Starting the conversation on teacherpreneurship - an interview with Dr. Bruce Powell
Updated: Jun 21
Entrepreneurship and teaching traditionally have been mutually exclusive endeavors. Entrepreneurism stirs images of the self-starting creator of products or services. This business-savvy person grimaces at the thought of being bound by systems or conventions, while also understanding that to be successful, he must strategically navigate those very systems.
On the other end of the spectrum, the concept of “teacher” conjures iconic images of chalkboards, desks, walls, rambunctious students, grading papers, and apples on wooden desks. But over the past decade, a quiet movement has been taking place: These two worlds have proven their ability to exist simultaneously. It is between these two zones where I work, live and breathe. I am a teacherpreneur.
In the coming months, I'll be helping SmartBrief Education shine a light on teacherpreneurship. To start things off, let’s bring our attention to a wildly successful teacherpreneur in the flesh, Dr. Bruce Powell. He is a valued personal mentor, who took a chance on me ten years ago, with no more to go on than his instincts and a conversation we shared on a late August afternoon, only days before the school year began.
RA: How does the term “teacherpreneur” strike you?
BP: I love the term. I think it’s descriptive of a lot of what we do here, and it was the subject of a meeting we just had on the topic of innovation. What I’ve discovered is that you have to be motivated to take part in this idea. You have to have initiative. People may choose to come in and only teach their classes, and they can do a great job, but they are not invested in a larger vision for their school, a community, and frankly, for our nation. Those teachers, who are truly teacherpreneurs, have the initiative, ideas and motivation to go out and execute. Getting this new language out, for this article you’re writing, will be a great contribution by itself.
RA: So how would you define "teacherpreneur"?
BP: Teacherpreneurs need to have new, innovative ideas. They are motivated to initiate action. They execute, which is a key idea, because there are many new ideas out there, but without the execution of getting it done, it remains just an idea.
RA: I definitely agree with this notion of innovation, which to me is a core human condition. Innovators take that further leap, beyond the initial idea of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…
BP: … to getting it done. Another facet of teacherpreneurs is that they know how to get it done. There is a capability component, which entails partnering with the right people. Take the idea of the transistor, for example. The person with the idea didn’t build it, manufacture it, or integrate it with evolving technologies. Collaboration needed to take place, so that such an innovation could go on to positively alter the course of history.
RA: This collaborative component is embedded in how you hire. You use the metaphor of getting the right people on the bus.
BP: Yes, and getting them in the right seat. The bus can pull away from the station, and everyone does not need to immediately be in the right seat. But if they’re the right people, we’ll find the right seat for them. And if we can’t find a seat for them, there is no standing room here. You have to get off the bus. Seats expand for more of the right people to join, but there is no standing room for those people who are not aligned with our vision and our values. And by the way, it’s not a knock on those people; they just may belong on a different bus.
RA: Prior to the launch of any significant enterprise, the person or persons at the forefront should think of their cause, or mission. Last time we spoke, you posed the question to me, What if your organization was to go away and not exist tomorrow? Who would care? Then you find those people who would care the most and who would be the most upset, and craft your mission statement around this group. This is very profound. I believe that such an approach can potentially change huge numbers of lives. Can you build on this message, and on how you have put it into practice?
BP: So we’re talking about new ideas. The question is: Does it matter whether those ideas exist or not? Did unicorns ever exist? I don’t know, but it probably doesn’t matter if they did. This is the challenge of the people in the ecology community. They have to convince everybody that all the species that are going extinct matter. Maybe they don’t matter? I have to be convinced, for example, that it’s worthwhile to my existential being that the snail darter exists. If you can’t convince me of that, or that climate change is a real issue, then nothing’s going to happen. The same applies with building an institution. It has to matter that if that institution goes away tomorrow, or if it never existed at all, what difference would that make?
This notion has to be based in several factors. The overriding one is, for those of us who believe in God, and thereby believe there exists an absolute meaning in the universe, then those things that we create which enhance that higher meaning we can’t do without. The second factor is whether the idea in question affects my existence. Take for example, penicillin. Yes, if penicillin, or antibiotics, stopped existing, we’d all be in trouble. You could die from strep throat; half of our faculty and students would be dead without those medical advances. The third factor is to what degree does the idea add to the joy and meaning in my life right now?
RA: So you would specifically use the word "joy"?
BP: Yes, "joy" is the key word. If the Sabbath, for example, did not exist, my life would be much less joyful. Some of the greatest moments of my family’s life happened during the Sabbath, because we had time together. Now let’s take a school. In the religious world, having learning is truly for the sake of increasing meaning and godliness in the world. We believe that not having learning would mean that my existence would cease. It all goes back to my first point. If you believe that there is a higher purpose, such as God or godliness, then everything we do makes sense. If you believe that this [life] is all a random accident, then he with the most toys wins. I couldn’t live like that… it’s meaningless… and only about accumulation.
They say that the happiest place on earth is Disneyland. Yes, you’re happy for a day while you’re there, and they have contributed so much to our culture, jobs, innovation, and family films. All good things. But could the 6.5 billion people on earth achieve joy without Disneyland? Perhaps.
RA: What’s interesting is that some could make the case that godliness, from the view of Disneyland, comes from artistic creation, or from the search for one’s true core identity within the productions they create. Striving to find truth through the medium of art is their view of godliness.
BP: Yes but the question is could the world do without it. There are billions of people in India and China who experience spiritual joy without ever having been to Disneyland. The world could do without it. On the other hand, Jewish education is part of an existential component of the Jewish faith on so many levels: meaning, purpose, joy, and connectedness. Those are the motivating factors, and then you fashion a mission around those core existential pieces.
RA: Would you say to those who may want to try on the teacherpreneur cloak that they should approach their work from the eternal? In addition to the concept of creating joy in people’s lives?
BP: I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I think every teacher who wins a national teacher award sees what he or she does as a calling. Well, who’s calling them? Every great teacher has a bigger purpose. Every great entrepreneur has a bigger purpose. Take the creation of the computer, for instance. The people who created it were not focused on making billions of dollars. They were focused on winning World War II. They were focused on enabling people to communicate, and tie the world together. That’s a much bigger purpose than simply building computers and making a billion dollars.
The same goes with Alexander Graham Bell. When President James Garfield was shot, it took him three months to die. He died of an infection, not from the bullet itself. During that time, Bell worked feverishly trying to perfect his machine that could locate metal inside of a body. Now, it’s no big deal, we have x-ray machines, MRI machines, or you could go to the beach and see people with metal detectors. But at the time, it was a huge deal. Bell wasn’t doing it because he was going to get paid for it. He was doing it because he wanted to save the life of the president of the United States. It’s always about the greater purpose. The same goes with an institution. If we created our school just because we thought we needed another high school and for no other purpose, then we’d never get off the ground. Who’d want to support a purposeless organization?
Sometimes, organizations create something in which people don’t know they need until after they are created. This may be the ultimate genius. Who knew that I needed Google? Now the search function has transformed everything. It democratized knowledge to the nth degree.
Every day I ask myself what difference would it make if this school were to not exist. I think it would matter to the 850 graduates we have. We may have added a layer of culture to their lives that they didn’t know they needed until after they experienced it.
RA: I’m sure you have numerous mentors. Is there a person and his/her message that stands out to you, regarding how to align your conduct as an educator, community member, and a leader? What messages have you learned that inspire you?
BP: My very first serious educational and institution building mentor was Shlomo Bardin. Almost everything I do comes directly from the depth of learning I gained from him. When I was twelve years old, Bardin got up during a service and said, “The meaning and purpose of the Jewish existence is to fix or perfect the world in the kingdom of God.” This was in 1960; no one had said that before. While the scripture he referenced is thousands of years old, his formulation of the phrasing had never been uttered, and it rocked my world.
Then as I got older and listened to Bardin more, he talked about where he grew up: Zhitomir, [zhi-taw-myir] Ukraine. He told us that in Zhitomir, the community cared. The community took on the responsibility of finding a mate for every single girl in the town who wished to get married. The community would take care of your happiness. It was also the first time I learned of the concept of a burial society. They didn’t have an unknown entity pick up the body of their dead, then put it in a box and into the ground. Rather, a holy society comes and takes that body under their care, washes the body, enshrouds the body, offers prayers and blessings, and safeguards the body until the time of the burial. Again, rocked my world. I asked, “There is a community that actually did that? That’s real? People actually took care of each other, and nobody went hungry?” I was fourteen years old, and I began to understand the purpose of my existence, as a Jewish person, and in my overall life. I learned that everyone has, in Bardin’s words, a task. Our job is to find our individual task in life. Not everyone can do everything. Currently here at school, we tell the students to find their gift. Whatever your task, or gift is, find it, and contribute it.
Simple concepts, but in a city like Los Angeles, which is so huge, we lose touch. We lose touch with nature, with the sacredness of the dead, and with each other. And now this concept of finding one’s task can be applied to building a learning institution, organization, or business. Find your task; find your gift. Sense of belonging. Contribution, and so on.
RA: It appears that the twelve or fourteen year old you took these ideals and tried to imagine his life amongst these paradigms. I think that currently, we’re so far removed from this reality, that to actually let that in would be mind-boggling. What do we do now when someone in our family dies – call an ambulance? You don’t know who’s coming, or what their protocols are.
BP: When someone dies at home, the law is that you call 911. The police come. Then you call your mortuary, and they come collect the body. But the first people on the scene when you call 911 are the police.
RA: We really are so far removed from this particular concept of reality. Take your example of meeting someone and getting married. What do we turn to now… online dating services, or telling people to go to bars and try to meet people… essentially that’s as far as much of our society goes. Community may help, but society does not.
BP: Back then, it was the communal responsibility to help. Actually even further: it was the communal obligation. If a person who wished to be married and was not, then it was the community that had failed, not the individual.
RA: I have to say, that’s weird. Not in a bad way weird, just, uncanny.
BP: It’s a paradigm shift to way it’s supposed to be. Communities should look out for each other. In a city this large, Los Angeles, with such wealth, no one should go hungry. And in our micro-world at school, we can’t have anyone sitting alone at lunch. It’s the community’s obligation to learn the values of our school, namely that we should have no cliques, so that no one sits alone. That’s what my personal vision and the vision of our institution are founded on. I didn’t make it up. My contribution to all this was to simply put it into language that people understood. For example, our term, ‘Advanced Placement Kindness’ is simply an outgrowth of seeing each individual as godly or sacred. Communal obligation is necessary to reduce pain in the world. It’s so simple.”
RA: Do you believe this communal obligation - the notion that communities should look out for each other - is a blueprint for anyone who wishes to take on the role of Teacherpreneur?
BP: They have to have a greater purpose; that’s the whole point. I believe that all education is a communal obligation to raise our young people. John Dewey, a great American educator, spoke of education’s need to raise great citizens of a democracy. He wrote a book called Democracy in America. He felt that the only way America could remain a democracy and a free and open society was through a liberal education. Not liberal as compared to conservative. But liberal in the sense that its open purpose was to create great citizens. This was revolutionary at the time, in the early 20th century, because while some people attended traditional schools, many people did not and instead learned through apprenticeship. They learned a trade. Even today, what percent of Americans today attend a four-year college? [turns to his computer to Google it]. Here we are, last year, 65.9% of people who graduated high school in the spring then attended college in the fall, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It also says that this figure is up from 45% in 1960. So you can only imagine how few people went to college in 1910; only the rich people went. My message is that education is a communal cause for the betterment of society, and by extension, so too is teacherpreneurism. Teacherpreneurs need to have a higher purpose, to create a situation by which students can understand their obligation to contribute something back to society, through their own unique task or unique gift.
RA: Your words turn the traditional model on its head. Even though teachers believe in ideals like public service and positively affecting young minds, you and I both know that if they have ideas to innovate, many times those ideas are solely about creating efficiency, or reexamining old models, or some other sort of practical application. They think from the ground up. You’re beginning from the higher purpose, and then traversing down to the ground.
Today we’ve discussed how you believe the terms “educator” and “entrepreneur” collide. We touched on many such collisions: innovation, motivation, initiative, execution, capability, creating the language, having the larger vision, and collaboration. To your mind, when, if ever, don’t they collide?
BP: I think that one can go into business and regard it as a sacred task. Truly great businesspeople did that. Take Howard Schultz, the chairman/CEO of Starbucks. He is providing a nice service, a nice cup of coffee, and a fun place to be. But he also gives benefits to his part-time employees, and he came up with a program to pay for his employees’ college education. Because making coffee, and making hundreds of millions of dollars was simply not enough. It was empty. So Howard decided he was going to make it more fulfilling, rather than just continue to expand. To create a large business, and not give back, is so empty. If the sole purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of money, it creates a life of meaninglessness. I have met so many people, who are so miserable from doing so. But, I’ve also met people who are exceptionally wealthy, whose goal for making the wealth was how to turn it into fixing society, or creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Rockefeller comes to mind. History shows that in the year 1900, his total net worth was one sixty-fourth of the entire gross domestic product. In this regard, he was the richest man in American history; no one has ever come close to that ratio, not even Bill Gates. But what did Rockefeller do? As a religious Protestant, he knew that it wasn’t enough. So he started the Rockefeller Foundation, which among other tasks, worked to eradicate ringworm cases in the southern United States. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does the same work against malaria.
RA: So whereas before, when only education has been regarded as a sacred act, you state that business must be as well.
BP: Yes. People have to use money for something greater than themselves. Otherwise, it makes you miserable, and it destroys your children. Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. He says, ‘Give it all away before you die.’ Business can be wildly sacred.
RA: I’m dubbing my last question ‘The Spontaneous Soapbox.’ Imagine that instantaneously, you are standing in front of thousands of teachers who are fresh out of the gate. The newer generation of teachers. They are interested in the service of education, and in what education stands for. But, they also want to make their mark individually. They each want to offer something unique, that only they themselves can do. You now have their ear. What would you say to them, on your spontaneous soapbox?
BP: Thing 1: Don’t be boring. Don’t bore yourself, don’t bore your students. What I mean in the macro-sense is come up with something new. Inn-o-vate! Learn your trade, learn from mentors, and then change it to make it greater. Find your gift.
Thing 2: Develop a well-honed and powerful sense of humor. If you can’t see the divine comedy in children, then you’re going to take everything too seriously. It’ll depress you. But you must see the humor, the joy, in kids. One of the requirements we have when hiring new faculty is that you have to think teenagers are funny. If you don’t think teenagers are funny, and you start to take that angst seriously, then…
RA: … you’ll fizzle out, or take it out on them.
BP: Right. Which goes to the third thing: you have to know in what to take seriously in life. There is a different answer for every child, for every age.
The fourth thing: In your teaching, really know what’s important. Not everything you’re teaching is important. When I teach my Israel history class, all the dates and events that I use to make my case are not that important. So what is important? How do we distill the absolutely existential, vital information that a person needs in order to advance whatever cause they are working on?
The fifth thing: understand what courage is – real courage. When someone is shooting at you on the battlefield, and you shoot back, and you save lives, that’s one form of courage. That’s physical courage. But political, spiritual, and moral courage are much more difficult. When someone is shooting at you, it’s clear: either shoot back, get killed, or find a way to survive. Perhaps it’s also a matter of survival, as well as courage. My father served in World War II, and he didn’t think he was courageous; he just wanted to survive. Jack Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, was all about political courage… moral courage.
Do the right things for the kids, and take risks, but not risks for the sake of risks. And not political courage for the sake of political courage. Comport with a moral vision. The terrorists don’t get this. Terrorists are boring. They don’t have any vision – nor do they do or say anything interesting. They know how to kill, and to hate, but that’s all boring. It doesn’t move anything forward.
RA: Terrorists are boring. I’ve never heard that before, but it’s true, isn’t it? Thank you very much for your time.
BP: My pleasure.