Zak Ringelstein (MEd ’10): Teacherpreneur

By

Sara Korn

When he was included in the Forbes 2015 "30 Under 30" list of influential names in education, Zak Ringelstein (MEd '10) reflected that he didn't set out to be an entrepreneur or a teacher.

He entered college planning to become a doctor. Then, while attending Columbia University, he volunteered as a tutor. He found that he enjoyed being around kids, and he seriously considered alternatives to medicine.

“I started realizing that if a student learns to be healthy, then education is a root of all social healing,” recalls Ringelstein. “I started to see that excellent education — teaching skills like creativity, manners and character — ultimately has the power to shape the mindset and attitudes of students so they can be successful and live healthy happy lives.”

Ringelstein applied for Teach For America, an organization that enlists college graduates to teach in low-income communities around the country. Ringelstein chose Phoenix because he was interested in Mexican immigrant culture and he’d heard positive things about ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Phoenix TFA corps members have the opportunity to apply for and enroll in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to work toward a master’s degree. The InMAC program is tailored specifically to the unique teaching experience of TFA corps members.

“While it was stressful,” says Ringelstein, “it was also incredibly valuable to be able to immediately implement what we were learning and to be able to go to class and talk about what had happened that day. Our professors helped calm us down when we got overwhelmed and kept us focused on what mattered most — doing the best we could for our students in any given situation.”

Ringelstein met his wife, Leah, during his time in the Phoenix TFA program. The two of them finished their two years in the program and then moved back to Baltimore. Zak was admitted into a Johns Hopkins University medical school program but couldn’t shake the feeling that teaching was what he was supposed to be doing. He returned to Phoenix for a third year of teaching, then taught for a fourth year in Tanzania.

As he gained more classroom experience, Ringelstein grew frustrated by what he saw as a huge disparity between the resources available from one classroom to another — whether they were down the hall, across the district or around the world from one another.  “When great resources are available, a classroom can really come to life,” says Ringelstein. “Without them, you’re facing an uphill battle where what you can provide your students is limited by what you yourself can produce.”

Filling an Unmet Need

Ringelstein realized there was a need for a more open and collaborative teaching environment. He foresaw a huge shift toward digital content, but the shift hadn’t yet happened.

In 2012, Zak, Leah, and two friends started a business called UClass.

“We envisioned a world where teachers and students weren’t boxed in by the walls of their classrooms but were free to explore the outer world and test the limits of their own creativity.”

Ringelstein and his colleagues created a cloud-based system that allows educators to gather resources from a variety of sources and tag each resource with metadata that identifies how it might be applied.  For example, a teacher could tag a piece of instructional content as “common core — critical thinking” or “algebra — quadratic equations" and share it with colleagues within the district. These resources can be aligned to student performance goals so teachers can see which resources are the most effective for students with particular needs and gaps. By 2014, UClass claimed a presence in more than 5,000 schools, including districts in Marin County, California, and charter school networks. By 2014, UClass had raised $1 million in seed funding. Early in 2015, UClass was acquired by Renaissance Learning, a leader in K–12 assessment.

Integrating Instruction and Assessment

Now, as general manager of instructional products at Renaissance Learning, Ringelstein is in charge of integrating teaching products with assessment products.

He therefore finds himself in the vortex of a question that is consuming education: How do you balance the need for standards and assessment with the time and individual attention required to provide effective instruction? 

“Common core is great in theory and, if implemented well, could do really great things for education at large,” says Ringelstein. “But it’s important that standards are modified for each individual state and district. We need to think about how we implement things so that teachers can continue to support each student as an individual and not try to homogenize everyone in the name of gathering good data.”

Ringelstein believes education should focus more on student creativity and life outcomes than on standardized tests. “It’s not that these measurements aren’t important. It’s simply that when we create a high-stakes test environment, we move our focus onto test-taking skills and away from human growth and development.”

Classroom Matters

When he made the shift to business, Ringelstein noticed that many people innovating in educational technology and policy had no teaching experience. He sees that as an enormous problem. “We don’t want to take great educators out of the classroom, but we do need inspirational teachers to get into positions of power so they can influence the right policies that give teachers the kind of support and resources they need to help students develop into who they are meant to be.”

He notes that many people make the mistake of thinking that, because they attended school for 12 years, they are experts in education. “What it takes to be a great student versus a great teacher are different skill sets,” says Ringelstein. “And it’s a very different experience being on the other side of the desk. That’s why, when we innovate in education, we need teachers to be actively involved, because they know how things really play out in the classroom.”

He supports teachers moving into positions where they can positively influence education innovation, yet he understands the need for smart innovators who stay in the classroom and push for change within the school.

“Don’t leave the classroom because it’s hard. It’s going to be hard no matter where you go. It’s simply a question of what kind of challenges you want to take on and the kind of work that inspires you to get up each morning. Be the voice of truth in your school and stand up for what’s in the best interests of the people you are responsible for.”

Although Ringelstein has enjoyed success as an entrepreneur, he intends to return to the classroom someday.  “I love teaching and I will be a teacher again. I left the classroom because I saw a need and a business was the way to accomplish that need at the time.”

Ringelstein has concluded that teaching and entrepreneurship have more in common than people might initially suppose. Neither activity suits people who require predictability and dislike surprises. Both require enormous perseverance. “You have to be someone who is ready to look at a challenge as big as a mountain and decide that you’re going to get over that mountain no matter what.”