By Andrew Pillow
Derik Ohanian is former IPS teacher and also the CEO and co-founder of the online educational platform Lessonomix. He joined Teach for America in 2011 and taught for 2 years in inner city Indianapolis.
Pillow: “Hey thank you for granting an interview.”
Ohanian: “It’s my pleasure. I’m excited to chat.”
Pillow: “So you are a former teacher. When, where and what did you teach?”
Ohanian: “I taught high school social studies in Indianapolis, from 2011-2013. My career began at John Marshall Community High School, and then transitioned to T.C. Howe.”
Pillow: “So what made you decide to leave the classroom and eventually start a business?”
Ohanian: “Public education has always been near to my heart. When I was in college, I became motivated by the fact that there’s still so much work to do to ensure that every student leaves high school with a strong sense of preparedness. I wanted to teach, so I could have a positive impact on students’ lives, but also understand more about the systemic issues that affect their education, and how we can resolve those issues. To me, it’s always been about making sure that all students have full control over their destinies.
When I left teaching, I thought about what I wanted my impact to be. My focus was more fixed on the teacher experience, and the splendors and challenges that came with it. I felt determined to do something beneficial, in that space. Of course, there are many ways to cast an influence, but for me, the route that made the most sense was through technology. I passionately believe that we can use technology to improve the lesson-planning process for teachers, and make teaching even more rewarding. Thus, it’s these reasons that inspired me to venture into the startup realm.”
Pillow: “So tell us about your startup, Lessonomix. What is it?
Ohanian: “Lessonomix is an online social network that helps teachers create and share lesson plans and other instructional resources, through peer-to-peer connections. It also serves as a lesson-planner and an organizer of unit maps. Lessonomix is meant to help teachers stay organized and inspired, with whatever lesson they’re planning to teach.
And really, it’s about giving teachers that extra surge of energy and creativity. There are so many incredible teachers out there, who come up with innovative and transformative ways to teach a subject, gauge student mastery of that subject, and inspire student learning through projects and other activities. Lessonomix is about making sure that all teachers are speaking to one another, regardless of where they’re located, so they can collaborate with one another.
Ultimately, we want Lessonomix to be a platform where teachers display their best skill-sets, and offer them in service to their fellow teachers. Teachers should coach other teachers. It’s time we got away from the consulting model, where schools bring in high-priced project managers and analysts to solve problems in settings, where the existing resources could’ve accomplished the job.”
Pillow: “Is your platform a response to a problem you saw in the classroom?”
Ohanian: “Yes, absolutely. When I was in the classroom, I struggled to put on an exciting lesson. It was tough, especially because I was new. I’d get tidbits of mentorship from seasoned teachers, whenever help was available, but I never felt like I had some kind of constant access to great ideas and successful lessons. While teaching, I really felt like there should be a tool that was as easy to use as a smartphone, just as intuitive as Google search, and as pleasant of a user experience as Snapchat. Something that clicks fluidly, is highly responsive, and navigable. The point is that it shouldn’t be onerous to find the materials and resources, you need, to construct a great lesson on the War of 1812, or polynomial expressions. That’s the point of Lessonomix, and I wish I had something like this, while I was in the classroom.”
Pillow: “In terms of creating your startup, how did you learn what to do?”
Ohanian: “Any venture has to start off with a purpose. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What problem are you trying to solve? What behavior are you trying to change? I felt strongly about improving teacher-access to high-quality lesson plans and instructional resources, and could visualize what the problem looked like in my head. From there, it was assembling the right team, thinking about funding, and seeking mentorship out from entrepreneurs who had already been successful. Starting a new is all about asking questions, listening, and improving—that truly describes our experience with Lessonomix.”
Pillow: “Thank you for your time!”
Ohanian: “You bet! I’m glad we had a chance to chat.”