cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Friday, February 8, 2019

Walking in the World With a Broken Heart – A Love Letter

Before I came back to teaching, I spent 25 years starting software companies in Silicon Valley. Starting organizations is a whole unique area of expertise. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge that sprouts up about the life cycle of organizations. Newborn organizations become toddler organizations and if they survive, they become children and teenagers and adults.

Organizations are born, grow, split off, spawn new organizations, die, get acquired, fail to get acquired. Sometimes organizations become zombie organizations. A very few organizations get big. Some organizations stay the same size. Some organizations shrink. There are as many ways to thrive as there are to die.

In the corporate world, there are definitely different kinds of people who find they are suited to different kinds of organizations: there are start-up people and there are big-company people.

It takes a whole different skill set to start and run a start-up than it does to work in or run a large organization. The amount of infrastructure in a large organization is really impressive to me -- even in a poorly organized or run large organization. Anybody who has ever worked in a school district knows what I am talking about. There is a form for everything, a department for everything, a mission statement for everything.

Start-ups are completely different creatures. In a start-up, there's no infrastructure unless you create it. When you finally move a start-up organization out of the corner of your bedroom or your basement or your garage, you start encountering questions like, Where do ISBN numbers come from? Where do conference tables come from? How do boxed products get assembled and shipped? How do I calculate and submit sales tax to the state? Where does liability insurance come from?

I have always been a start-up person, descended from a long line of start-up people. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA. As I've done genealogical research on my family, it has been fascinating to discover that in between being attacked by pogroms and ethnic cleansing, my people as far back as the 1860s in Elizavetgrad in the southwestern Russian Empire were starting businesses and growing them and spinning off new businesses from old businesses.

So when we decided to start TMC almost ten years ago, it struck me as extremely exciting but also no big deal. I had done this kind of thing six or seven times before, plus I'd been watching my family members do it for generations. As Paul Hawken, the great environmental entrepreneur and author writes in his landmark book, Growing a Business, you don't start a new organization to overtake the competition. You start a new organization because there is no existing organization that exists to meet an identified need that is going unmet.

We started TMC because we felt like isolated individual math teachers who wanted to connect with other math teachers for free to find ways to improve our teaching practice.

And it's been amazing. My closest math teacher friends are people I would never have met otherwise. They come from all over the planet. They do not look like me or teach like me or have backgrounds like mine. And yet, I know their hearts in small ways and they know mine, and I love every single one of them dearly.

Starting a new organization is filled with risk. You are throwing in your fortunes with people you really don't know. What I think of as The Great Facebook Friending of December 2011 felt like a huge risk because it was. Everybody I know said, ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU ARE GOING TO MEET PEOPLE YOU MET ON THE INTERNET? HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT DANGER IN THIS WORLD?

But I didn't care. I knew what the risks were, and I knew that I might need to go into Facebook Witness Protection if the 25 people I had just friended turned out to be psycho-killers.

They weren't. And I've never regretted it.

But something I learned by growing companies is happening now. within the TMC community and organization. If an organization succeeds, its mission starts getting stretched. People of good will have different ideas about what it means to live out the original mission.

This is normal. This is organizational growth. Sometimes it is possible to expand an organization's mission to meet differing needs. Sometimes it isn't. And that's when new organizations get born.

I have been wondering if this is why I feel less freaked-out about the evolution that is happening than other people do. I feel sad to see people I love leave this project I am committed to, but I'm also very used to seeing people I love leave my project to go off and start some other project that is going to be its own powerful, amazing force in the world.

The one thing I know about start-ups — and big organizations too — is that you can't just give them a personality transplant. A new organization is often needed to meet a need that is not being met by an existing organization.

It's important that we not view this as a problem. This is a great opportunity for our community.

There is so much institutional and organizational knowledge now in our MTBoS community about how to start, run, and grow a conference and a community that I see this as an enormous moment.

I am very sorry that people I admire and respect feel like they cannot live out their missions about how to create a teacher-led math conference/community focused exclusively on equity, but to me, it is very exciting that these incredibly creative, energetic, and dedicated teachers are spreading their wings and committing to figuring out how to bring their ideas about what they should look like to fruition in the world.

TMC is TMC. Something new will be something new. This is what exponential growth looks like. Today we are exploring the doubling function in our connected educator worldwide teacher community.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is said that when a lot of things start going haywire all at once, it is because something large and beautiful and powerful is trying to be born.

This is what I see happening here. It doesn't work to try and do a brain transplant into TMC because nobody knows how to do that — and it's just not how organizational development and growth work. It just isn't.

But something new is in the process of being birthed, and I see it as a "both / and" moment.

The world is an enormous place and our country needs every kind of lens we educators can bring to it. And we have no time to lose.

I am excited to think that there could be TWO or more teacher-founded math conferences in the world started by people I love and admire and feel awe-inspired to teach and learn with.

Please let us know how we can help. My heart is with TMC from the start, but as you sail off on your next adventure, please know that I will be that tiny figure on the shoreline, waving and cheering for your mission and wishing you every possible success.


  1. We have been thinking way too small about the whole equity effort.

    We need to approach this from a perspective of abundance of talent and energy, rather than a battle of scarcity.

  2. Very eloquently spoken. Thank you E.

  3. OMG! You are so spot on for me! What a perspective! I love it! I makes me do a happy dance! More, different, creating, not better, not in competition, but DIFFERENT! I needed your works so much. Making space, sprouting new! That was my problem, not seeing the abundance. I too will be cheering and hoping that connections are made and a new mission evoves. Thank you Elizabeth!

    1. Thank you, Amy. We can build a better space that includes everybody if we are willing to take the risk to reimagine it. ❤️

      - E.

  4. (I apologize if I accidentally posted this like 3 times. Trying from my phone and not sure if it posted correctly.)
    I have been to 2 TMC conferences (Minneapolis and Cleveland.) And while it was great to connect with friends from across the country, I will say that it was clear that this space was family to some people but not to others. And maybe that is okay. The founding members should be proud that you built a cool thing that people want to be part of. You should be proud of that. But it is probably time to grapple with TMC’s elitism and lack of inclusivity as a feature, not a bug. And it makes sense that you are framing this as a chance for something new and cool because in the world of Silicon Valley, there is ALWAYS the opportunity for something more niche and more specialized so that people can get exactly the experience that they want. (May I cite as an example?) But here is the thing about Silicon Valley- what we are finding more and more are the platforms that may have been built to bring us together are serving to further parse us into those niche groups...a feature, not a bug.

    I think we DO need something new. But if the new thing isn’t built with features to check white supremacy from the start, then it will be one of those features that you didn’t want but that comes along anyway. (Kind of like when that U2 album showed up on all of our iPhones randomly one day.)

    1. That's exactly it, Nicole. It has to be rearchitected and reimagined from the ground up. And we have the capacity to do that. But it needs to be a whole-community effort. Otherwise we can't see each other's blind spots.

      - Elizabeth

  5. I wanted to say that I've found some of the responses on twitter to be rude, hostile and fixated on shutting down discussion. I admire your courage in posting.

    1. Thank you, Benjamin. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," as Justice Brandeis put it. Enforced silences are toxic. I appreciate your support for my risk in speaking.

      - E.

  6. Wow! I’ve never attended TMC but I so appreciate everyone in this community. I felt complete need to comment here because you write so well and the perspective you provide is so important. ~Bridget

    1. Thank you, Bridget. I just couldn't stay silent any more.