School reform: The Teacherpreneur and the Center of the World

Summary:  Is “teacherpreneur” a re-branding of the classical role of teacher?

The term and role of “teacherpreneur,” which has gained traction in the educational media and via Barnett Berry’s new book of the same name, strikes me at once as a welcome re-centering on the classic role of a teacher as well as a clever re-branding of the teaching profession in language that not coincidentally reflects the zeitgeist of this market ascendant period of time. Perhaps captains of industry, who drive much of the current school reform movement, will now urge the placement of these teacher entrepreneurs at the center of the educational universe, because “entrepreneur” they understand. Back to the future.

In the hands of Berry and his colleagues at the Center for Teaching Quality these allegedly new teacherpreneurs will teach (which one assumes will include the psychological motivation of unwilling learners), mentor novice teachers, do research into pedagogy appropriate to particular students, develop curriculum and assessments, and sit at the table where educational policy is decided – school, district, and so forth.

Moreover, they will do so in the metaphysical wake of the “entrepreneur,” the market hero who creates from the void of the market first an idea, and then an organizational entity that fills a vital and sometimes unrecognized economic niche with a verve that brings commerce to its front door. Think Google, Amazon, and other recent stops on the entrepreneurial gravy train. The point is not always the money, but the creativity, and the building of a truly better mousetrap.

The etymology of the word “entrepreneur” and its closely associated cousin, “enterprise” underscores this creative linkage of disparate pieces into a coherent whole. The entrepreneur “takes” (prendre from French) the interstices “between” (entre from French) isolated elements and builds the imagined edifice from them. It is a fundamentally creative concept.

Similarly the teacherpreneur spans research and curriculum, policy and classroom and mentoring, to create a unique professional persona/portfolio that will expose students to a cutting edge learning environment.

But wait. Seems to me these are the roles teachers have always encompassed, in less glorious and more prosaic terms. By a linguistic sleight of hand, Berry and company may have transformed the teacher of tradition into a contemporary icon.

Though outsiders to the profession – journalists, corporate types, and other stripe of school reformer — don’t see it, in fact present day teachers do straddle multiple roles in the interior lives of schools; “teacherpreneur” takes much of what already exists, ramps it to a more refined level, and demands a still higher order of professionalism.

Quality teachers have always researched better curriculum, and developed their own, even if not in a manner so self-consciously related to ongoing testing as at the present.

Particularly in elementary schools (less so in middle and high schools) it has seemed to me that the smaller elementary setting has encouraged a more intimate give and take between teacher and principal, which has in turn allowed more real input into building based policy making. Maybe it is the collaborative spirit among sisters in the school building that disappears in the relatively more male populated and larger middle and particularly high schools. Yet it is in this area, that of policy leadership, from which teachers have been excluded most prominently.  

Certainly quality teachers have inspired, imparted skills, transmitted knowledge and induced critical thinking despite the low esteem the profession has endured in more recent times and national culture.

Moreover, the mentoring of new teachers and those struggling, and the sharing of technique and curriculum among teaching staffs, has always been common in the schoolhouse, despite the dearth of formal structures to that effect.

These complex roles have always to me begged for better staffing in order to free teachers to their fundamental role in company of students; the introduction of the super teacherpreneur merely ups that ante. The trick is in the balance. Teachers are the practitioners on the front line; that expertise needs to drive the enterprise, but to do so expertly implies deep and continuing experience at the craft. All this will cost more money; today we just celebrate the idea.

Administrative and teacher roles best be complementary. The arrival of teacherpreneurs to power implies a reduction in the power of the “principal;” the expression began not as ultimate administrator but as “principal teacher,” first among equals. Superintendents too will have to learn to share power.

The initial teacherpreneur idea seems to be focused on a relatively small number of uber teachers. In my mind, the notion applies, or should apply, more broadly. Still, in an environment where many teachers leave teaching in their early years, the expanded roles of the uber teacherpreneur provide room for higher echelon responsibility, and so may promote longevity as teacher in the classroom itself.

Most interestingly, the transformation in the narrative from obscure if honored laborer to entrepreneur takes the teacher professional from that of a follower of bureaucratic imperatives to that of the pivotal citizen in the educational enterprise, around whose fount all other job descriptions revolve; in other words, a professional in the mold of doctor and lawyer.

“Teacherpreneur” could even prove to be a brilliant re-branding of a profession of the ages into terms that evoke the leading engines of contemporary corporate and technological innovation, and thereby contribute to the re-enshrinement of the work to its former respect in this country, to match the respect its counterparts enjoy in other countries – countries which, by the way, kick our butts in skills testing head to head.

Perhaps “teacherpreneur” can make the work more comprehensible and admirable to the guardians of the purse strings, which then may be loosed more liquidly in pursuit of school reform.

So Barnett Berry and colleagues may have struck a blow for the good guys.

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