Throwing teachers into the ‘Shark Tank’

Story highlights

Teachers develop their own educational technology tools and pitch them

Some regard these "teacherpreneurs" as the change agents schools need

Educators are still figuring out how to embrace this dual identity

Incubator 4.0 Schools helps teachers, entrepreneurs launch ideas

Brooklyn, New York CNN  — 

Eric Nelson took a deep breath and stepped into the projector’s spotlight, microphone in hand. The 27-year-old Minnesota teacher faces classrooms of teens every day, but on this frigid January evening, the audience was different.

“I’m a high school social studies teacher, and I had a problem,” Nelson told more than 100 educators, entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts in a crowded Brooklyn loft. “My students were disengaged when learning about the world in which they lived in an era in which global competence matters more than ever.”

Pondering this “existential crisis” one night, he turned to his fantasy football team, and inspiration struck: If competitive gaming could get him excited about the NFL, could it do the same for students with limited interest in the Middle East or Africa?

The spark led to “Fantasy Geopolitics,” an interactive game in which students draft countries to teams and earn points as their picks come up in the news. Nelson developed the game’s first version in 2009, using it to lead discussions in his civics class.

Today, “Fantasy Geopolitics” has a logo, a new website and automated scoring. Nelson teaches a “Fantasy Geopolitics” elective at North Lakes Academy Charter School in Forest Lake, Minnesota – and he wants it to keep growing.

If the audience in Brooklyn’s “Silicon Alley” liked Nelson’s idea, he could bring home $20,000 to scale “Fantasy Geopolitics” for distribution to other teachers.

Educators and entrepreneurs collide at pitch night.

But competition was fierce: Three other teams – a mix of educators, academics and entrepreneurs – were pitching ideas to remedy common classroom headaches at this event billed as a “Shark Tank” for teachers. All had their sights on the monetary reward, but just as much, they wanted validation.

Buzzwords abound for these teacher-entrepreneur hybrids. Some regard them as the change agents the profession – and schools – need. A 2011 book trumpeted “the coming age of the teacherpreneur” in which educators, not politicians or testing companies or accountants, are on the front lines of education innovation. They could split their time among classroom instruction, research and mentoring, pursuing other kinds of leadership roles while keeping a foot in the classroom.

But educators are still figuring out how to embrace this dual identity. They might possess basic entrepreneurial traits such as creativity, passion, empathy and persistence, but what about the ability to raise funds? Or the hours or support needed to turn a great idea into a reality? That’s where “teacherpreneur communities” such as 4.0 Schools, the organizer of this pitch night, come into play.

The projects were in various stages of development; some are already being piloted in classrooms, while others need a few more months of development. That night in January, the competitors decorated their name tags with colored dots: red for educator, green for technologist, yellow for entrepreneur and – in the scrappy spirit of the event’s organizer – blue for “miscellaneous badass.”

Nelson, the Minnesota teacher, chose the red.

“I’m not there yet,” he said, laughing, when asked why he hadn’t opted for the other titles.

“I consider myself a learner and explorer,” he said. “I have a hard time thinking of myself as an entrepreneur.”