Entrepreneurial Thinking for Educators

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about entrepreneurial thinking.  Branding and Buzz is one of the “Supporting But Necessary” components to the Lead4Change model, but it is becoming clear to me that educators generally do not think entrepreneurially or about how to market their good work.  It is generally not part of their creative problem solving skill set. (Nor can I think of a single reason why they would have, up to this point. Educators generally haven’t had to live entrepreneurially, so why would they think that way? This isn’t blaming or criticism. It’s just observation.)

Not only am I thinking about how we might fund our innovative programs in schools (when we can barely get core services funded), but I know several groups of wonderful educators who put together conferences that always get the best reviews from participants, and nonetheless are facing greatly declining enrollments. We haven’t seen schools in such financial dire straights in a long time, and it doesn’t look like there will be any more money from the state or the Feds in the near future. And, just as in all perceived survival situations, all the supporting systems get shut down to keep the core systems operating… So it’s not surprising that PD is getting cut way back and conferences and institutes are struggling.  

In other words, there is a growing need for educators to think entrepreneurially.

I’ll concentrate in this post on the notion of entrepreneurial thinking when trying to put together professional development opportunities for others, since a version of these thoughts was originally a response to a friend’s inquiry about how to improve registrations and attendance for a summer institute she was helping to put together.

So, what are the the important pieces?

Entrepreneurial thinking has to move beyond us simply thinking about why things should be funded.  I think teachers readily recognize that initiatives or conference are worthwhile because they leverage strategies such as being quality work, involve partnerships, or utilize social media in productive ways.  These points aren’t wrong.  They are great reasons for educators to get involved in those professional opportunities.  But I think these points come up short when resources (funding) are scarce.

I fully believe that “doing quality work” is an important (critical!) component of living entrepreneurially. But it is clearly not sufficient. I doubt we have too many folks leaving the the wonderful conferences they attend feeling that it wasn’t an awesome and professionally valuable experience. I doubt we have too many educators who aren’t drawn to the well-known names on the program. But if “doing quality work” were sufficient, we wouldn’t be struggling with registration… (And clearly if we did crappy work, it wouldn’t matter what else we did, we’d still struggle with getting folks to register.)

I put strategies such as partnering with others and leveraging social networks in the “doing quality work” category. Although they are critical to making sure that the conference goes well for the participants, they aren’t critical pieces to the challenge of getting people to register in the first place. Certainly they play a supporting role, just not a critical role. For example, Apple helped us with logistical support for our iPads in primary grades conference. Were we a success because of that? Certainly it contributed (HEAVILY) to the quality of experience that participants had during the conference, but it didn’t contribute to getting folks to sign up in the first place. (But I feel differently about a different Apple contribution described below.)

So, what then needs to be in place beyond “doing good work”? That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Having our iPad in Primary Grades Education conference do so well and go so well at least has given me a real experience to dissect… So what did we have that other conferences that don’t fill might not? Here are some of my initial thoughts…

1) We had something THEY wanted (not something we wanted FOR them), and we promised to show them how they could get it, too. iPads in Ed are REALLY hot right now, and tech in primary grades is controversial enough for folks who want to try it to wonder how others are doing it… Therefore, also “right place, right time” is a piece of this.

2) We were bold, perhaps to the point of being odatious. We claimed openly and publicly and in the press that we were going to be the first 1to1 kindergarten iPad initiative (maybe we were, but maybe not), and we were going to offer a national conference where others could learn about our success. (Odatiousness: where do we get off leading a national conference on an initiative we’ve been working on for less than 6 months!?!)

3) Building on the idea that others wanted to know how we were doing this, we built some sense of urgency by publicizing that we only had 100 slots (hurry now before they are all gone!). The irony is that we were also limited by how much room we had. If we wanted to do this conference locally, then our limited options for venue limited how much space we had…

4) We could easily market directly to our targeted customer base. Apple reps let their primary grades customers know about the conference (This is the “other” Apple contribution mentioned above), and we’re a member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, and we let the other member districts know (one of those MCCL member districts brought 13 people! They were the largest team attending.). Other avenues helped (press releases, ACTEM list serve, etc.) but weren’t where we got the bulk of our attendees.

So, “doing good work” is one piece of creating a good event for folks, but I think it is good marketing that gets them there in the first place (especially when PD is disappearing for survival…). In fact, I think we need to separate our thinking about (A) how do we make a good experience for participants and (B) how do we get people to register. When resources are rich (A) is probably sufficient for (B), but when resources are scarce, (A) doesn’t cut it alone.

So when I think about working on (B) in our Institute, I think #s 3 & 4 are just good, standard marketing, and not probably the factors that greatly impacted our enrollment. I think 1 and 2 are the biggies.

Granted, we were pretty lucky that we moved when we did and we had a history with not just Apple but our Apple contacts (Jim Moulton & Tara Maker), and we were lucky that both our former and current Superintendents’ style were bold and odatious.

So the question is, do you have to wait until fortuitous circumstances provide you with the right stuff THEY need (right place, right time) and bold/odatious partners, or can these be engineered? And, of course, I believe these can be engineered. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy, just that with cleaver and different thinking it can be done.  I’m thinking about these issues again, now, as we begin to plan our second iPad conference.

So I  recommend (for my own team’s work and for my colleagues working to organize other opportunities), first, focusing on what is it that you have that they want. I think this kind of thinking requires two things: first that you suspend thinking about what you want for them and instead think empathetically from their perspective, and second that you reengineer what you want for them into the thing they want. Thats not to say that “what you want for them” is off base. It just means that it isn’t all that helpful to marketing…

Next, focus on being bold and odatious.

And remember. Marketing isn’t sharing information. Marking is making them want what you are offering.

It’s Your Turn:

What about a conference or institute would make you (or your principal, or your district) be willing to have you register and attend when funding is tight?

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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