What I Learned as a Volunteer Teacher at Ko School

For the past year, I’ve taught entrepreneurship once per week at Ko School in Austin, Texas.

Here’s a little video trailer a few students and I put together about the class:

In the very first class, I asked the students what would make the class 100% worthwhile for them.

Everyone had a different background and perspective. Some were shrewd entrepreneurs who’d sold thousands of dollars of inventory (before turning 15!), while others had no idea what “entrepreneurship” meant.

Each week, I’d try to think of new ways to keep them engaged, positively reinforce good behaviors, hold them accountable, and keep them moving forward.

Somedays I would bring in books as rewards. Other days, we’d start the class with a game — like “tell us a story about a picture on your phone” or “partner up and build something together with Legos.”

The first assignment was to “sell something.” It could be anything, just as long as someone purchased it.

The results were hilarious. One student sold a $20 necklace for $80. Another student sold sticks of gum for a total of $0.16.

One of the most memorable classes was when I realized one of the students — who’d been spinning his wheels, constantly abandoning projects to move on to something else — was actually a natural salesman. I asked him to sell me something. He started selling me on everything we could find: a plastic fork, a phone holder, a marker. It was hysterical.

This was the first time I’d taught high schoolers, which initially made me very nervous. Teenagers can be a tough audience.

Adults are easy to present to, because they are courteous and pretend they’re listening. But if you’re boring to a teenager, they will let you know — with sarcastic comments, playing games on their phone, etc.

My friend Azul Terronez (who taught for over 20 years) gave me a fantastic idea:

Ask the students, “What makes a good teacher great?”

We had a great discussion, and I wrote all of their answers down and posted them on the wall:

While I’d love to continue teaching, I recently accepted a full-time offer as Head of Video & Podcast at Book in a Box.

Many thanks to Michael Strong and Letsie Khabale for trusting me to do whatever I thought up each week. I’d encourage all parents to check out what they’re doing at Ko School. It’s incredible.

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Charlie Hoehn is the author of Play It Away, Play for a Living and Recession Proof Graduate. His work has been featured on NPR's TED Radio Hour, Forbes, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. Previously, he was the Director of Special Projects for Tim Ferriss. Currently, he is the Head of Video at Book In A Box. He lives with his wife and daughter in Austin, Texas.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Warren Gibbons

    How did you get this opportunity to teach this class, Charlie? I’ve always wanted to teach a program like what you’ve done.
    I love your approach, Charlie. When I was curator at a small public aquarium, without a doubt, the best part of my job was coaching/mentoring/teaching the young adults that made up our staff and volunteer team who helped educate the public and take care of the aquarium exhibits. Many were from poor communities & neighborhoods at their first internship, and they LOVED conversations about business, making money. In fact, when it came time to teach a topic they weren’t interested in, we would bring “making money” into the conversation…HELLO! I had their attention. Teaching from a place of transparency (showing them how we are all the same) and using games really worked. A couple of secrets I discovered that really worked for these 16-25 year olds:
    1) If the students were a bit lost (yes lost) or uncomfortable and didn’t quite know what they were doing or had no familiarity for the place/people/work. This prevented them from behaving in ways that usually gets in the way of them showing up and being fully present…and learning;
    2) Don’t look like a teacher or otherwise familiar adult. My position as Aquarium Curator was like a disguise that enabled me to teach in ways I could not if they saw me as a teacher (which is what I really am – my trade or venue just happens to be aquariums).
    3) Encourage them to make mistakes – Most young adults are preoccupied with not wanting to make mistakes. So I have a game we call The Mistakes Game. I tell them that if they don’t make any mistakes then they will likely not be useful or learn anything, they are surprise and perplexed. The way the game works is as soon as you make a mistake, you have to find a peer, or myself, or anyone else playing the game, and tell on yourself. The other person’s job is to listen, smile, ask them what they learned and then say “Awesome” and give them a high five. This liberates them from being scared of making mistakes and holding back, and helps them be fully present and actually learn. By the way it is so fun to watch them take responsibility and really show up and support one another. As the authority figure, it is enormously critical that I play in the game as well. It completely blows their minds when I come in and tell on myself in front of them about how I just caused a flood in the filtration room. The kid in front of me smiles as she listens and asks me what I learned. And after I tell her I wasn’t focused on what I was doing and got distracted by answering a phone call, and that had I been fully present I could have avoided it. She grins a huge smile and says “AWESOME” and then gives me a huge high five.

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