Transitioning from Teaching to EdTech

I was on a panel last week with folks from Clever, Learnboost, EverFi, and Edmodo, speaking to Teach for America corps members and alumni about the transition from the classroom into education technology.  I'd like to share some of my thoughts, which are not necessarily the views of or endorsed by my employer.

As a teacher, how do you get a job in edtech? What kinds of jobs are out there?

Interviewing is sales, and sales is storytelling. Teachers are great at storytelling.

Take an academic unit, a 2-6 week chunk of related content you introduce, develop, and ultimately evaluate your students on. Is this a story of salesmanship, in which you invested the disinterested students by finding key leverage points in their lives? Or is it a story of project management, creating a unit goal, identifying subtasks and milestones, planning and executing lessons, and keeping everybody on track? Maybe it was an example of design thinking, as you prototyped different versions of the same lesson with different classes, reflecting on and iterating it based on the results you saw.

It's easy to draw compelling parallels betweeen classroom teaching and sales, account management, support, project (and people) management, consulting, and so many other roles– you just have to tell the right story.

Besides selling your classroom experience as role-related, there are a few other extracurriculars that can help you get a leg up:

  • Show comfort, if not expertise, with web technology. It's great if you can code, but if you can't, get a free Edmodo account for your class. Have them play with Google Docs or Khan Academy. Start a class blog. Make it clear that you don't shy away from learning new systems.
  • Have some business savvy. Polish up your PowerPoint skills, and if you're talking to a startup, do enough research to ask about basics such as the revenue plan, funding, burn rate and runway.
  • Especially in smaller companies, be open to a variety of jobs for getting your foot in the door. I initially took a support position at my current company, but eventually moved into product management, an area that I probably would have a much hard time breaking into in a larger firm or different industry.

What impact will technology have on K-12 students?

Good teachers think in systems. Good teachers figure out a way to create a system to help students learn, robust against whatever challenges that child may face in or out of the classroom. Classroom management, after-hours tutoring, reading level differentiation– these are all strategies to ensure that a student's education is not derailed by forces out of his or her control.

Technology is a tool that helps teachers build robust systems, but also helps those one level above build systems robust against intermittent teaching quality– whether that is lack of personnel, lack of adequate information, or other issues. Adaptive content, MOOCs, and instant-feedback practice systems like clickers or Khan all add reach and power to great teachers, provide scaffolds for struggling teachers, and can even ensure some minimum level of learning in the face of poor teachers.

It's really exciting.

How do you pick a good edtech startup?

* * Go talk to a bunch of them! You can do all the research you want on a company's financial viability or potential impact, and those are certainly important data points, but even more important is culture.

When I set foot in the Education Elements office for my interview, I was struck by how warm, brilliant, and humble everybody was. We have theme Fridays (I may or may not have once worn a footed Star Wars onesie to work), a beer crew, and most of all, shared passion for what we do. Our careers page has a pretty cool video with some of our employees sharing why they like it.

One thing to note is that there's often a pretty big difference between <10 employee companies and larger ones in terms of structure, employee equity, and pacing. As an organization scales, it becomes harder to maintain a flat hierarchy or completely casual, organic workstream management. It became pretty clear in our panel that smaller companies like Learnboost and Clever ran differently than slightly larger ones like EdElements and iXL.

What do you miss about leaving the classroom?

Obviously you miss the kids– this was common to everybody on the panel. You miss the immediate impact on their day, the direct impact on their lives: nothing compares to the feeling you get from changing a single child's worldview or expectations about the future.

Besides that, however, the transition from classroom to business brings a few less obvious changes. A colleague of mine put it better than I ever could:

"It's easier to coast and drift in office settings, so if you like the intense work cycles that teaching brings (days that seem to fly by…work really hard, get 2 weeks at Christmas, work hard, 1 week at spring, then summer, etc) you'll likely miss those work your ass off and then rest cycles.  On the flip side, it still feels incredible to step out and get coffee when I want, or be able to take a call, or go to the bathroom when necessary and not during defined 6 minute windows during the day, so there are a ton of perks to office settings…"
I do miss the work/rest cycles– weekends aren't really weekends anymore, breaks are measured in days rather than weeks or months, and the working days don't quite have the same intensity as when you're up on a stage in front of 150 kids a day, their future resting in your hands. That said, the agency of setting your own (approximate) hours, being accountable to results rather than a given set of work hours, and freedom from teaching the same curriculum year after year is really incredible.

It's a big jump, and a jump with plenty of tradeoffs, but I'm happy to have made it.

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