significant portion of his time to fundraising.

Glass asked him if he felt like he had to “grovel” for his paycheck. Pittman chuckled. “Is that too strong, that word?” Glass asked. “That’s exactly what it feels like!” he burst out. “And we’re not allowed to say that. We’re supposed to be all-sacrificing, ever-serving, ever-humble…Teachers aren’t supposed to be selfish. We’re supposed to do this job for more than money.”

This is such a contradictory time to be in education. There’s so much lip service paid to the importance of education, large numbers of bright young people are aspiring to the profession, and in many ways, technology is elevating the practice and importance of teaching. Yet austerity-driven budget cuts and decades of underfunding are leaving teachers undersupported and under-respected. Right now the papers are full of stories about beloved teachers losing their jobs and their relationships to their communities because of budget cuts and school closures. In Philadelphia about 20% of the education workforce will lose their jobs, and significant cuts are coming in Chicago as well.

In this uncertain context, social media offers new avenues for teachers to supplement both school budgets and their personal incomes. Almost 150,000 teachers have used DonorsChoose to raise money for activities and school materials. TeachersPayTeachers allows teachers to earn extra money by selling lesson plans they have created. And individual teachers with creativity and skills to spare are reinventing themselves and supplementing their income as technology consultants and social media entrepreneurs.

Watch Ramsey Musallam: Curiosity Comes First on PBS. See more from
TED Talks Education.

I met Ramsey Musallam, who falls into the last category, when he shared the stage with Sir Ken Robinson and Bill Gates at a TED Talk TV special broadcast on PBS earlier this year. While his day job is a high school chemistry teacher, he also has a web TV show, a blog, gives talks, workshops and consults. We chatted about the insanity of his schedule and the difficulty of supporting a family in the Bay Area even with all he is doing.

On the one hand, it’s amazing that technology offers talented teachers so many avenues to gain support and recognition for what they do every day.  On the other hand, it’s sad to see a situation where the nation’s teachers, who should be free to focus on the vital work in the classroom, have to continually pass the hat or essentially operate businesses on the side in order to keep body and soul together. The rush to supply schools with devices and software aligned to the Common Core, and the growing interest in education in the venture capital world, is only going to increase opportunities for teachers to monetize their expertise through consulting relationships or by starting their own companies. The danger is that schools lose some of the most talented teachers because we haven’t done enough to keep them. Jason Pittman is a case in point. He once ran a technology company and will likely go back to that industry now that he is tired of being underappreciated and underpaid.