We had the good fortune of connecting with Erik Francis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Erik, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I guess the best way to describe my thought process behind starting my own business is that it was not a conscious thought. It was an idea and a hypothesis. where I asked, “What if I did this?” That question became “Could I actually do this and be successful and should I do it?” Now my question that drives me is, “How could I keep doing this despite and in response to current events and shifts or trends in education?” It was not my career ambition or lifelong dream to have my own education consulting and professional development company. In fact, it was never on my radar. I thought I would follow the traditional professional pathway of an educator – classroom teacher, site administrator, district office leader, superintendency, and retire to teach at a college or university. When that path didn’t go in the direction I wanted, I went to work at a state education agency where I aspired to rise through the ranks within that organization. However, I hit the glass ceiling because I was not connected politically to the current elected superintendent and the directors within my department were not retiring or leaving any time soon. My friend who eventually became my business partner kept on encouraging me to consult, but I was concerned about making the leap from having a secure paycheck with a pension to starting my own business without any security or a “sure” opportunity. I decided to play it safe by taking an anchor job with a local charter school organization and consulted on the side, which I could not do working at a government agency. When the volume of work I got from consulting increased, I felt confident I could make the leap and provide academic program consultation and professional development full time versus part time, which I have been doing successfully for going on nine years. What keeps me going with my business is I realize this can all end in a moment’s notice. My phone can stop ringing and my contacts and connections can go silent. However, I keep asking myself., “How could I keep doing this for another six months or a year?” and even, “Is today the day where I need to apply to drive to Uber or Lyft?” I’m practical about who I am and what I do. I also have a clear understanding of why I do what I do and how I do it. Simon Sinek’s books START YOUR WHY and FIND YOUR WHY helped me tremendously professionally and personally. I reflect often on my why so I can think critically and creatively about how to contribute in a way that not only impacts others but also motivates me to continue doing what I do. I’m actually developing a professional development for teachers that combines Simon Sinek’s ideas and process about WHY? specifically for educators who have maybe come to a crossroads in their career or are feeling the frustrations of being an educator.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I am an international author and presenter with over 25 years of experience working as a classroom teacher, a site administrator, an education program specialist with a state education agency, and a professional development trainer. I am the owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing academic professional development and consultation to K-12 schools, colleges, and universities on developing rigorous learning environments and delivering educational experiences that challenge students to demonstrate different levels of thinking and understand and use their depth of knowledge (DOK) in different and deeper ways. I am the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning published by ASCD. MY book on teaching and learning for depth of knowledge will be published by Solution Tree International in 2021. I am also ranked as one of the World’s Top 30 Education Professionals for 2019 (#13) and 2020 (#3) by the research organization Global Gurus. However, if you asked me if this is the person whom I saw myself becoming, I would have never envisioned it. I never intended to have a career in education. My childhood dream was to make and produce movies like Steven Spielberg. I never made my own movies growing up, but I did teach myself at a young age how to write screenplays. I never applied to film school in my undergraduate studies mostly because the best ones like USC, UCLA, and NYU were too competitive and expensive. However, I did attend graduate school at Syracuse University and earned my Masters of Science in Television, Film, and Radio Production. I shifted my career ambition from being a screenwriter and filmmaker to becoming a production executive, wanting to decide whose films would be made versus making my own. I did work for a couple of years in both Hollywood and New York as a desk assistant for a successful film producer, a growing production company that was rising in its prominence and stature, and in the film distribution unit of a film studio. I had my career path mapped out in my mind. However, the lifelong dream became my nightmare. I realized this what not what I wanted to do for a living anymore. I made a conscious decision to abandon my lifelong dream at the age of twenty-five and changed my career, becoming a teacher and creating a new professional pathway for myself. Teaching provided me with a different way not only to express myself but also expand my knowledge and extend my skills. I always enjoyed speaking in front of large crowds – be it to educate or entertain. I never had stage fright. Like William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” and when I had the opportunity before a group of people and share my ideas, knowledge, and thoughts, that was my world. My classroom was my world to where my students would come for an hour or so a day to learn. I provided them with the content and showed them how they could understand and use the knowledge in different contexts. I also encouraged them to rise, reach, and go beyond expectations – both the proficiency expectations set by the standards and the personal expectations they set for themselves. I was what the kids would call a “hard”, “tough”, or “demanding” teacher, which earned me the resentment of a number of students. However, I was respected because my students knew that the “push” I gave them in their education was not only purposeful but also because I believed in their potential to achieve and surpass all expectations. Most importantly, I wanted them to realize they learned something not only about the text or topic I taught but also about themselves. I was successful as a teacher, and I would have stayed in the classroom if I could afford to support my family and me on my meager salary. Instead, I ventured on the career path most educators take to increase leadership responsibilities and also earn more money. I became a site administrator – first at one of the high schools in the district where I worked and then at one of the middle schools where my teaching career began. My years of teaching in that district was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career in education, convincing me I .made the best decision to become an educator. My last years as an administrator in that district were the worst, convincing me that site-based leadership was not the path I wanted to take. I shifted course again and decided to go from a local education agency to the state education agency, It was during my time at the Arizona Department of Education that I developed and discovered the strengths and skills I use in as a business owner and a sole proprietor. My experience expanded to include education policy as well as pedagogy. My skills as a education became more honed as I transitioned from teaching students to training adults – first on how to serve second language learners and then how to develop academic intervention programs from struggling students living in low socioeconomic communities. While I was very happy with my job and the deputy associate superintendent for whom I worked at the Arizona Department of Education, I yearned for more – more professionally, more personally, and more fiscally. I was at the top of the salary scale for an employee in my position. I also wanted more leadership responsibilities. However, the directors in my unit were neither leaving nor retiring any time soon. Also, I was not connected politically or closely to the current superintendent to be promoted to a more supervisory position. One of my colleagues and friends with whom I worked in the district where my assistant principalship was so unpleasant also left that district the same year I did. She became an education consultant who provided professional development, guidance, and support to school districts with significant populations of second language learners. She landed an ongoing gig with a district in California to where she traveled once a month and earned a significant amount of money. She kept encouraging me to leave the Arizona Department of Education and make the leap into consulting. However, I was hesitant. I had a family to support, I had a decent salary, I had a good pension, and I had a good relationship with my supervisor and colleagues. I did not feel comfortable or confident about abandoning my job security. It was November 2011 when some leaders of the schools who were part of my my compliance monitoring caseload started recommending I should become a consultant. One of them was the federal programs director for one of the larger school districts in Arizona, She suggested consulting to me a few times. Finally, one day, I asked her if I did choose to consult, would she hire me as a consultant for her district? She quickly said yes. I had another meeting with another school on my caseload whose leaders also expressed how frustrated and overwhelmed they were with the compliance and programmatic requirements they had to meet to acquire their federal entitlement funds. I presented them a hypothetical situation of me becoming their consultant. They said yes. I now had two clients. I started disclosing to a few of the schools on my caseload with whom I had a professional and personal relationship that I was considering consulting. Five of them agreed to hire me. My caseload now became my client list. However, I still was not ready to dive in to consulting full time. I felt I needed an anchor job to provide fiscal security when times opportunities were few or lean. I obtained a position at a local charter school management company working with curriculum and instruction, which was one of my career goals when I was on the path to school administration and leadership. I would work there full time and negotiated that I could have the opportunity to consult schools on my own time and also work remotely from home a couple of days a week since the site where they would place me was 45 miles both ways from my house. I had to come up with a name for my company. When I worked in the film industry, my dream was to have my own production company and to call it Prometheus Entertainment, naming it after the Greek mythological Titan who created humans from clay and stole fire from the Greek Gods to give to the humans. However, I felt that sounded too pretentious. I needed a good name – one that would not only stand out but symbolize who I am. I was watching the local news and a newscaster referred to the late Arizona Senator John McCain as a “maverick”. It’s also the call sign of the pilot Tom Cruise played in TOP GUN, which is one of my favorite movies. It also had part of my name in it, It wasn’t spelled the same way as my name, but it sounded the same phonetically. The first three letters of the name were also in my three daughters’ names: Amanda, Madison, Avery. M-A-V. I also looked up the definition of the word. The dictionary defines maverick as “an unorthodox or independent-minded person”. That’s me. That’s my strength and my weakness. I realized I am not a systems person or one who works within the system. I don’t nod my head or play the political games. I ask questions. I debate and discuss. I make suggestions and offer options. I am vocal. I express myself and speak up when something is inaccurate or seems wrong. That doesn’t work in bureaucratic systems such as schools or state education agencies where you need to follow and respect the order and wishes of your supervisor. However, consultants are outsiders. They are not beholden to the system or its supervisors like employees are. Their contracts and relationships can be terminated if those in charge do not agree or like the challenge or suggestions made by the consultant. However, that’s part of the purpose and role of the consultant – to provide an honest and unbiased view of an organization, its resources, and its systems without any fear or pressure of job termination. In fact, consultants are brought in to “shake up the system” versus support and sustain it. I realized that’s why I wanted to consult. It wasn’t for the money or for the freedom to set my own hours or be my own boss. It was because I wanted to shake up the education system. I wanted to engage and encourage people to question what’s conventional or even convenient when it came to education. I wanted to prompt people to consider not only what they were doing to educate children but also how and why they were doing it as they were. I also wanted to make education be more about students working harder and deeper to learn than teachers working harder and longer to teach. This was what Simon Sinek would become my “why” – my belief, my purpose, and my reason for what I do. My “why” statement is to challenge conventionalism so that life experiences become more memorable and enjoyable. How I do it is to question everything, to consider “what if” versus “why won’t”, to start and stop with the standards or system but begin where people are and build upon their strengths and successes to they rise to, reach, and go beyond what I call “the bar” of expectations. What I do is provide academic consultation and professional development, guidance, and support to schools, their staff, and sometimes even their students. I had my clientele. I had my “why”. I even had my company’s name. However, I needed to make it not only distinguishable but also personal. I decided to drop the “c” in “maverick”. That’s the origin of Maverik Education. If there’s one thing I learned in my thirty-plus years since graduating from college, it’s that the professional path we foresee for ourselves is neither set nor sure. I also learned I have to remain true to myself and remind myself of why I am doing what I do. I stand strong to my beliefs and purpose. However, I also recognize and realize I must help others recognize and realize their potential and purpose. My mantra and motto has become, “Why do we differentiate instruction for students but not professional development training for teachers?” I also learned that what I do is not about me but rather what I could provide to others to make what they do simpler and more satisfying for both their students and themselves. Maverik Education is not just a brand, a product, or a service. Maverik Education is me – my beliefs, my purpose, and my mission in life. It’s what I have always done and how I have always lived professionally and personally. I’ve now found a way to make it both successful and satisfying for me professionally and personally, and every day I keep trying to figure out how I can do what I do as Maverik Education for a sustainable amount of time and even when situations become stressful (such as during this pandemic).
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My father, Fred Francis, is my hero and the source of my strength and motivation. My father was a double amputee who is one of the unsung leaders and heroes of the civil rights movement for the disabled in the 1960s and 1970s. He spent his career working in public service working for the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities in the New York State Education Department. He spearheaded a lot of programs and legislation that strengthened and supported the rights of the mentally and physically disabled. He never took bows or sought the spotlight. He let his actions and efforts speak for himself. My father was a strong, courageous man both physically and with his personality. He was the brains behind the face whom he worked for. I say that a man without legs taught me how to stand strong and walk tall. My father initially did not support me starting my own business. For all his strength and courage, he never took the leap to go into business for himself as a consultant. He played it safe not because he was afraid but because he was practical and responsible. He had a family to support and children to parent. When I told him I wanted to start my own consulting business, he felt I was being reckless and not considering the potential consequences it could have on my family and me. He even questioned where I learned to be so be so bold and think I could do this and be successful. I looked right at him and said, “You.” My father was a man who transcended the stereotypes of the disabled. He lost his legs as a result of a car accident at the age of 20. However, he remained the strong athlete he was prior to his accident. He played and coached baseball, basketball, and softball. He could hit a baseball a country mile and pass a football hundreds of yards – all from his wheelchair. He lifted weights, benching his max at 385 pounds in his prime. He even participated in a marathon wheeling his wheelchair, which was one of those cumbersome steel chairs of the 1970s, not the lighter aerodynamic, fiberglass wheelchairs used today. My father was also a brilliant man who was not only knowledgeable but also quick-witted. He could come back with a remark or a retort so powerful and strong. He thought “outside the box” before “thinking outside the box” was encouraged and promoted as a positive characteristic and trait. He taught me the best questions anyone could ask, “Why?”, “What if?”, and “What do you mean?” – a good question that has not only helped me professionally but also personally. My father spent his career providing the mentally and physically challenged a place in society. He created a job coaching program through a federal and state grant so the mentally and physically disabled could become a part of the workforce. He developed the independent living centers throughout New York State to provide the mentally and physically disabled an opportunity to enjoy the benefits and fruits of life they deserve. These programs started in New York and expanded across the nation. His career culminated with being him appointed as an advisor for the development and passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990. When my father passed away in 2012 – one month after I made the leap to start working full time for myself – he never said to me any last words of hope and encouragement. It always stung me in my hear that my father did not say anything like he did with my siblings. It wasn’t because we had a falling out or a disagreement. It just never happened. When I asked my mother why he never said anything, she told me, “Because he felt like you transcended him and he didn’t have to say any words of encouragement to you. You are doing everything he hoped for you – even beyond.” Ironically, I became a more confident and stronger person after my father died. I always sought his approval. I didn’t always get it, and sometimes that was intentional. He would play the devil’s advocate and the doubting Thomas to motivate me or force me to face the fears I had. When he was no longer there as my sage or my sounding board, I had to realize I had to think for myself, draw my own conclusions, and make my own decisions. That was his last lesson for me. My father is still with me with everything I do. I call him my “Force-ghost” like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda became for Luke Skywalker when they died. He whispers in my right ear, “Hey. Look at you. You’re doing it, boy,” and reminds me in my left ear, “Don’t be a putz,” when I fall into the traps of acting like one. I hear him in my own voice and words, and I feel him in my heart. I also live my life as I do as a reminder that this is the life my father would have wanted me to have.- a happy one where my success is defined not only by my accomplishments but also my impact on others. Everything I am and everything I do -good and bad – can be attributed to my father, Fred Francis, and what he taught me about being a professional, a parent, and a person.
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