Former tech exec teaches entrepreneurship in Roxborough
“I created a culture where kids expect hard things and get it done.”
Frank Fesnak strongly believes in the potential of his students. He has reinvented the business and technology program at Roxborough High School to the extent that his students have been able to win awards and understand concepts that were never introduced to prior classes. Fesnak is also one of the 60 teachers who won the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching this year.
Though Fesnak says he didn’t need the recognition, he found it validating and looks at it as an objective data point that justifies his decision to go into teaching, which is his second career.
“I didn’t want to teach if I couldn’t do it well, and this is the validation that I did,” Fesnak said.
He always had the idea of being a teacher in the back of his mind. He had some excellent teachers himself growing up, and they gave him the support that he needed.
“There were at least a couple that kept me focused and realized what I could accomplish,” Fesnak said. “I’m not sure I would’ve done as well if I didn’t run into these people.”
Fesnak grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and attended a parochial elementary school before entering the Chappaqua public school system in 6th grade. He graduated from Horace Greeley High School and enrolled in Dartmouth College, where he earned a degree in economics.
He then joined IBM as a systems engineer before becoming a market representative. Fesnak spent a dozen years traveling across the country for IBM, working his way up to executive management. He worked in the tech industry for 30 years and started investing in Silicon Valley.
He didn’t start teaching because he needed the money.
To this day, Fesnak values the approach he took with his life.
“I’m glad the way I did it,” he said. “I did a lot of things in my youth, and financial independence helps me go through rough days [as a teacher].”
At age 50, he spoke to his wife about making the change and decided to do it. However, he needed to go back to school and obtain the necessary certification. For that, he needed all sorts of documentation, including his undergraduate college transcript.
“How much would it matter if I didn’t take the necessary classes if it’s been 30 years?” he asked, laughing.
While at the University of Pennsylvania to obtain master’s degree in secondary mathematics education, he was approached by the Robert Noyce Scholars Program, run by the National Science Foundation. The program pays for a person to get the necessary certifications to teach a STEM subject in return for a promise to get a job in a high-needs school.
Going in, he knew it would be hard. But he decided to dedicate at least five years to teaching.
“I told everyone, I’m going to tough it out for five years, come hell or high water, because I might suck those first few years,” Fesnak said.
He had no idea how hard teaching would really be until he started.
“It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t something that I breezed through,” Fesnak said. “I thought it’d be easier to accomplish this job.”
The first hard point was the culture shock. Coming from a workplace where he gave orders to hundreds of workers, it was a surprise to see students giving him a rough time in the classroom by not listening and other behavioral issues.
“You have to come in every day like it’s a new day as a teacher,” Fesnak said. It is not helpful to hold grudges or make a retort, but rather to talk to the student outside in the hall and move on.
When things calmed down, Fesnak decided to work another five years in education and has been involved in Roxborough High School since.
The first four years, Fesnak taught math. Then, one September, two days before classes started, Fesnak was told that he was in charge of Roxborough High’s business program.
“The first thought that went through my head was, ‘Oh crap, I got a lot to do,’” he said.
In preparing for the new assignment, he said he determined that the students who spent three years in the program up to that point never really learned much of value.
“It was a good switch,” Fesnak said. “It rejuvenated me and gave me a blank slate to create a new program. I was able to choose how to teach and how to sequence [the material].”
The only real guidance he got was a list of skills he was expected to cover. Fesnak was ambitious and believed that he could go beyond those skills.
“The skills were basic. There was plenty of room to build more,” Fesnak said.
However, in the beginning, there was pushback from the students. A lot of them viewed the expectations as too high and complained that everything was too hard. Fesnak disagreed.
“There were a lot of things they should be able to do that they didn’t,” Fesnak said. “We had to sit down and think, why is it too hard?”
Part of Fesnak’s solution was to readjust how he taught the material. For instance, in the past, no student succeeded in obtaining Microsoft certification. Fesnak’s solution was to take the long certification test and break it down. He created smaller tests with various aids, then removed the aids and added components like the timing restriction and a competition. Bit by bit, the students would work toward getting a better understanding of the test. Now 30-50 students a year in his program attain certification from Microsoft.
“I approached preparation the way that they work instead of the way that everybody works,” Fesnak said.
Another example was the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship regional contests. At one point, he was told to teach entrepreneurship, which he thought was a good idea. His students struggled at first, but then Fesnak changed the curriculum. Instead of expecting his students to develop a business idea and pitch it from scratch, Fesnak introduced more finance models and presentations, introducing the background knowledge and skills needed for entrepreneurship. By the time they were expected to create their business models, they already knew how to present their ideas, market them, and analyze the necessary numbers.
In the first year, only two out of 20 students presented to judges in the first round. Now, all 30 students do, representing NFTE Philly every year and winning for the last four years.
“I tell my students, ‘Someone in the room is going to win. One of you is,’” Fesnak said. “[The culture has] gone from, ‘I can’t do it,’ to ‘I’m going to win.’”
“You need the cultural shift, the different mindset.”
Fesnak also approaches teaching how he approached business: It’s all about selling.
Fesnak spoke about how teaching is not about traits such as humor or kindness, but rather how to encourage students to invest time and effort into his class. “It’s not about what you engineer, it’s about if they want to buy it,” Fesnak said.
He ties this idea to his philosophy of life: “People are good at things that they like to do.”
“If you want to get up and run a business, don’t you want it to be connected to something that you like to do?” he asked.
Similarly, Fesnak’s philosophy of teaching is that “somehow, you have to get them to like your class.”
The advantage of business, he argues, is that everyone wants economic success, so they are more willing to learn about the material in a business class than a math class.
The final factor in teaching for Fesnak is confidence. He always wants his students to be confident in what they have learned, motivating them to learn more.
“I tell them, ‘Hold your head up. You’re doing just as well as kids from Stuyvesant (in New York), Harriton (in Lower Merion), and Central,’” he said, noting the scores his students receive in the national business test that all Pennsylvania business students take their senior year.
He tells his students they could wow their friends and neighbors with what he’s taught them.
“Once they accomplish something it boosts their confidence up,” Fesnak said. “They need the confidence, they need the experience, they need the wins, and that makes it easier after that. I really believe that.”