Meet Aleta Margolis - Executive Director/Social Entrepreneur
By Korina Lopez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004;
Aleta Margolis is the executive director for Center for Artistry in Teaching, a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. with a mission is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in local public schools.
washingtonpost.com talked to her about her position, inspirations, and qualities needed to be a social entrepreneur.
What do you do as executive director?
My job is to motivate a talented group of people, and help them realize the vision of the organization. Our vision is to inspire the teachers to be innovative and passionate about their art. I believe teachers are the key to education reform. By motivating them to
make school meaningful and important for students, they will bring out the best in the kids, which is the ultimate reward.
To achieve this goal, I focus on fundraising, grant proposals, program development, and interacting with parents, teachers and kids. I also work hard to keep my staff happy and motivated to strive for education reform.
Jobs: What is your educational background?
I earned my undergrad at Brown University in Rhode Island. Then I got my master's degree in education and social policy at Northwestern University.
Jobs: How did your degrees effect your career choice?
My university experience taught me to challenge everything that I believed. It helped me understand some of the problems in teaching preparation and professional development, the seeds in starting Center for Artistry in Teaching.
Jobs: How did you start your career?
After grad school, I taught for a few years in Chicago. I loved teaching but it wasn't very exciting. The attitude from the teachers, whether they were 23 or 63 years old, was school is supposed to be boring. Here's the curriculum, get through it and drag the kids along with you.
So I started hunting for schools that encouraged innovation and new ways of learning in the classroom. I couldn't find any! I returned to my native D.C. and started teaching at American University until I decided my passion was clearly education reform.
Jobs:How did you start Center for Artistry in Teaching?
I convinced a few of my colleagues to get together for this workshop to talk about making learning a better experience for our students. They got really excited about the concept of treating teaching as an art rather than just a job.
A friend of mine loved the idea and recommended that I apply for a fellowship from ASHOKA, an organization that funds social entrepreneurs. I did and it took me a year to get it approved. The application process is very rigorous but I really believed in my vision. ASHOKA must have seen some potential in my idea for education reform because they granted me a fellowship and played a critical role in getting the program where it is today.
You call yourself a social entrepreneur. What does that mean?
A social entrepreneur is someone who wants to enact some sort of social change in the community and start an organization to resolve problems. Then comes the hard part -- getting funding. ASHOKA, for example, is an international organization that exists to fund social entrepreneurs so they can realize their visions for social change. To get that funding you have to be a fellow, which requires long, arduous application process. Or you can seek funding by applying for grants. There are many ways to raise funds for an organization. But you must be diligent and never lose hope.
What are your greatest rewards?
AM: Initially, it was my ability to get the organization started. Today, every day is a reward. I love working with imaginative and passionate teachers. I love watching those teachers become better educators.
What are your greatest challenges?
AM: On a day-to-day basis -- funding, most people we serve are in socioeconomic underserved communities. So I'm constantly doing fundraising or writing grant proposals.
On a larger scale, it's the feeling that it's never enough. It's the sense that we haven't reached enough teachers, that there are kids who fear going to school or who graduate from the 12th grade still not knowing how to read. That feeling can be very intense sometimes and my husband gets me through those hard times. Having a supportive partner is incredibly helpful when you run your own organization.
What are the qualities that someone needs to be a social entrepreneur?
AM: Becoming a successful social entrepreneur requires much of the same qualities that a good teacher needs. You have to absolutely believe that it's going to work.
You have to be a good observer. Know the big picture, as well as the little picture. Keep your mission in mind as well as the details of your company. You also need spontaneity and patience. Successful entrepreneurs observe, think, and communicate effectively just as good teachers.
Do you find that there are different challenges facing women who want to make a difference?
AM: Generally, we are taught to put other people's needs before our own, and I think that's great … sometimes. But we are taught to do that too often. And if you go into social change work, it's very easy to focus on someone else's needs -- especially when you are working with someone who has far fewer advantages than you do. But it's important to take care of yourself. Do what you think is fascinating, do it for you.
Also, we have to be aggressive, strong, and unapologetic in asking for money and support for social reform. As a woman, I was not raised to be as "in your face" about things, and think that is true for many women.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I don't see myself doing anything else. My personal and professional goal is to transform what school is like today. I want every student to have a better experience in the classroom and get the most out of an education. As long as there are teachers who are uninspired to do anything but drag their students through boring textbooks, I'll be here to change that.
Editor's note: This article by Korina Lopez, was acquired by washingtonpost.com on April 30, 2003.
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