You may not have thought of teachers this way

I’ve been loving Medium’s lovely reading interface for a long time and decided to give its writing interface a shot. For my first Medium experiment, I figured I’d start with a topic I’m super familiar with: the intersection of teaching and entrepreneurship

How Good Teachers are like Entrepreneurs

It is rather surprising how often I am asked if I intend to teach for the rest of my professional life. Indeed, I have engaged in funny conversations along the lines of:

“Are you going to teach forever?”
“Forever?! I hope not! That’s an awfully long time!”
“Then what will you do after teaching?”

The alarming reference to “forever” aside — ‘forever’ is a very long time to do anything — I cannot help but wonder why people seem to have an assumption that once a teacher, always a teacher. I, for one, know of individuals who have successfully enriched their post-teaching careers with the skills that they acquired through teaching.

So how did teaching prepare them for a non-teaching job?

Here’s a possible answer: a good teacher has to work like an entrepreneur.

(Caveat: I am selecting the pronoun, ‘she’, for convenience. I’m in no way suggesting that good teachers are necessarily female.)

Good teachers are great collaborators.

Aside from the fact that teachers work in teams to design curriculum and craft lessons, there are many other situations in which teachers have to collaborate to achieve a shared purpose. A good teacher understands that learning cannot occur in a vacuum, so she works with partners to create a holistic environment for her students to thrive in. Whether they find themselves working with external parties, the other teachers working with the students they are responsible for, or the co-workers in their department, teachers have plenty of opportunities to work with different folks, diverse opinions, and varied interests. And they make it work.

Good teachers are independent multi-taskers.

Teachers have multiple duties — from classroom management, the delivery of lessons, to planning large events — and the mosaic of responsibilities would look quite different from teacher to teacher, so a good teacher has to be self-driven and independent. No one is going to tell you how to manage these disparate duties. No one else is accountable for them but you. No one can tell you how best to juggle them — you have to figure out what works best for you.

In a given day, a teacher may find the following on her to-do list: plan an event, run lessons for 5 different classes with different learning profiles, manage an after-school club, deal with a disciplinary issue, and mentor students for a competition. It’s multi-task and survive, or fixate on one task at a time and drown.

Good teachers build communities.

I’ve said before that a good teacher knows how to work with partners, and building communities is related to that. From banding with like-minded professionals who share their insights and strategies, to engaging parents who communicate with and support each other, and building the bond amongst members of a sporting team — good community building skills is required all-around.

A good teacher gives voice to the members of their ‘tribe’ and helps them to construct a positive shared experience. A good teacher listens to and understands where her audience or partners are coming from, and connects with them at an individual level. A good teacher engages in dialogue with her community, and gets them to be invested in a common goal. A good teacher manages different expectations and harmonizes them (as far as she can).

Good teachers know how to engage different audiences and think strategically.

Every student has different learning abilities and a good teacher knows how to pitch a lesson/concept at different levels to meet the student where he is. In edu-speak, that’s called differentiated instruction. In business-speak, it’s engagement with different audiences.

A good teacher also knows how to support each students’ learning by scaffolding the process. She knows how to strategize a game plan for her student to achieve results. She knows how to scaffold his learning, so he has the means to succeed. Some excellent content marketing strategies I’ve come across (hello, Canva and your wonderful social media strategy!) share insightful information and suggestions to help customers learn to use their product then use their product better. Isn’t that the same principle?

Good teachers know how to deal with tough customers.

Have you experienced a Parent-Teacher Meeting? ‘Nuf said.

Good teachers develop a consistent brand.

Every teacher will be faced with questions about what she stands for, what her strengths and weaknesses are, in what areas does she have opportunities to grow, how can she consistently communicate her principles and expectations through all her little actions and decisions…

A good teacher figures out:

her unique value proposition (what can she give as an educator?)
what her brand message is (what are the ends of education and what are the essential lessons every student must learn?)
how to conduct herself to consistently communicate that message to her audiences (from the language she uses to the approaches she chooses).

Good teachers are proven problem-solvers.

A day in the life of a teacher is like a huge problem-solving game with challenges sometimes coming out of left field. All problems — from a student falling sick or getting injured, to dealing with disciplinary cases or organisational challenges — have to be dealt with swiftly and thoroughly, whether independently or in collaboration with other stakeholders. Sometimes it feels like one of those crazy levels in tower defense games where the problems keep coming. But hey, a good teacher knows how to strategically nib problems in the bud and keep them from escalating.

The list of transferable traits go on, and perhaps I’ll write a Part 2 someday. But there you have it. Teachers aren’t only effective in the classroom or when armed with a red pen. Indeed, if they can establish rapport with teenagers — who are, arguably, a really tough crowd — who can’t they engage with?


“And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief;”

Anecdotes about teaching are a dime a dozen. From stories about grading papers, to inspiring kids, to huge, dramatic blow-outs in class, to rants about the amount of administration that needs to be done, to accounts of awful parents… you would think that teachers have given you the whole picture.

I thought so.

I was wrong.

Everyone warns you about difficult students and nitpicky parents, but there’s one type of experience in a teacher’s life no one talks about. No one tells you that a student may pass away; that the grief, though perhaps not as soul-crushing as that of a parent, is real.

Perhaps it’s because death is taboo (but, why?) or that grieving is deeply personal. Or maybe it’s because this is an experience that not every educator will encounter. It’s hard to say, really.

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories

Educators know that their students will not always be with them. The purpose of this vocation is precisely a preparatory one — transience is built into its function. Indeed, educators often hope that their students would leave the classroom quickly (either because she hopes that the child would spread his wings and achieve his potential, or because the child is annoying #truefacts), but it is a hope rooted in the child’s movement towards something greater in his life. (This, of course, may seem laden with assumptions: That life is somehow greater than death, that death is something taboo. I don’t believe that these are necessarily true, and education should safely introduce students to existentialism and mortality. But even when we talk about death and dying, as the existentialists do, it is a dialogue about how to live, is it not?)

The educator’s grief upon a student’s passing, then, is grief not just about the loss of another human being. She mourns because she understands her relationship with the child as one of empowerment and support, one that gives him the tools to create his future. It is a relationship based on potential. But when that future is cut short — when the potential is no more — it is like having the rug pulled out from under you.

It is senseless, and tragic, and hollow.

It is as if a thriving flame is extinguished before you.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
François Rabelais

We may comfort ourselves with the idea that perhaps our students, like our loved ones who have passed on, have moved on to the next phase in their lives. And perhaps the preparation, empowerment and growth that an educator has contributed to the child will somehow manifest in some useful fashion in the afterlife.

But even if we do not believe in life after death, we need not mourn the waste of those good years of education; our relationship need not have been in vain. For the lessons that a teacher shares, and the empowerment that she brings, if it is education in its truest sense, can manifest in a discreet manner. What we learn today, helps us live tomorrow better.

So, take comfort in the tomorrows you have bettered for the child. And be grateful for the tomorrows that he has bettered for you.

(The quote used in the title is by William Cullen Bryant.)