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EdTech Start-ups: Stop Talking Down to Teachers

by Richard Byrne

Last week I met with representatives of dozens of companies pitching their products at the ISTE conference. In the course of the year I’ll hear dozens of more pitches and receive hundreds, if not thousands, of press releases from edtech companies. Of all of those companies, the ones that fail to hold my attention make the same mistake. Whether they realize it or not, they talk down to teachers.

There are a few ways I hear edtech companies talk down to teachers without realizing it. First, if your response to “Why did you start this company?” is “I’ve always been interested in education and I wanted to help with problem X” you’ve already lost me and most of my friends. Your response has signaled that you think anyone can step into education and immediately make an impact. Nothing is more offensive to teachers than people who don’t have classroom experience (one year of Teach for America doesn’t count) purporting to have the solution to their problems. I’ve always been interested in dentistry, but I’m not going to tell my dentist that I have a better way of performing root canals. Yes, I know you’ve talked to lots of teachers and read lots of books. I’ve also talked to lots of dentists and read books.

The second unintentional talking down mistake edtech companies make is assuming nothing. I sat through a few pitches at ISTE in which I was asked, “Are you familiar with the SAMR model?” Seriously, we’re at the largest edtech conference in the world and you’re asking me if I’m familiar with SAMR? Guess what, you’ve just talked down to me and probably most of the other educators who stopped by your booth during the conference. If I wasn’t familiar with the term I’d do what I’ve taught students to do for years, either ask or figure it out in context.

Third, stop asking teachers to do for free what companies in other industries pay for. Yes, we all love a free tee shirt (provided it fits and isn’t ugly), free coffee, or free pens. But don’t ask teachers to give hours of their time for one of those things and a “digital badge” that says something like “teacher ambassador for company X.” If you want market research, pay for market research. If you want product advisement, pay the hourly rate (or equity rate) for product advisors. In other words, offer something of value in return for teachers’ time. You might be thinking, well Google and Apple don’t provide anything to teachers. That’s not true because being a Google Certified Teacher or Apple Distinguished Educator provides those teachers with a fantastic opportunity to earn money as trainers around those products. (I’ve personally made a good living from my GCT status). People aren’t making money by being the “product ambassador” for a start-up that is addressing a small problem/ niche in the market.

Finally, the most obvious example of edtech start-ups talking down to teachers is found when a company attempts to tell teachers how to teach. Unless your company is run by teachers or has a lot of teachers on staff, you’re probably going to end up talking down to teachers when you make your pitch. Teachers receive enough edicts from on high in their school districts; they don’t need a edtech start-ups run by people who have little or no classroom experience telling them how they should be teaching. I recently, politely, sat through a pitch from a company that spent ten minutes essentially telling me how they tell teachers that worksheets are bad and digitized activities are good. There were two problems with that pitch. First, they didn’t say anything that is news to teachers. Second, their solution was to replace the worksheet with its iPad equivalent.

Believe me, I want edtech start-ups to do well. In fact, I love helping edtech start-ups that have remarkable products do well. When you do well, we all do well. Just make sure you’re doing well without talking down to the people you need the most, the teachers.

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  • Good article. This is a wonderful reminder that teachers are not saints nor uninformed pack-mules; they are the in sales, customer service, operations, public speaking, philanthropy, therapy, and product development–all day, everyday. On the brighter side, this is an exciting time for EdTech, watching the companies include more teachers as part of their teams– this should help how society sees the teaching profession.

    July 13, 2015
  • This reminds me of a honked-off superintendent friend, who told me about an insulting experience she had with the CEO of education, enterprise software company. He assumed that she had no idea of the meaning of “formative assessment,” and so he began to instruct her as if she was from the moon. My conversation with her was weeks later and she was still fuming about it. Worse than uninformed members of the education community are ignorant, ed tech company employees, who pretend to be experts on education topics, not realizing that most teachers have been aware of these concepts since the days of Socrates.

    July 14, 2015
  • Thank you Richard Byrne! I get the same questions, comments and emails too-all of the time. Also, just to note, edtech companies who reach out to teachers running education sites-please respect our time and space. Please know that in a business sense, it is wrong to ask for so much of our free time to chat, share reviews and/or promote your product without any mutual offering. It’s not good business practice. I get this from very young CEO’s all of the time. I want you to succeed too, but please think about how you approach educators.

    July 20, 2015

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