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Stop Talking, Just Do It: Be an Educational Entrepreneur

Yangxiao1.jpgIf there's anything I learned from being a teacher, it's that every great educator embodies an entrepreneurial spirit. Anyone who has not only survived, but achieved, with their students knows what it's like to identify a common problem, get creative with new, innovative approaches in how you do things and try it ... because you have nothing to lose. It's those desperate moments when you frantically try anything, only to find than one out of five times, you actually "invented" a new approach to gathering formative data, sharing IEP goals, or tracking student behavior. In other industries, it's called entrepreneurship. For teachers, it's called survival.

And it's no different in China. In fact, it took me until recently to realize that closing the achievement gap in a country of more than 1 billion people is going to take a heck of a lot more than filling millions of classrooms with excellent teachers. It's going to take far more than reforming the government-sanctioned testing systems or changing national policies. It's going to also require educational entrepreneurs who understand the array of problems, who form innovative solutions that work, and who are brave enough to risk failure to give it a shot.

To all of my colleagues in China and worldwide who see the problems our most under-resourced children face and are brimming with creative ideas, I dare you to be fearless and launch those after-school student programs you've been saying your students need, to jump-start those Web-based teacher training modules you keep complaining local teachers need, and to kick off those app-based courses for factory workers in your town that you keep dreaming about.

Not convinced? Here are three reasons to go for it - and three reasons to hesitate:

Three reasons to do it:

1. Stop complaining.

          And just do it. No one likes someone who only drones on and on in the teacher's lounge about should happen but does nothing to help. Being an educator means that we are privileged with front row seats to all the problems students, teachers, school leaders and system influencers face. If you're lucky enough to have a creative idea on how to solve these problems, then we're looking for you to do it. I loved reading Ed Week's piece

tracking the progress of two ed tech start-ups

        in the United States - I swear I've talked to other teachers about ideas like these over drinks at Happy Hour. These folks are actually doing it.

2. It's easier to start a business.

      Ironically, it's far easier to start a for-profit business in Communist China than it is to start a non-profit or to hold a leadership role in schools or the government. The NGO landscape in China is still very new with a lot of red tape and skepticism, principals in China have very limited authority, and government leadership posts are incredibly difficult to land. If you can show that your solution works, addresses a major need and can score an audience, you're better off starting a business. Right now, the overwhelming majority of start-up incubators in China focus on real estate entrepreneurship. Imagine if just half of those start-ups focused on closing the achievement gap.

3. There is money in it.

        The magical thing about working under an autocratic government is that top-down decisions are actually followed, even if it takes a long while to trickle down to the villages. China recently published their upcoming five-year priorities for education. Among them are e-learning, a focus on early childhood education and special education, and teacher management. If you have the right connections and your idea works, there is no reason why you should try to take advantage of the opportunities here.

Three reasons to hesitate.

1. It's wildly hard.

      Starting a new behavior management system in your class is hard. Starting a business venture is overwhelming. Most start-ups fail. You need money. You need a great idea. You need to show that it works. You need staff. You need connections. You need everything, and you'll still probably fail. What makes me excited is that my organization, Teach For China, is starting to think about how to serve as an incubation hub for our Fellows and Alumni who want to start their own initiative. There are courses, incubators and other programs that can help. But above all, entrepreneurship is a lonely road.

2. Know your community.

      Leave the savior complex and assumptions of "what the community needs" at the village gate. Talk to parents, teachers, students, principals, Education Bureau leaders about the problems they're facing, what they're looking for and will use. Better yet, make them a part of your board.

3. Do it for the right reasons.

    There are a lot of people looking to make big money in China and all over the world. What we need now are more people - educators who know their communities and have test-run solutions in their classrooms and schools simply by being a great teacher - who are trying to create great opportunities for the most underserved in the world. It may not pay a lot all that time, but at least the results are priceless.

Over the next two weeks, I will be profiling three initiatives launched by Teach For China Fellows and myself who have started (or are beginning to launch) ventures not to look for big money, a fancy title, or a great resume builder. They did it because they were/are great teachers who found ways to not only survive, but thrive. Stay tuned.

Photo by Bonnie Jiang

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