When Emily Williams told her parents in early 2020 that she was leaving her job as a certified public school teacher to start a small school, they thought she was crazy. Both longtime public school educators themselves, they couldn’t understand why Williams, who taught in Mississippi public schools for more than a decade, would want to give up the district’s good salary, insurance and retirement benefits to become an educational entrepreneur. However, Williams was committed to creating an educational environment that emphasized individual learning, personal autonomy, and mutual respect. “When you know that’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re not afraid,” Williams said.
Today, Williams earns more than a public school teacher at her small school, Mica Mission, and enjoys deep personal satisfaction. Located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, her small school serves about 50 K-12 students. Most of her students attend full-time, five days a week, but some participate part-time as home tutors, all of whom experience a personalized learning model tailored to their unique abilities, interests and goals.
A number of Williams’ students have special needs and significant mental and physical disabilities, but all students come together in her small, multi-level school to learn at their own pace. They are supported by talented teachers who lead classes, provide tutoring, provide dyslexia support and related educational services, and facilitate the academic and emotional growth of each learner.
Williams, a former special education teacher, has long embraced the idea of differentiated instruction and seen the benefits of individualized education programs customized to each child’s needs. “In the traditional system, it really became apparent to me early on that I was doing something different,” Williams said. A lead teacher came to me and asked why I had eight separate lesson plans. I explained that I teach students at eight different levels. “If I’m going to reach these students, then that’s the way I’m going to do it and I’m going to adjust every day as needed.”
Accessibility is a key priority for Williams, and she works hard not to turn anyone away from attending her small school. He relies on tuition and financial aid to provide scholarships and reduce the financial burden on families. He also received a micro grant from the VELA Education Fund, a non-profit philanthropic organization that supports the growth of innovative, non-traditional educational models and educational alternatives. Williams used the funds to enable more families to participate in her program at little or no cost.
Even with his low-cost, fully accessible training model, Williams now earns a solid, competitive income while enjoying the personal rewards of being an entrepreneur and building something from scratch. Across the state in Kansas, Jessica Ramsey has had a similar experience as an educational entrepreneur.
Like Williams, Ramsey was a certified public school teacher for more than a decade. Also like Williams, he recognized the importance of differentiated instruction, especially in elementary literacy, and was inclined toward helping slow and engaged readers. She wanted to be a full-time literacy specialist, but when the position became available in her school district, she was told she didn’t have the right master’s degree to get the job.
Frustrated by these organizational limitations, Ramsey began thinking about venturing out on his own. The Covid disruption of 2020 provided the impetus, as Ramsey began offering tutoring to students in the greater Wichita area. Parents really valued Ramsey’s creative approach and influence, and his clientele grew. In 2021, Ramsey resigned from her teaching job to run her literacy training company, Farmhouse Phonics, full-time.
Now, Ramsey is ready to teach reading in person and hands-on, with clients who come to her farmhouse studio in a warm and friendly manner. Her waiting list is growing so large that she is considering expanding her services by hiring other teachers to work with her at Farmhouse Phonics.
While it was a leap in itself, Ramsay is glad he made the decision. In the first few months after leaving the school district, Ramsey kept to a tight budget and applied for and received grants for the startup, including a VELA micro grant, which enabled her to purchase teaching materials and supplies. “Honestly, when I first transitioned from classroom teacher/district employee to self-employed, salary and insurance were the biggest stressors,” Ramsey said. “At this point, almost 18 months after starting Farmhouse Phonics, I’m putting in a little more than a year teaching at a public school.”
Entrepreneurship is inherently risky and many start-ups fail, but Williams and Ramsey show that the demand for personalized training services is high and the financial rewards can be significant. Both of these entrepreneurial educators left their public school teaching positions in the past few years, and both now earn more than experienced classroom teachers.
While there is no guarantee that this will be the outcome for teachers who become entrepreneurs, Williams encourages educators to take up the challenge. “No exit step will be without challenge or struggle,” he explained. However, that’s life: there are always challenges and struggles. This is your chance to choose your challenge and fight. If you are motivated to make it happen, it will happen.”