Just a teacher

Teachers inspire, lead, coach, listen, empathize—just like entrepreneurs, says alum Jess Gartner

Collage of a woman holding a tablet with data displayed

Image credit: Katy Lemay

As the founder of a software company, I live for that familiar spark of joy in the viewer's eyes during product demos as I zip through features and functions that have been years in the making. All too often, their reaction shifts from delight to confusion: "These products are incredible, Jess. But you were just a teacher?"

Customers, friends, and investors ask me this vaguely rhetorical question with stunning regularity. It's intended as a compliment, but at the expense of teachers. Which, of course, I was.

Indeed, I was just a teacher. Nearly 10 years ago, as a middle school teacher in Baltimore City, I had to teach just four different lessons a day to 110 students. That's just 110 sets of parents, stepparents, grandparents, sisters, and brothers with whom to build relationships. Just 720 lesson plans to write, worksheets to create, evaluations to align, and assessments to grade, and 110 essays each week to read and mark up with meaningful, specific feedback.

Out of paper? Revise my lesson into an interactive game. Three laptops for 25 students? Set up rotating stations. Projector breaks? Improvise.

I had just 60 minutes of planning time in which to do all of this—45 minutes if I walked the kids to lunch, 35 if the copier jammed, and just 20 if a parent popped in to chat. So I would just take those 110 papers home to grade—I could just finish them while the "cuneiform tablets" for the next day's lesson on ancient Mesopotamia were baking. When the alarm went off at 5 a.m., I always needed just five more minutes ...

As a teacher, I learned how to be scrappy and creative under resource constraints. Out of paper? Revise my lesson into an interactive game. Three laptops for 25 students? Set up rotating stations. Projector breaks? Improvise.

The lack of basic instructional resources like books, paper, and technology taxes teachers' time and money. When resources aren't readily available, teachers must scavenge the internet for lesson plans and materials to borrow, make them from scratch, or buy them with their own money. Exhaustion and burnout are real threats to the profession and K-12 education system, costing billions of dollars annually in attrition-related expenses. How is it possible that teachers are expected to bear this burden when U.S. education spending is among the highest in the world?

Shortly after leaving the classroom, I founded Allovue, a K-12 finance software company, to help school leaders use technology to answer questions about budgets and spending. In the past five years, we've helped districts analyze more than $35 billion in spending data; we now support administrators in managing over 1 percent of all K-12 annual spending in the country.

Teachers inspire, lead, coach, listen, empathize—just like entrepreneurs. Allovue's products are as good as they are because of my experience as a teacher, not in spite of it.

Jess Gartner, Ed '11 (MAT), is the founder and CEO of Allovue.