Maria Fenwick is the founder of the Teacher Collaborative a community built by teachers for teachers that fosters collaboration, empowers innovation, and creates meaningful professional learning opportunities for all teachers.
What inspired you to launch The Teacher Collaborative?
I have both been a teacher and worked with hundreds of teachers over the course of my career and I know that teachers need a new way to connect with each other, share ideas, and support and inspire one another across the boundaries of schools, districts, cities, and towns.
From where I sit, I see so many dedicated, smart, savvy educators who are doing amazing things in their classrooms and schools. Together, they are a formidable community that has the power to bring improvements and positive change to the most important challenges in schools. Our programs allow educators to work smarter, not harder, and yield positive outcomes for all students and schools across our state.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far and how have you met them?
The pace of change. By nature, I am a fast-paced person and I have gotten many reminders over time that things take longer than they seem like they should. Once you have an idea, it feels like you just want to take it and run and run. You see the path in front of you. You have people telling you that yes, they support you and you should go. And then you meet roadblocks. They feel frustrating sometimes, but I have gotten better at realizing it’s all part of the game.
What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you and The Teacher Collaborative?
Hands down it’s moving from planning to action. I can’t wait to welcome teachers into the Teacher Collaborative community. I have such a reverence for teachers and the work they do. I see our work at the Teacher Collaborative largely as facilitating or catalyzing the great energy, ideas, and passion that already exists in classrooms and schools across our state. Every time I talk to teachers I feel really excited and reassured that we are moving in the right direction. They are the heart and soul of this organization.
How do you define success?
This is tricky because as a former teacher I am very steeped in the belief that our work is never done – each new accomplishment brings more work to do, more challenges, more ideas. There is a Haitian proverb I love that says “There are mountains beyond mountains.” Every time you reach the “top,” you just see more mountains. To be clear, I see this as a positive thing because that’s how we, as a society, continuously find better ways to do things.
In concrete terms, success for the Teacher Collaborative right now means engaging as many teachers from as many different schools as we can and having these teachers report back to us: Yes, I love this. I need this. You’re on the right track. Keep going. We care about helping educators make real change in their schools and classrooms that have a positive impact on students. That is trickier to measure, but we are working on how we can tell if we are successfully reaching students. Our ultimate goal is to make all schools better places to learn – for teachers, for principals, and of course, for students.
What three lessons have you learned about being a social impact entrepreneur?
The group of social entrepreneurs who are pursuing their various ideas to make the world a better place is vast. The more I learn about the good, smart ways people are trying to make a difference, the more I feel humbled. It’s inspiring to feel part of a community of people who are trying to do good.
I am also in awe of the funding community that exists to support our work. For every person who has a great idea, there are people out there willing to take a chance on it. The lesson here is to trust that you will find someone to take a chance on you. Some people will say no, they won’t see things as you do. But keep going. You’ll get there.
Lastly, I think I am not alone in saying that I sort of backed into this. I had my idea first and then realized – oh, now I have to build an organization around this. I was totally new to business planning and budget making. At first, I felt intimidated, but now I realize that you’ve just got to jump in with both feet. Looking at our budget might not be the most exciting part of my day, but it’s what allows me to grow the Teacher Collaborative and do good work. So it’s worth it to suspend self-doubt and start figuring it out. I reached out to friends, read articles, did online searches and then I just opened Excel and started building.
What three qualities do you think an entrepreneur must have to succeed?
An ability to see every twist and turn as an opportunity. I have a little graphic I love and look at often that shows a graph with an arrow going straight on a diagonal upward trajectory with the caption: This is what people think success looks like. Next to it, there is a second graph that shows the same starting and ending point but instead of the line going straight along the diagonal, it’s all twisted and squiggled with ups and downs. This graph has the caption: This is what success really looks like. And I think that is so true. You have to be prepared to get knocked down and get up again. Think quickly on your feet and keep moving.
We’re trying to bring this same spirit of embracing twists and turns more intentionally and publicly to the teachers and school leaders we work with. Teaching or leading a school is a very high-stakes job. You don’t get a lot of do-overs, you are working with kids and people, and you want to do right by them. So it can be hard to say, “I’m going to go out on a limb here.” That’s scary. But I think if we can all talk more openly about how success is rarely that straight trajectory, then it’s easier to take that risk to try new things. Great teachers and great school leaders are very entrepreneurial.
What words of advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Try to retain your sense of humor. Be able to laugh. We have a running joke about adding a new chapter to the origin story of the Teacher Collaborative every time we hit a road bump. Just like the chapter titles in Winnie the Pooh, “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One.” So ours would be, “In Which We Thought X Was Going to Happen and then Y Happened Instead.”
Another thing I am working on is realizing that lots and lots of people will have advice for you, but no one will have the exact right advice. I think it’s important to always consider different perspectives and hear what others suggest. But at the end of the day, you are the “decider” and there will always be people who disagree with your decision. You have to learn to take a breath, do it anyway, and then be strong enough to stand by it.
Lastly, surround yourself with awesome people who care about your vision, fill your knowledge/skill gaps, and who have some entrepreneurial tendencies themselves. The first few years are an all hands on deck situation and you need people who are not only OK with that but can thrive in a fast-paced and sometimes ambiguous environment. They are taking a chance on you and your idea, but the reward of helping something grow from nothing is great.
What’s one tool – article, book, app, etc. – that’s been helpful to you recently?
I love the podcast How I Built This. It features stories of entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. They tell their own stories of humble beginnings and ups and downs. I find it therapeutic and inspiring.
As a first generation high school and college graduate, the value of a good education is very personal to me. As a college freshman I read Savage Inequalities in an elective class and from then on I was hooked. I knew I would spend my career dedicated to improving schools and working to guarantee every child a high-quality education.
We are intentionally engaging teachers in our work through a large and diverse Educator Council comprised of teachers and school leaders who give us advice and feedback and help us set our vision.
from the series
Startup Warriors: Entrepreneurs’ Stories of Ingenuity, Grit & Resilience