Hire Edupreneurs: Advice for School Start-Ups

“Hire Edupreneurs: Advice for School Start-Ups” by Jon Bacal first appeared on Blend My Learning.
In the jargon-filled world of education, neologisms should be used sparingly.  For a new school aimed at inspiring innovators and entrepreneurial leaders with a new learning model, the termedupreneur is indispensible.  Edupreneur combines the concepts of education and entrepreneur – a person who undertakes any enterprise or venture, usually with considerable initiative and risk.  Edupreneurs bring passion, imagination, grit and a sense of urgency in their zealous drive to create and constantly refine optimal learning for young people, organization-wide and for every learner.  See my co-edupreneur Kerry Muse’s take on the concept, as well as former Medtronic CEO Bill George on innovative leadership.  Some see edupreneurship as the future of teaching.  Most of you reading this blog are current or future edupreneurs.  America needs a lot more of you.
Now seven months away from opening Venture Academy in Minneapolis, I’ve worked on 25 new school start-ups over the last 15 years.  Here are five suggestions for choosing your school’s edupreneurs.  I’m eager for your feedback.

Five Suggestions for Picking New School Edupreneurs

  1. Hire edupreneurs who are passionate, versatile, flexible, innovative and entrepreneurial
  2. Select humble, authentic, emotionally intelligent leaders eager to develop themselves and others
  3. Choose learning-centered leaders who already live your mission, can build a culture around it, and can inspire and coach colleagues and young people to make it their own
  4. Only pick someone you’d hire in a heartbeat to guide and teach your own children
  5. If you’re not sure whether a candidate meets these tests, keep looking

Some caveats: These suggestions are not intended to dismiss curriculum, instruction and assessment, essential competencies for anyone leading a learning program.  If you’re not departing from the assumptions of 20th century assembly line schooling, don’t worry about suggestion #1.  In Clayton Christensen lingo, this guidance is for creative disruptors, not incumbents.

Your Start Determines Your Future

Launching a new organization presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the organization’s DNA—its beliefs, culture, practices, norms, and mindsets—right.  This is probably even truer of schools than of other entities.  Your founding leaders and educators set your school’s DNA and determine its future trajectory.  The plural is deliberate: Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and most famously KIPP are just three examples of learning networks launched by co-edupreneur pairs.  Venture aims to hire edupreneurial leaders for all of our staff openings.

Learning-Centered Authentic Leadership

As you pursue leaders for your outside-the-box model, leave behind the conventional principalship in favor of learning-centered and authentic leadership.  The job of principal was not designed to optimize learning or teaching.  With the world moving quickly away from command and control hierarchies, hiring a candidate comfortable with a traditional school administrator role risks birthing a tech-enabled clone of the status quo.  Instead, prioritize learning—in all of its many dimensions—over organizational management and compliance.  Look for powerful evidence of professional and personal growth, and of building the leadership capacity of other adults and young people.  As defined by Bill George, authentic leaders have grown through the crucible of facing real adversity.  They express their leadership by being true to their inner selves, are driven by purpose over ego, and are deeply committed to their own personal development.  Authenticity is particularly key for Venture as a middle-high school: young people sense inauthenticity a mile away.

Prioritize Resonant Leadership

Read Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.  Primal (see Goleman’s summary here) argues that leadership based on emotional intelligence yields the highest leverage performance and effectiveness.  Emotionally intelligent, resonant leadership qualities such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management stimulate an organization-wide climate of passion, creativity, constant learning and flexibility that in turn supports innovation.  Not exactly the first qualities that come to mind when thinking about the adult culture of most schools today.  They are non-negotiables for anyone creating iterative, ever-improving learning environments that engage and motivate educators and young people.  While emotional intelligence can be grown at any age, it’s good to start with a lot of it in your team.
I once downplayed school leadership soft skills (vs. technical know-how) as touchy-feely.  Not anymore.  I’ve seen too many schools fail to reach their full learning potential because of their leaders’ complacency, ego, defensiveness, rigidity and lack of transparency—all of which are inimical to adult and student learning.  At times, I’ve been guilty of these same sins.  Next generation leaders must constantly practice humility, humanity and active openness to feedback and ideas.  Real edupreneurs admit mistakes, embrace better solutions and iterate on their models quickly.

Translating Mission Into Day-to-Day Learning

We sought all of these next generation leadership competencies in our search for my co-edupreneur, Venture’s chief learning officer and head of school.  We have a distinct mission and a learning model that cultivates purposeful, self-propelled learners who take charge of the pace, method, content and direction of their own learning, with adult guidance but not adult control.
Many other planned schools have equally inspiring aims and models.  Yet the roads to learning nirvana are lined with the dashed hopes of lofty-missioned schools.  Missions and plans are just words unless the founding school leaders actually embody them and are able to translate them into the nuts-and-bolts work of learning.  Venture won’t ignite passionate young innovators and entrepreneurial leaders unless Venture’s adult leaders and educators themselves exemplify innovative and entrepreneurial leadership.  Venture and other outliers will face daily pressure to conform and default to the well-worn processes of depersonalized, adult-driven factory schooling.  Will we cave, or follow our inner compass to iterate our way toward greatness?

Landing an Edupreneurial Leader

Imagine our relief when after two months of intensive candidate sleuthing and vetting, we landed a versatile 10-year master educator who met all of our selection priorities.  Kerry Muse had demonstrated bold edupreneurship by piloting personalized, blended, student-driven learning, with stunning results on multiple measures.  He was an inner city math, special education and art teacher-leader who also taught video game design at an elite summer science camp.  While Kerry still has room for professional and personal growth (as do I), he is learning-centered, authentic, emotionally intelligent, humble and gritty.  Regarding suggestion #4: As I observed Kerry’s teacher-coaching, my gut parent reaction was unequivocal, independent of his compelling student performance and secondary reference check data points.  I wanted Kerry to coach and guide my daughter in every subject at every grade level, now, and by extension every Venture student.

Seeking An Army of Edupreneurs to Reinvent Learning

There must be thousands of innovative, talented edupreneurs in the trenches like Kerry with the potential to launch innovative, high-potential new personalized, learner-driven blended schools. Leadership is ultimately a team sport.  For all of us starting new schools, it’s not about the one rock star, but attracting and then growing the edupreneurial capacities of a team of them.  To that end, Venture decided to create theEdupreneur Residency to provide our teacher edupreneurs daily coaching, real-time feedback and personalized leadership development while teaching at Venture.
We’ve also launched a public Edupreneurship Showcase competition to help identify, recognize and learn from educator innovations and dream learning models.  Winners will be selected by the number of “likes” they are able to generate on the Showcase Facebook page.  Know any educator innovators? Please let them know about the Edupreneur Residency and Edupreneur Showcase.
Does the term “edupreneur” work for you in the new school context? I’d appreciate your candid feedback and pushback on our suggested leader selection criteria or other points above.
Attention current and future edupreneurs: 50 million American young people are waiting for you.

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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