Building a Business in the Classroom Part 1: The Pitch

Posted by on Monday, September 12, 2016 in edcorps | 0 comments

Then

I remember high school. I was (am?) a lanky guy, kind of awkward around other people, especially girls.

#36. Freshman year.

#36. Freshman year.

I spent more mental effort trying to do as little work as possible than if I just did the work. It was sort of a game I played. Outside of sports, I didn’t really have a school activity that really challenged me or developed me. School was a series of hoops to jump through before life really began.

Now, I’m the “teacher”.  I say that in quotes because I still don’t feel like a teacher. I feel like I’m still making it up as I go.  They gave me a teaching license? Like, to teach kids? Whoah.  I should be teaching them what I signed up for, computer tech stuff. I like to imagine myself as a student in my own classroom…would I enjoy it? Would I be challenged? Better questions begin with the phrase, “What if”.  Taking a page out of my dad’s book at Suter’s Produce, what if we started a business ourselves?

I pitched this very idea to 5 students once, 3 years ago. It was magical what came out of that humble start. Our membership peaked around 20, but lives were changed, especially mine. We designed web sites, created promotional videos, and made about $18,000 over 3 years. $6000 of that went to scholarships to members.  An unhealthy amount went to M&M’s, granted, but that’s the excitement of it, we can run the business how we see fit, we can buy what we’d like to buy. I never once had a problem with students trying to spend company money on frivolous things like unnecessary trinkets and snacks. Those were totally my fault. No, students completely understood and took to heart the seriousness of being a good steward of those funds. Should we invest in advertising? New equipment? Professional development via online training for students and me? How much should go towards charitable organizations? The answer to the last one I let students answer themselves. Once we built up the business, I told them they could award as much of their revenue to any cause they liked. That alone changed the givers’ and receivers’ lives (I’m looking at you DF).

I was questioned once at school by an admin on how could 2 students and I spent $150 at a steakhouse while presenting at a conference. I said “I teach real world hard work and rewards, using money we earned. We work hard, play hard.” He suggested I shouldn’t be teaching students that. While we maybe disagreed on that premise, I stand by the notion that in the real world if two employees single handedly brought in over $6000 in revenue, their boss would be willing to buy them a $40 steak. I only know that because while working in multimedia at a newspaper, my boss had a similar agreement.

I’m a firm believer that GOOD leadership creates a feeling of a safe environment that fosters innovation and trust through conversation. Simon Sinek explains this well here, go watch it.  BAD leadership relies on systemic punishments. I don’t want to be that leader. Imagine if my only form of maintaining order in the classroom was to dish out detentions to students? What happens to the classroom environment? Some students sit compliantly in fear, some act out worse, then there’s those that sit quietly in contempt for the teacher because they were not trying to break rules, they were trying to help. Innovation and trust? Forget about it. The culture is ruined.

Now

I began teaching in a new school district this year, my 10th year teaching. I resolved to wait a semester before trying to start some sort of business-in-the-classroom thing that thrived on innovation and risk. I made it EIGHT DAYS.  I couldn’t take it. I know high school students are capable of so much more than what they regularly show in school.

So I created a form for all 90 of my students to fill out. The first 3 questions were required name and interests. The next 3 were clearly labeled OPTIONAL, asking “Do you want to become a better leader? What are you doing to become one?” and a few others.  18 of the 90 students put something meaningful down, and I invited them to a special meeting the next day. This was not a perfect way to separate students into a starting group, and others I missed will be drawn in naturally.

At our first meeting, I said, “I would like to invite you to be part of a new team, a new family, a new business. A business that runs out of this classroom, and will require an incredible amount of work without any guarantee of any tangible reward but the experience itself. You filled out an optional form with no expected reward. That was the first sign you should be here, on this team, in this family.”

Super secret meeting. Let's do this!

Super secret meeting. Let’s do this!

I went on to explain that I really have no idea what I’m doing, and that if they’re ok with that, I’d like their help on figuring it out. We’ve got some starter money just like in Monopoly thanks to the classroom-business guru’s over at Real World Scholars, with which we can do anything with. Advertising? Business cards?  Lots of cats? It’s up to them. I NEED them. This pitch went well because it’s authentic, I’m not pretending to need students to take risks and come up with good ideas and work hard for the greater good of the team, I really DO need that for this to have ANY chance of succeeding. I’ll facilitate the receiving of their feedback through my ClassFlow desktop App’s polling feature.

The response? Some wide-eyes. Some half jaw-dropped & smiling. Some maybe waiting for the “You can earn bonus points in class if…” that never came.  But overall, they’re excited. They know there’s no grades, which means no threat of “losing points” for mistakes.

There’s only “What if” now.

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