How teachers can become social entrepreneurs

There has been a recent focus in education on the importance of teacher effectiveness—the person standing at the front of a classroom has a hugely powerful influence on educational outcomes. And not surprisingly, many of the best new ideas on teacher effectiveness come from teachers themselves.

Often, ideas need to take organizational form to spread. How can these innovative teachers build thriving organizations?

To get a sense of this challenge, I talked with Ellen Moir, founder and executive director of New Teacher Center (NTC). Ellen combines the talents and traits of a social entrepreneur and a teacher in a striking fashion. She is an Ashoka Fellow and a Skoll Foundation Awardee, and NTC is a widely acknowledged leader in the field of teacher effectiveness, advancing the belief that “great teachers are made, not born” and specific mentoring, training, and other support practices help make teachers great.

Curits Chang: Where is NTC as an enterprise?
Ellen Moir: Almost 14 years ago, we started as a small program within a university. Now we are an $18 million independent nonprofit with 130 employees, serving 25,000 new teachers and 1.5 million students. And we’re growing at around 30 percent a year.

How has being a teacher helped you drive this kind of growth?
Obviously, my ideas around teacher effectiveness come from my own background and expertise in teaching. If you want to be a thought leader in the field and want to influence other teachers, it really helps to have been a teacher yourself.

But my teacher experience has helped me as an organizational leader too. Teachers fundamentally care about developing their people—their students. I do that now, but it’s with my staff not students. You need to grow your people if you want to grow an organization.

Is there anything about being a teacher that might get in the way of being a social entrepreneur?
Teachers will do anything to help the individual kids in their classroom. Teachers go deep, not broad. That’s how they are trained, and that’s the personality trait that is drawn to our field. Teachers are instinctively reactive; we respond to what is going on with our students.

But to run a growing nonprofit, you have to set boundaries around how you allocate time, and you have to be broad in your vision. You can’t get diverted from your broader vision by the individual needs that always arise. I really struggled—and still do—with the instinct to drop everything else when I get a single cry of help from a teacher. I’ve had to unlearn something of that teacher instinct to react and to dive deep, and instead I’ve become more proactive and strategic.

What does a teacher need to make sure to have in place before starting an organization?
The teacher needs to have some experiences outside the classroom, to raise her head and expose herself to the larger systems that surround her. She has to be the kind of person that is willing to work at connecting with policy makers, administrators, and other stakeholders. Consider taking a leadership role at the school or even making the move to be a principal.

Teachers also need places to test their ideas outside of their own classroom experience. That was crucial for NTC and why our university origins were so helpful. With our mentor teachers, we often try to give them that system-wide view somehow. You need to have some kind of incubator to generate some data points, and to refine and build your ideas.

Finally, it really helps to have someone else on your team with business and operational skills. This probably won’t be a teacher, so you have to find that skill set somehow for your team. I’ve been fortunate to have those folks around me.

Any final words of advice to teachers out there contemplating a path of social entrepreneurship?
It was hard for me to leave teaching. I knew and loved my more-focused job, and wasn’t sure about starting a nonprofit and having this broader job. In the end, I went with my gut. That feeling in your gut is something you have to have, and I’d encourage teachers to act on it if it’s there. You can always go back, but the door forward may close.

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