A new fellowship at 36 Degrees North this summer brought together a group of Tulsa-area teachers to identify problems affecting education and develop creative solutions through work with their schools and the community.
The two-week fellowship culminated Thursday evening when the teachers pitched their ideas to a panel of judges who would decide how $20,000 from a United Way Innovation Grant would be divided to help the teachers implement their ideas.
More than 90 teachers applied for the Teacher Innovation Fellowship organized by 36 Degrees North, which provides workspace for entrepreneurs. Fifteen teachers from the Tulsa and Union public school districts were selected to participate.
Dustin Curzon, executive director of 36 Degrees North, said his team operates under the definition of an entrepreneur as “anyone looking for a creative solution to an important problem.”
“We’ve seen opportunities where teachers have great ideas and they want to implement them,” Curzon said. “Like a lot of entrepreneurs in the community, they just don’t know where to start.”
So the 36 Degrees North team invited teachers into their workspace at 36 E. Cameron St. to connect the ideas and needs of teachers with the organization’s network of businesses, nonprofits and higher education institutions.
The fellowship included workshops taught by Hannah Ralston, program manager at The Mine, which has offices in 36 Degrees North and is dedicated to equipping entrepreneurs, nonprofits and others with a combination of business principles and startup approaches to creatively address community issues.
“Teachers are really natural problem-solvers, and so this Teacher Innovation Fellowship was really about giving them the space, some of the additional tools, and really the resources, to do what they do best,” Ralston said.
The teachers were asked to identify a problem they thought they could address at their schools. A common issue they identified was difficulty engaging students in coursework.
“For some reason, there’s sort of a reactive disconnect, starting as low as elementary school, with kids learning at school,” explained Danielle Terrio, a special education teacher at Hamilton Elementary School.
Jenny Dungan, a fitness instructor at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, agreed.
“What we’re finding is that, like Danielle said, our students aren’t connected to the learning. They’re bored,” Dungan said.
The teachers were split into teams based on their ideas for solutions, which were consolidated into four approaches: incorporate outdoor learning spaces; improve teachers’ mental health; get students involved in the community; and implement interventions to reduce behavioral problems that result in suspensions.
The participants conducted surveys to help inform their ideas and worked with their school administrators, as well as their students’ families and community organizations, to develop their solutions.
In addition to the funding to help implement the teachers’ solutions, each participant received a $1,000 stipend for taking part in the fellowship. The stipends were also funded by the United Way grant, which was obtained by 36 Degrees North.
The teachers described the experience as “validating.”
“36 Degrees North basically gave us two weeks of paid time to analyze our problems from a teacher’s point of view and come up with teacher solutions to those problems,” Terrio said.
The teachers were not only encouraged to think outside the box to come up with solutions, they were taught how to obtain funding to implement those solutions, said Angie Clift, who is set to start teaching at Boevers Elementary School in the fall.
Dungan said the program showed her how to turn an idea into reality by forming relationships with people in the community who want to help.
“I didn’t realize that the community wanted to help so much,” she said.
The panel of judges to whom the teachers would pitch their ideas were Cindy Longacre, director of community initiatives for Tusla Area United Way; Brian Paschal, president of the Foundation for Tulsa Schools; and Jeff Moore, executive director of the Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth.