Read the page one story in New York Times on North Dakota elementary school third grade teacher, Kayla Delzer, who according to the reporter is one of the “tech-savviest teachers in the United States.”
Reporter Natasha Singer says:
Her third graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodeled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps like Seesaw, a student portfolio platform where teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.
Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.
“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”
The journalist goes on to point out conflicts of interests and ethical confusion when entrepreneurial teachers such as Delzer working in resource-poor community institutions–where many teachers across the nation have to get supplies and classroom staples by opening their wallets or begging from donors (or both)–have ties to high-tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM).
After reading the article, I asked myself: what larger issues does the story of Kayla Delzer illustrate?
To reporter Singer, Delzer is an instance of the blurred boundaries tech gurus like this teacher faces in helping students, other teachers, and districts to integrate software and hardware in creative ways and at the same time, earn extra money.
Private gain (e.g., GAFAM seeking future customer base; teachers earning dollars beyond their salary) vs. public good (e.g., teachers as civil servants paid from the community purse to prepare students for citizenship, college, and career). That is the value conflict that the Times reporter hits.
The story of Kayla Delzer surely shows a gifted teacher entering the swamp of conflicts-of-interest as private corporations generously give of their largess to schools while ensnaring hungry, resource-poor teachers with freebies and name-brand products. Important and accurate as these ethical quandaries are, however, there are larger issues that the story of Kayla Delzer typifies.
First, there is the growth of a tiny subset of teachers– recall that there are over three million teachers across 13,000-plus districts in the U.S.–who are entrepreneurial and achieve brand-name status sufficient to be labeled “rock stars” among educators.
Second, GAFAM is just a recent incarnation of a historic tension between private gain and public good in U.S. public schools.
If I define an entrepreneur as someone initiating activities and taking risks to improve what they do (organizing, managing, and teaching a class), there have always been entrepreneurial teachers in U.S. classrooms. In the 19th and 20th centuries, enterprising teachers found resources, scrounged materials, and took risks in using new techniques and products on their own time and on their own dime so that their students could learn in innovative ways.
From Jesse Stuart in rural Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s to fifth grade New York City teacher, Gloria Channon, who started an open classroom in the 1960s in a heavily bureaucratized system to Kayla Delzer in 2017, these teachers took initiatives and risks as they tried out new ways of organizing their classroom and teaching in different ways. Every school faculty then and now could point to at least one teacher in the school who was a master at gathering instructional and non-teaching items for the classroom, trying out new ideas with students, and risking both money and reputation to do things better.
Now with the Internet and social media, there is far more evidence of entrepreneurial teachers documented in blogs, Facebook postings, and start-up businesses. From Teachers Pay Teachers to Google Certified Innovators , the notion of teachers being entrepreneurial in a market-driven economy where Silicon Valleys across the U.S. (Northern California, Austin, New York City, Boston) spread a culture of hustle, workaholism, and money should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the Kayla Delzers among millions of teachers are the one percenters who wrestle with the dilemma of serving children and becoming a money-making brand name.
Public Good vs. Private Gain: The Dilemma
Business dealings with public school work have been entwined for well over a century. After all, without businesses voting for tax levies, local chambers of commerce endorsing district budgets, and schools outsourcing key functions to the private sector, tax-supported public schools would be in serious trouble. Both business and schools are joined at the hip.
Yet commercialization of instructional materials, seeing students as future customers, ads on buses and in sports stadia have been around for decades (anyone remember Channel One?). And criticism of too much commercialization (see here and here) has appeared often. Tensions have ebbed and flowed over the years at too much business involvement in steering the curriculum to satisfy employers, district board favoritism toward particular companies, and similar complaints (see here and here).
The history of U.S. public schools documents, then, the close relationship between for-profit enterprise seeking private gain and the public goods that tax-supported schools and their trustees seek for children and youth compelled to attend school.
The story of Kayla Delzer displays these larger issues and the choices that she and other entrepreneurial teachers face in deciding whether public interest trumps private gain.