What is the key of replicating an idea in youth work? I believe it is teacher training. To start training others you need to get your top teachers to standardize the best lessons and put them into an order that makes sense. This is how the organization I founded in 1987 is now in ten countries graduating 60,000 students a year from our school-based programs.
NFTE (pronounced NIFTY) has been carrying out teacher training since 1989, when I and our staff (Chris Meenan, Jack Mariotti, Janet McKinstry, Mike Caslin, Scott Shickler, Juan Casimiro, and Kevin Greaney) would invite other teachers interested in entrepreneurial education to share ideas about lesson plans and classroom strategies at sessions in the Hotel Chelsea..
At that time, NFTE's headquarters were on 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. We would cross the street, enter the Chelsea, and lug an overhead projector up the hotel's famous grand staircase to Room 100. Legendary writers such as Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs, and Arthur Miller had lived in this hotel, and we liked to think that we were getting energy from their creative genius.
We went over the basics of teaching entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and the concept of ownership step by step, using flip charts to keep track of our ideas. We had endless and fascinating discussions on how to engage low-income, at risk youth in goal setting, opportunity recognition, business-plan creation, and basic skills like math and reading. We talked for hours on how to get kids to write and, most important, how to get them to stay in school.
"Experiential, experiential, experiential," we would remind ourselves, to reinforce the primary insight: young people needed to learn by doing. Soon, we were going where no one in our field had gone before, and I knew that NFTE and its simple idea -- teaching ownership skills to low income youth -- was destined to become an international movement.
Our discussions were about which techniques were most effective to teach such topics as the economics of one unit, return on investment, basic sales, and marketing, among many others. We would often finish up late in the evening at Charlie Moms, or another favorite restaurant.
Sometimes, we would "play act" business games and activities and each of us would take a turn at being the teacher, while everyone else would be the students. We outlined in detail the minute-by-minute activities of the class, and planned out precisely what each teacher would need. We made a rule that every teacher should have an overhead projector in the classroom to present the materials. We understood from our teaching experiences how important visuals were.
This was 24 years ago, and when we walked into the Chelsea, we looked more like a rock band than business teachers. I remember the guy at the front desk thinking we were famous performers. This was reinforced because ABC was doing a story on NFTE for Peter Jennings' Evening News, and they filmed one of our sessions in Room 100.
I had met each "band member" in a different way. Janet McKinstry was a waitress at the West 4th Street Tavern, in the Village, where I would often go (from 1985 to 1988) after a day of teaching at Jane Addams Vocational High School, in the Bronx. The Tavern was owned by actor Dylan McDermott's father, and Dylan was just starting his career. I would sit in the front by the door and watch the celebrities who came in. My regular waitress was Edie Falco, who I often talked to. One day there was another waitress -- Janet -- and I immediately liked her. She would ask me questions about my work, about teaching entrepreneurship as an anti-dropout strategy.
She gave me some good ideas on how to teach sales and record keeping. It seems that Janet, aside from waitressing, had a part-time lingerie business (in fact, she had been a lingerie model). She would buy goods from wholesalers, multiply her cost by three, and then resell the merchandise at a flea market every Saturday.
Janet and I became friends and we began to see each other outside the Tavern. She taught me to find wholesalers and the ins and outs of going to flea markets. She would read my lesson plans and make suggestions for improving them. She taught me how to keep records in a simple way that kids could follow, and went with me and my class to our first wholesale trip and then to a flea market -- so the students could have a complete basic business experience: buying wholesale, selling retail, and keeping accurate records. She also introduced me to many of the celebrities that came into the Tavern. Both Melissa Gilbert and Dylan McDermott were sitting next to me at the bar when the Mets won the World Series in 1986.
Steve with students at a summer bizcamp.
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