Teaching as Entrepreneurship?

May 11, 2010

Over lunch at the NewSchools Community of Practice event this afternoon, Teach For America’s Steven Farr, author of Teaching as Leadership, and Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, talked about what they are learning (and sharing, through their books) about the practices of effective teachers.

It turns out that a lot of the characteristics are similar to those of education entrepreneurs themselves, who have a vision for an ambitious goal or approach and then do whatever it takes to make that happen, including making extensive use of data to inform that work, starting with a goal and working backward, and eagerly searching for specific examples of others’ practices that they can mimic and adapt. These effective teachers also see their classrooms as laboratories, and are constantly changing them to make them more effective – not just constantly learning but constantly evolving.

For example, Farr recounted the story of a teacher he observed who made it his goal to get every one of his students into college. He had an index card that listed all his students with every student’s name and details about their progress toward that goal, and used that information to take a range of actions associated witht he hurdles he saw: he added ACT training before school, SAT training after school, college visits every month, and even brought parents in to talk about financial aid and applications every weekend. (The anecdote correlates with two of the characteristics Teach For America screens for in its applicants: high expectations for student learning, and a strong internal locus of control.)

Farr also found that successful teachers create lesson plans in an entirely different way from an average teacher – rather than starting at the top of the page and working down, they actually start at the bottom, with the goal or takeaway they want students to have, and work their way backwards.

Lemov has focused on securing for teachers what he calls “worm’s eye view” advice – specific and observable behaviors and tactics they can use on the ground, avoiding platitudes and focusing on actions. This is akin to the entrepreneurial approach of prototyping new approaches and using those as proof points to show what is possible in public education – or, as KIPP often quotes Immanuel Kant, “The actual proves the possible.” For Lemov, that has meant taking – and sharing – short videos of teachers demonstrating effective techniques, like Jesse Rector of North Star Academy Clinton Hill, who gets students engaged and has them demonstrate understanding by asking them to stand and “cold calling” them.

It comes full circle: Brent Maddin, one of the Teach For America corps members that Farr profiles, is now working with Teacher U – a new teacher training organization that spun out of the work of Uncommon Schools, KIPP and Achievement First.