Warning: fiesty blog post below.
I get it . Everyone has an agenda. Some people need to sell products. I personally happen to promote the ideas and work of people and products that I believe in. I don’t support crap… usually... and I’m not particularly tolerant of thoughtlessness and mediocrity.
This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write, and am finally getting around to what needs to be said. As a long time educator, consultant, and participant in social media, I’d like to share a few ideas with the ed tech community that might help various groups understand each other.
I started this post months ago after, via Twitter, I bit the head off of a PR person from a start up who asked me to re-tweet some report. This PR employee had never met me nor was even following me at the time on Twitter. It seemed spammy. I’ve also been irritated by events I’ve seen advertised in the edu innovation world that are entitled “Marketing to Schools” or “Selling to Schools”. Those phrases may not be offensive to people in the business world, but I think these phrases would make most educators’ skin crawl. The most annoying thing, though, is the number of generic, boilerplate press releases I’ve received because as a blogger, apparently I’m now considered a journalist (really?!) and have made it on to some well distributed list of writers/influencers. In the last year or so, I have never seen such a plethora of impersonal pleas for me to look at something or talk to some CEO (sorry titles don’t impress me either) about their world changing product. Come on, people, get creative! Look at the the Anchorman 2 marketing campaign for inspiration. Can’t you do better?
At any rate, I’ve been slowly building this, and adding links to my notes that I thought would be helpful to both educators and entrepreneurs. It’s time to be done with this piece as SxSWedu is looming and this is the venue where many educators and entrepreneur types will mingle. This conference actually might lend itself to authentic interaction between educators and companies, resulting in positive change in education. Who knows?
So, to understand my perspective, it might help to know a little about my background. I’m the child of two educators who grew up attending public and independent schools. I worked in Chicago Public Schools for a number of years as a elementary grade level teacher, and then taught middle school computer science at an independent school in Chicago and earned an M.Ed in Technology in Education around this time. My professional life became greatly enriched during this phase of my life as I had plenty of support and autonomy to focus on my teaching craft. As a result, I became an Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Teacher. Seeking more leadership opportunities, I moved on to serve as a technology coach at a set of charter schools and worked at an ed tech advisor at a math and science education research group before starting my consulting business in 2010. The main impetus for going into consulting was that my expertise was increasingly being sought and it gave me a great deal of flexibility when my husband and I moved our family to the suburbs of the Chicago. (My children’s experiences in school are also a big driver in my thought process and advocacy work.)
I now work with schools and companies in a for profit capacity and run a couple of innovative online conferences. Throughout my various projects, it’s important to me to keep my finger on the pulse of what is going on in education because I’m not working as much inside school buildings. I still consider myself an educator on a less than traditional career path. I love what I do and how my current position allows me to travel the country (and beyond) to see interesting institutions, to interact with great educators, and to sometimes work on projects with progressive for profit institutions.
Teachers who become consultants sometimes run up against credibility issues in this field as others may think that they are out of touch with the realities of classroom teaching. Educators, in my experience, are also generally skeptical of the motives those employed by for profit entities. I’ve seen educators react very strongly to corporate involvement particularly in teacher organized events. I often wonder if those working for ed tech start ups who have not spent a lot of time working schools realize this.
I particularly enjoy working with teachers in professional development settings and and I value what they think of me as a consultant. Currently, I’m working in two school districts coaching teachers in mobile learning pilots. Authenticity is key to working teachers because they, in my experience, have built in bs detectors. I try to be cognizant of their needs and opinions, so that I can support them fully and earn their trust. I see myself as an advocate for educators and for excellence in education, and understand that good relationships are the cornerstone of my work.
That said, I’d like to offer some candid advice for ed tech start up world. Take it, leave it, or offer some additions. Below is a list of tips and resources that I think will help further the conversation between educators in the field and those outside who are trying to better understand their needs and develop products that are both needed and wanted.
I’ve also added a few items that may also help others learn how to approach education bloggers/journalists/thought leaders. And, at SxSWedu, blogger/educator Stephanie Sandifer points out in this post, there will be opportunities to engage on how to improve connections between educators and the business world…. I’m glad to see that none of these sessions has “Selling to Schools” or “Marketing to Schools” in the title!
So here goes:
Just like successful teachers do with their students, build authentic relationships with teachers. Support (and even attend) teacher-led, grassroots events like EdCamp or apply to one of EdSurge's well planned and thoughtful education summits where you can engage.
Educate yourself about education. Understand the history of education and contemplate the implications of ignoring the past. Read the research. What do you know the history of education reform? What do you know about pedagogy and curriculum? How would you do on the Audrey Test? (A classic blog post in my opinion!)
Respect and value experience. I’m sorry, but if you’re 25 years old and taught for 2 years, and then got a MBA from some highly ranked graduate school, it does not make you an education expert. Educational expertise comes from YEARS of working with kids in a classroom and from a great deal of professional development and discourse.
If you want teachers to go gaga over your thing/service/idea, create something that is extraordinarily useful and/or excellent to today’s overburden teacher. No one is going to champion your product if it sucks. And, please, no more drill and practice stuff. That’s what worksheets are for. Let’s have more products out there that really help to develop creativity, collaboration and communication skills… the pillars of work life in the 21st century and beyond. Or, solve a huge problem that is plaguing teachers… like develop a kickass system to easily and affordably purchase digital books and put them on devices across all platforms.
Until you have an established, positive relationship with teachers, don’t ask anything of an educator that takes too much time. Teachers are busier and more beleaguered than ever if you haven’t read the memo on ed reform lately. Respect their time.
In your next marketing meeting, don’t suggest another educator champion group. I belong to two and they have changed my life for the better, but again, be creative and think differently. Isn’t there another way you can support these users of your company/product? How are you going to support users who are not necessarily on the bleeding edge? You need to be careful, too, and not to exploit people who are your champions. Copying another company's idea isn't my idea of innovation either.
And advice for approaching education “thought leaders”:
Do your homework about the education bloggers/journalists/thought leader you are approaching. While this Quora post by Robert Scoble does not specifically address education, I think it offers some wise words for those who want people in our field to listen to them. Here’s another set of tips for approaching journalists that could be applied in the education world as well.
On Twitter, I’m not going to follow you if you have the word marketer or visionary in your title or use the word “solution”. Act like a humble human, please, and avoid trite language in general. And, don’t blanket the Twittosphere with generic, cut and paste Tweets inviting my participation to your event. Invite me once via email, and if I’m interested, I’ll consider it. It is crucial not to waste everyone’s time with multiple communications. (By the way, I’m astounded by the number of press releases I receive and generally ignore, only to have PR people circle back, two and even three more times. Generally, if you don’t hear from me, there’s a reason.
By the way, just because someone has thousands of Twitter followers, it does not necessarily mean that they are an expert by any means. Be wary of numbers! Find people to connect with who are really good and smart at their day jobs. You might have to do some research to find out who fits this bill, but it will be well worth it when you do connect to thoughtful educators.
Don’t ask people you’ve never met or previously interacted with to pass on your promotional material, research, information, etc. It’s not nice to use people in this regard and just seems like a lazy way to disseminate your work. Again, if your stuff is great, it will be take off virally. Follow educators, hope that they follow you back and put your stuff out there via your Twitter stream.
What else would you add? How do we demystify the world of an educator for the corporate world (and maybe vice versa) so that we can make a difference for the group that matters the most….our students and children? I’ll probably be adding to this list from time to time.
Update: Make sure to check out this post from June Labs, a startup designed to bridge the gap bewteen entrepeneurs and educators...a much more artful depiction of what's going on in the ed tech world: http://junelabsreport.org/?p=65