MAPLETON, N.D. — One of the tech-savviest teachers in the United States teaches third grade here at Mapleton Elementary, a public school with about 100 students in the sparsely populated plains west of Fargo.
Her name is Kayla Delzer. Her third graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodeled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps like Seesaw, a student portfolio platform where teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.
Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.
“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”
Ms. Delzer is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology. They attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks. And they are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.
Their ranks are growing as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.
Moreover, there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.
More than two dozen education start-ups have enlisted teachers as brand ambassadors. Some give the teachers inexpensive gifts like free classroom technology or T-shirts. Last year, TenMarks, a math-teaching site owned by Amazon, offered Amazon gift cards to teachers who acted as company advisers, and an additional $80 gift card for writing a post on its blog, according to a TenMarks online forum.
Teachers said that more established start-ups gave them pricier perks like travel expenses to industry-sponsored conferences attended by thousands of teachers. In exchange, teacher ambassadors often promote company products on social media or in their conference talks — sometimes without explicitly disclosing their relationships with their sponsors.
Many public schools are facing tight budgets, and administrators, including the principal at Ms. Delzer’s school, said they welcomed potentially valuable free technology and product training. Even so, some education experts warned that company incentives might influence teachers to adopt promoted digital tools over rival products or even traditional approaches, like textbooks.
“Teachers can’t help but be seduced to make greater use of the technology, given these efforts by tech companies,” said Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Public-school teachers who accept perks, meals or anything of value in exchange for using a company’s products in their classrooms could also run afoul of school district ethics policies or state laws regulating government employees.
“Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic,” said James E. Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine who is a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “Should attorneys general be concerned about this practice? The answer is yes.”
Ms. Delzer and other educators forcefully argue that they’re motivated by altruism, and not company-bestowed status or gifts. “I am in this profession for kids,” Ms. Delzer said, “not for notoriety or the money.”
At a time when teachers shell out an average of $600 of their own money every year just to buy student supplies like pencils — and make pleas for student laptops on DonorsChoose.org, a fund-raising site — it’s understandable that teachers would embrace free classroom technology.
“My kids have access to awesome things that, as a district, we could never afford,” said Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher in the Detroit area who is an ambassador for companies that make $1,299 3-D printers and $300 coding kits. He noted that he had apprised his school, and his students, of his company ties.
Another important draw for teachers, who already often feel underappreciated: Having tech companies, the icons of American society, seek their views provides welcome attention. “Teachers have really responded well to feeling like they are being listened to,” said Carl Sjogreen, a co-founder of Seesaw.
The benefits to companies are substantial. Many start-ups enlist their ambassadors as product testers and de facto customer service representatives who can field other teachers’ queries.
Apple, Google and Microsoft, which are in education partly to woo students as lifetime users of their products, have more sophisticated teacher efforts — with names like the Apple Distinguished Educators program, Google for Education’s Certified Innovator Program and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert program. Each yearlong program selects teachers to attend a conference and work with the company to help create, or develop, education innovations, often using company tools. The tech giants position their programs as professional development for teachers, not marketing exercises.
Microsoft and Apple said they worked with schools to make sure any conference travel expenses they covered for teachers complied with district ethics rules. Google said it provided meals but not teachers’ travel expenses.
An Amazon representative, responding to a question about the gift cards that TenMarks offered to certain teachers last year, said that the company had not given that incentive recently and that it had procedures “to ensure our compliance with applicable laws and to help facilitate teachers’ obligations to their schools.”
The competition for these teacher evangelists has become so fierce that GoEnnounce, a one-year-old platform where students can share profiles of their accomplishments, decided to offer a financial incentive — a 15 percent cut of any school sales that resulted from referrals — to Ms. Delzer and a few other selected teachers just to try to keep up with rival companies’ perks.
So far, no teacher has asked for the payment, said Melissa Davis, GoEnnounce’s chief executive. Still, she said, teacher referrals accounted for 20 percent of GoEnnounce’s first-year sales.
“These champions are really essential in giving us a really powerful foot in the door to meet with districts and schools,” Ms. Davis said.
The medical profession has long wrestled with a similar issue: Can pharmaceutical-company gifts like speaking fees or conference junkets influence physicians to prescribe certain medications? A recent study of nearly 280,000 doctors concluded that physicians who received even one free meal promoting a specific brand of medicine prescribed that medication at significantly higher rates than they did similar drugs. Drug makers are now required by law to provide details on their payments — including gifts, meals and fees for promotional speeches — to a range of physicians and academic medical centers.
Unlike industry influence in medicine, however, the phenomenon of company-affiliated teachers has received little scrutiny. Twitter alone is rife with educators broadcasting their company-bestowed titles.
“If medical experts started saying, ‘I’m a Google Certified Doctor’ or ‘I’m a Pfizer Distinguished Nurse,’ people would be up in arms,” said Douglas A. Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm.
Another issue: The Federal Trade Commission considers sponsored posts to be a form of advertising. It expects people who receive a product, a meal or anything else of value from a company, in exchange for promoting a product, to disclose that sponsorship when they endorse the product.
This is true for celebrities and teachers alike. And it applies equally to conferences, YouTube videos, personal blogs or Twitter posts.
Some teachers and start-ups said they were not aware of those guidelines.
“If you are receiving any sort of incentive to promote the company’s product, that is what we call a material relationship,” said Mary K. Engle, associate director of the trade commission’s division of advertising practices, “and that has to be clearly and conspicuously disclosed in the endorsement message.”
For some teachers, corporate relationships can be steppingstones to lucrative speaking or training engagements. Schools often hire company-connected educators to give training sessions to their teachers. And technology conferences for teachers often book influential teachers as speakers.
Ms. Delzer said her fees for such events started at several thousand dollars a day. Some veteran education influencers charge much more.
To do it all, Ms. Delzer negotiated a special contract with her district, allowing her to take 10 unpaid days off a year. She uses those days off to give speeches and run teacher workshops for other schools.
She spends some evenings and weekends doing her consulting work. She also co-founded her own teacher training conference, called Happy Go Teach.
“It’s like two full-time jobs,” Ms. Delzer said.
The Starbucks Classroom
Just before 8:30 a.m. on school days, Ms. Delzer, 32, stations herself at the classroom door. She greets each of her third graders by name, ushering them in one by one with a brief shoulder squeeze. “I want them to feel love when they walk in,” she said.
If her classroom looks less like a traditional schoolroom and more like a den — with a colorful rug and inspirational signs exhorting children to “DREAM” and “LAUGH” — that is no accident. A few years ago, Ms. Delzer decided to remodel her classroom to foster the kind of independent work habits she thought her students would need in life.
So she ditched the standard-issue desks and rearranged the room to look more like the place where she goes to work on her conference talks: her local Starbucks. Today, her third graders sit wherever they please — on cushions, rocking chairs, balance balls.
“If I’m just feeling like relaxing, I usually sit on the rockers or the ball chairs or the beanbag chairs,” Jennings, a third grader in Ms. Delzer’s class last spring, explained. “But if I want to be really, really focused, then I usually feel like going on something a little harder so that I don’t lose concentration.”
The “Starbucks for kids” classroom proved so successful that Ms. Delzer wrote about it for EdSurge, an industry publication, in 2015. The article quickly spread in education circles.
Sitting in her local Starbucks in West Fargo, Ms. Delzer noted: “If you Google ‘Starbucks Classroom,’ it’s a thing now.”
But Ms. Delzer said she did not start out seeking to influence the practice of teaching. It was serendipity, she said, and an iPad experiment.
In 2011, Ms. Delzer’s school, in Thief River Falls, Minn., bought a few iPads and asked her to try using them in class. Two years later, her school’s technology director suggested that they speak at an education conference about her experiment.
That was when Ms. Delzer realized, she said, that by addressing her peers, she could reach vastly more students.
“I see the ripple effect on teachers who leave the conference,” she said. “It’s really gratifying to know that those classrooms are better because of it.”
She soon found herself a bigger stage — at TEDxFargo, a local chapter of the well-known TED conference. It was 2015, and she spoke about using technology and other approaches to give students more autonomy. The YouTube video of her talk has racked up more than 127,000 views.
Today, so many teachers from other districts want to visit her classroom that Mapleton Elementary has set aside every Tuesday to host them. “We limit it to four teachers a day,” Ms. Delzer said.
Some non-tech companies, too, are eager to harness her star power by providing their products at no charge.
“BIG THANKS to our friends @TradeWestEDU for the new chairs, bean bags and tables!” Ms. Delzer tweeted in January after Trade West Equipment, an office and school supplier, furnished items for her classroom. “We are loving our new #flexibleseating options!”
Potential for Conflict
One morning last spring, Ms. Delzer assigned her third graders a math problem to solve on their iPads using Seesaw. Developed by two former Facebook product managers, Seesaw lets students produce and share their schoolwork as written notes, diagrams, audio recordings or videos.
Some children love the sharing aspect. “They can see what you are doing now that we have Seesaw,” McCoy, a third grader in Ms. Delzer’s class, said of his parents. “Other years they couldn’t — they were only able to see on your papers.”
Ms. Delzer is also an ambassador for Seesaw, an unpaid post. “Seesaw, my teacher heart loves you :-),” Ms. Delzer wrote on Instagram this year with a video clip showing her students using the program. It was seen more than 6,500 times.
Teaching, by nature, is a helping profession. And educators have a long tradition of sharing ideas with colleagues.
Ms. Delzer said she did not see a conflict between her teaching and other activities. She said she deliberately divided her work, devoting herself to her students during school hours while giving conference talks on days off and working with companies on some school nights.
“It’s really important to keep the two things separate,” she said.
She added that she worked only with companies whose products she personally believed in. Those relationships, she said, gave her valuable access to resources that could benefit her students, colleagues and teacher followers.
“If I am going to put my name on it, it either has to make learning better for students or teaching better for teachers,” Ms. Delzer said.
But companies that tap public-school teachers to use or promote their products in exchange for perks are effectively engaging the educators as consultants — a situation that could conflict with teachers’ obligations to their employer: schools.
According to the Seesaw site, for instance, the company expects its teacher ambassadors to “use Seesaw regularly in your classroom,” host two Seesaw-related conference talks or workshops annually and participate in Seesaw discussions online. In exchange, Seesaw offers teachers a subscription to its $120 premium service, product previews and a company badge to post on their profiles.
Joel R. Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, said those kinds of arrangements could violate state or school district conflict-of-interest rules governing public employees.
“Vendors offering free technology to teachers for their personal or professional use in exchange for teachers promoting it to students or other teachers is a very questionable activity,” Professor Reidenberg said.
Tim Jacobson, the principal of Mapleton Elementary School, where Ms. Delzer teaches, offered a different view. He described the company-teacher relationships as mutually beneficial for schools and industry. After Ms. Delzer developed a relationship with Seesaw, he noted, the company gave every Mapleton teacher a premium subscription and training sessions.
“It’s a real advantage when she comes back and she shares with us what she sees happening at the forefront of education,” Mr. Jacobson said. “Plus, it is good recognition for Mapleton Elementary School. We do a lot of things you wouldn’t expect in a school of our size.”
Mr. Sjogreen, the Seesaw co-founder, said that his company’s ambassador program did not pay teachers and that its premium software was not valuable enough to be a draw for them.
“There is nothing that we are doing really to incentivize teachers to become ambassadors,” he said. “To the extent that they give us great feedback and help us spread the word, we are happy to support them to become more knowledgeable.”
Ms. Delzer has also served as an Amazon Education “Teacher Innovator”; a “Digital Image Champion” for GoEnnounce, the student portfolio platform; a brand ambassador for GoNoodle, a classroom activity app; and a “Lead Digital Innovator” for PBS LearningMedia, the education arm of the nonprofit broadcasting company.
The Lesson of Drug Makers
One evening last spring, Mr. Provenzano, the English teacher and tech company ambassador, came home from school and went downstairs to his basement.
He had just finished teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” in his English classes at Grosse Pointe South, a public high school in a Detroit suburb. And he had given his students an unusual choice of assignments: They could make traditional class presentations, or use computer-assisted design software to draft objects illustrating themes from the novel.
At a time when many teachers feel constrained by curriculum requirements, Mr. Provenzano said digital tools provided a creative outlet. The design software assignment also took advantage of his side business, called The Nerdy Teacher. Mr. Provenzano consults for education technology companies, and his basement is chock-full of the electronics they send him to try.
Now, he used a $1,299 3-D printer sent to him by Dremel, a tool brand for which he is an ambassador, to turn his students’ designs into three-dimensional objects. He printed one student’s design, a gavel, representing the struggle for justice in the novel.
Later he posted a photo of the gavel on Twitter, mentioning the brand: “Student designed and @DremelEdu 3D40 printed gavel for a To Kill a Mockingbird presentation.”
Mr. Provenzano also blogs and gives conference presentations to teachers, sharing interesting ways that he uses the 3-D printers. “I feel comfortable saying teachers have bought Dremel because of me,” he said.
This teacher-influencer soft sell may be new in schools. But researchers who study medical marketing recognize it from techniques used for years by the pharmaceutical industry.
Drug makers have long cultivated doctors to promote brand-name medicines to their peers. Insiders have a nickname for these doctors: “Key Opinion Leaders.” Among other things, drug makers have paid physician influencers to give talks about company drugs, sent them on junkets and lavished them with fancy dinners.
If the ed-tech industry is now replicating these strategies, it is because, at least in medicine, they work.
“These techniques encourage the use of the product being promoted rather than evidence-based practices,” said Dr. Aaron S. Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has studied how drug company payments influence doctors. “There is evidence that even a small amount of money, like a meal, can influence prescribing.”
Some academic medical centers now prohibit their doctors from giving industry-sponsored speeches. And some drug companies have stopped giving doctors swag.
But there has been little public discussion about the ramifications of similar tech industry cultivation of teachers.
Mr. Provenzano said he did not see a conflict of interest between his teaching and industry affiliations, noting that his blog prominently listed his company affiliations. He added that school districts often hired him to train their teachers precisely because his industry relationships had helped him become an expert.
He left his public-school teaching job over the summer and started a position as director of maker spaces at a nearby private school. “These ambassadorships helped me get this job,” Mr. Provenzano said.
Some ambassador programs involve formal contracts that may take advantage of well-meaning teachers, legal experts said. For instance, a document online reviewed by The New York Times titled “Dremel Idea Builder Ambassador Agreement” contains a number of stipulations for teachers.
Among other things, the document said the company would provide a 3-D printer in exchange for a teacher’s developing at least one four-minute video tutorial every other month featuring a classroom project using the device. It required the teacher to give Dremel-related presentations at two or more conferences. The document, as written, also included a noncompete clause prohibiting teachers from working with other 3-D printing companies.
And Professor Reidenberg of Fordham Law pointed out that the document reviewed by The Times would give Dremel the right to settle any legal claims arising from the teacher’s work, while making the teacher liable for legal costs. “This clause could bankrupt the teacher,” Professor Reidenberg said.
Linda Beckmeyer, a spokeswoman for Bosch, the maker of Dremel, said its contract with teachers was confidential and declined to discuss its terms.
“The purpose of the ambassador program is to advance the maker movement in education by giving teachers and students access to 3-D printing,” she said.
‘We Are Not All Kim Kardashians’
Earlier this year, after school, Ms. Delzer drove to Kittsona, a trendy midpriced clothing boutique in Fargo. She already had a host of speaking engagements on her calendar, and she wanted new outfits to wear to them.
The Kittsona staff greeted her like a V.I.P.
Last year, the store’s owners agreed to outfit Ms. Delzer free of charge after she asked them to sponsor her in exchange for her tagging Kittsona on social media. Now, a stylist rushed about, picking out cute sleeveless dresses, embroidered tunics, layered necklaces and suede bootees for the teacher to try on.
Kittsona ran several promotions this year in which Ms. Delzer offered her Instagram followers a store discount. Each one directly resulted in 50 to 100 sales, said Nicole Johnson, Kittsona’s co-owner.
It was an indication, she said, that young working women were responding to Ms. Delzer’s ambitious-but-approachable schoolteacher brand. “We are not all Kim Kardashians,” Ms. Johnson said.
An hour or so later, Ms. Delzer left the boutique laden with shopping bags. But her working day was hardly done.
After dinner, Ms. Delzer installed herself at her kitchen counter. Dozens of emails from companies, conferences, publishers and teacher fans on social media needed responses.
Ms. Delzer recalled how, when she was starting out a few years ago, some veteran teacher influencers snubbed her. Tonight, she would try to respond to as many requests as possible. “I just drink a lot of coffee,” she said.
If her Top Dog Teaching fans nationwide love her, so do her third graders. One reason is that she often treats them like budding adults.
Every fall, for instance, Ms. Delzer holds a social media boot camp to teach her students how to run the class Instagram and Twitter accounts. She teaches them rules like “never share your password” and helps them understand how to maintain an upbeat online image.
After all, the class accounts, called TopDogKids, are essentially an offshoot of her own.
“You don’t want to post something bad,” McCoy, the third grader, said, “because if you want a job, those people are probably going to look at your social media page and they are going to decide if they’ll let you have the job.”
Lest they forget, a sign on the classroom wall reminded students and teacher alike: “I am building my digital footprint every day.”