Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Taking Shape

Welcome to our first post of the new year! We spent the last few months clarifying our mission by talking to developers, observing teachers and even teaching a bit ourselves. At a high level, our goals are the same - help innovators have the same understanding of a classroom that teachers have - but we now have a better idea of how our programs fit into the larger education community.

First off, we now have two programs: We’re rebranding our ongoing partnership with Olin College and calling it School Shaped University. Ari will be putting out a blog post about this program next week. The post you are reading right now focuses on our new program for the Bay Area: Classroom Advocate.

A Classroom Advocate is an individual who advocates for the needs of a particular teacher to the larger education innovation community. They make the everyday challenges of a teacher known to those who can provide support, be they developers, designers, entrepreneurs or other educators. Once an Advocate is accepted, the process looks like this:

Anyone can apply to be a Classroom Advocate: developers, designers, educators or passionate parents. By becoming an advocate you’re not committing to founding a business - you can keep your day job - but we’ll make sure you have an impact that you or someone else can grow.

The immediate benefit for a partner teacher is clear: support that neither they nor their school have the time to create. Nearly all the teachers we talked to, especially new ones, expressed a desire for more non-monetary support, be this mentorship, curricular help, technology or just someone to brainstorm with.

However, we know that supporting more than a single teacher means supporting the education innovators outside the classroom. This is the real focus of the Classroom Advocate program: to help those in the Bay Area who want to create an enterprise that helps teachers. To see why the Classroom Advocate program is effective, let’s first look at what it takes to found any enterprise.

When I teach entrepreneurship classes, my first lesson is always on the importance of starting. We like to think that most founders wait for a great idea, then execute on it perfectly. In reality however, successful businesses are created when we choose a field we’re passionate about, then start making an impact in whatever way we can. I like to use Uber as an example: they started with only what they had at the time - two users and a hired driver - and grew as they learned about their space and their users.

One problem with education innovation right now is that it’s difficult to start. We can represent the creation of an education-related enterprise with the funnel below. Each dotted line represents a challenge which “filters” out some potential founders.

You can see there’s a lot of excitement about education, evident in the packed screenings of documentaries like “Most Likely to Succeed”, and long wait lists for edtech meetups. However, very few are able to even take the first step towards making an impact. This is mostly due to the challenges of working with a school - from contacting a teacher, to observing a classroom, to prototyping with student data. It’s certainly not impossible (many dedicated innovators have pushed impressive innovations through this funnel) but it’s hard enough that many are scared away early on.

Classroom Advocates complement the existing supports at the end of the funnel (Edtech Incubators and Startup Weekends), by widening the start of the funnel. The program helps Advocates translate passion into action by supporting the activities that are difficult for early founders: working with and observing teachers.

The education enterprise pipeline. Classroom Advocates bridge the gap between the excitement generated by the news and media and the support provided by education incubators.

We’ve been piloting this program ourselves for the last few months and we’ve been impressed with the results. As Advocates, the team and I have been inspired by the impressive practices we saw, as well as the many opportunities we identified with our partner teachers. Next month we’ll announce our first meetup, which we’re calling an Impact Session, where we’ll present the opportunities from the classrooms observed during the pilot. Everyone there will have a chance then and in the weeks afterwards to directly improve a teacher’s life. If you want to make an immediate impact on a classroom, let us know and we’ll see you there.

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