When Emily Williams told her parents back in early 2020 that she was leaving her job as a certified public school teacher to launch a microschool, they thought she was crazy. Both longtime public school educators themselves, they couldn’t understand why Williams, who taught in Mississippi public schools for more than a decade, would want to give up a good district salary, insurance and retirement benefits to become an education entrepreneur. Williams, however, felt drawn to create an educational environment that would emphasize individualized learning, personal autonomy and mutual respect. “When you know that this is supposed to be what you should do, you’re not afraid,” said Williams.
Today, Williams is earning more money running her microschool, Micah’s Mission, than she did as a public school teacher, and enjoys deep personal fulfillment. Her low-cost microschool located in Vicksburg, Mississippi serves about 50, K-12 students. Most of her students attend full-time, five days a week, but some attend part-time as homeschoolers, and all experience a personalized educational model that is tailored to their unique abilities, interests and goals.
Several of Williams’s students have significant special needs and intellectual and physical disabilities, but all students come together in her mixed-age, multi-level microschool to learn at their own pace. They are supported by talented teachers who lead classes, offer tutoring, provide dyslexia supports and similar educational services and facilitate each individual learner’s academic and emotional development.
A former special education teacher, Williams has long embraced the idea of differentiated instruction and observed the benefit of individualized education plans, customized for each child’s needs. “In the traditional system,” said Williams, “it really became apparent to me early on that I was doing something different. A lead teacher came to me and asked why I had eight separate lesson plans. I explained that I teach eight different levels of students. If I’m going to reach these students, then this is how I’m going to do it, and I will adjust each day as needed.”
Accessibility is a key priority for Williams and she works hard to not turn anyone away from attending her microschool. She relies on tuition and donations to provide scholarships and reduce the financial burden on families. She also received a microgrant from the VELA Education Fund, a philanthropic non-profit organization that supports the growth of innovative, non-traditional educational models and schooling alternatives. Williams used those funds to enable more families to attend her program at little or no cost.
Even with her full-access, low-cost educational model, Williams is now earning a solid, competitive income while reaping the personal rewards of entrepreneurship and building something from scratch. A few states over in Kansas, Jessica Ramsay has had a similar experience as an education entrepreneur.
Like Williams, Ramsay was a certified public school teacher for over a decade. Also like Williams, she recognized the importance of differentiated instruction, particularly in early literacy, and gravitated toward helping slow and struggling readers. She wanted to be a full-time literacy specialist, but when that position became available in her school district, she was told she lacked the appropriate Master’s degree to get the job.
Frustrated by these institutional constraints, Ramsay began thinking about venturing out on her own. The Covid disruption of 2020 provided a nudge, as Ramsay started offering one-on-one tutoring for students in the greater Wichita area. Parents really valued Ramsay’s creative approach and impact, and her clientele grew. In 2021, Ramsay resigned from her teaching job to run her literacy tutoring company, Farmhouse Phonics, full-time.
Now, Ramsay is at capacity with tutoring clients, who come to her warm and welcoming farmhouse studio for individualized, hands-on reading instruction. Her waitlist is growing so big that she is considering expanding her services by hiring other teachers to work with her at Farmhouse Phonics.
While striking out on her own was a leap, Ramsay is glad she made the decision. In the first few months after she left the school district, Ramsay kept to a tight budget and applied for and received startup grants, including a VELA microgrant, which enabled her to purchase tutoring materials and supplies. “Honestly, salary and insurance were the biggest stressors when I first began to transition from a classroom teacher/district employee to self-employment,” said Ramsay. “At this point, almost 18 months after starting Farmhouse Phonics, I bring in slightly more than I did annually teaching at a public school.”
Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and many startup businesses fail, but Williams and Ramsay show that the demand for personalized educational services is high and that the financial reward can be significant. Both of these entrepreneurial educators left their public school teaching positions within the past couple of years, and both are now earning more than they did as experienced classroom teachers.
While there is no guarantee that this will be the outcome for other teachers-turned-entrepreneurs, Williams encourages educators to take on the challenge. “No step out of the system will be without challenges or struggles,” she explained. “However, that’s life: there are always challenges and struggles. This is an opportunity to choose your challenge and your struggle. If you’re motivated to make it happen, it will happen.”
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.
Image: Emily Williams runs Micah’s Mission, a Mississippi microschool. Photo: Kerry McDonald