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Teach Like Your Classroom’s On Fire

July 1, 2012


As the director of an international network of innovative educators, I and the teachers I work with get free access to educational technology when it is in its earliest stages of development. We give the feedback that developers and entrepreneurs need to make their innovations awesome. We are special ops. teachers who have what it takes to shape the educational technology of tomorrow. I’m not alone in thinking we’re bad ass. In a 2009 Stanford lectureEric Ries , author of The Lean Startup Methodology, said early adopters like us are “more visionary and smarter than the founders of the company that served them.”

Given sweet talk like this, I was eager to hear  Mr. Ries speak last Thursday at an event co-hosted by ImagineK12  and New School Venture Funds. The event’s invitation described it as a convening of the education technology community to network, learn from one another and engage in a “fireside chat” with Eric Ries. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Ries or lean startup methodology, you should check out this incredible post written by Lesson Cast. I found it to be the most helpful resource when it came to translating startup lingo to edu-speak.

The place was already pretty full when I got there. The wine wasn’t boxed or twist-off, yet all the bottle openers were next to the beer buckets. Young entrepreneurs stood in small groups talking in cool anticipation of greatness.  Having the social grace acquired from attending 9 months of b.y.o.c.-bring your own chair-faculty meetings, I held my head high as I entered the event space. I was wearing my Gap hoody to hide the orange marker stains on my “most-professional” teacher dress and stood alone. No board, no objectives, no agenda-other than listening to Mr. Ries champion early adopters are-I had no idea what to do. After a few paralyzed moments, I decided to simultaneously inhale my beer while staring at my feet.

Luckily, Michael Staton-for God knows what reason-came over and saved me from myself.  His presence restored the dignity that I’d lost by standing at the most inconsolably awkward spot on the wall. Once seated, I remembered the excitement I’d originally had for hearing him speak. Having established the fact that even the most bad ass and genius entrepreneurs will be embarrassed by the first version of their innovation, Mr. Ries turned the discussion towards the reason early adopters are palpably excited to try out these mortifying first drafts. “Early adopters”, Mr. Ries explained, “have a mentally unstable condition.” Upon hearing these words, I felt my face turn red and my feet suddenly became the most interesting thing in the room. Ever the charming entrepreneur, Ries quickly justified our collective insanity. Our reason for being crazy is that we are desperate to have a problem solved. He made his justification all the more poetic with the following analogy “If your house is on fire, you don’t care if the hose has holes in it.”

Hearing Eric Ries’s insights made me realize the reason that I and the other teachers in the network are on a mission and excited to beta test. Given the conditions in which we teach, its no wonder many of us teach like our classrooms are on fire and find ourselves driven to find anything-even a hose with holes-to extinguish the flames. Mr. Ries’ powerful analogy will be added to the lexicon I hoped to build while out in the Bay area this summer. I need this language so I can help the other innovative teachers understand the importance of what they are doing and share our triumphs with the rest of the world.

If we all teach like our classrooms are on fire, we’re going to do everything we can to find solutions to the problems we witness each day. We’ll be excited to beta test something that entrepreneurs are too embarrassed to admit to. What’s more, we won’t be mortified or ashamed by the earliest version of an innovation, for they were the means we used to put out the fire that was consuming our student’s potential and future.



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  1. July 1, 2012

    Very nice! You’ve put words to my thoughts.

    • July 1, 2012

      Thanks! It means a lot to hear other educators who are willing to innovate in the classroom. Innovative teachers are everywhere, but “lean” teaching methods make us as “at risk” as our students. Ours is all too often a quiet revolution.

  2. July 4, 2012

    Great write-up of the event last Thursday. I had no idea you were there, and am disappointed I didn’t get to meet you!

    Along the same vien as Eric’s description of a house on fire, Paul Graham, of Y Combinator, encourages entrepreneurs to solve “hair on fire” problems. As entrepreneurs, we need to connect with teachers who are experiencing burning houses and who can articulate what can help you. It is that communication and feedback loop that can become really powerful. It will enable us to truly solve important problems and hopefully help some kids in the process.



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