TOPICS > Education

How a former nun made millions by training teachers

November 25, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Emily Feistritzer has come a long way from her first entrepreneurial endeavor: going door to door selling glow-in-the-dark statues of the Virgin Mary. After a long career in education, she founded Teach-Now, a global company that provides online teaching degrees for $6,000 in just nine months -- a cheaper and faster alternative to what most traditional universities offer. William Brangham reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now another installment of our entrepreneur series.

Emily Feistritzer, who was a Catholic nun in her youth, later became a teacher. In 2011, she created TEACH-NOW, a company that trains and certifies teachers around the world. It is now a multimillion-dollar business.

William Brangham returns, having caught up with Feistritzer in her Washington, D.C., home.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For Emily Feistritzer, life as an entrepreneur began early. As a young girl growing up in Kentucky, she went door to door in her mostly Protestant neighborhood.

EMILY FEISTRITZER, CEO and Founder, TEACH-NOW: Selling statues of the Virgin Mary that glowed in the dark.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That was your first business?

EMILY FEISTRITZER: Yes, my first business.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That business never took off, but it led to her next stop, the Catholic convent. At 19, she became a nun, and got her first job in education, teaching high school math and science.

EMILY FEISTRITZER: I would never, ever be doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t learned the kind of focus and discipline that that life provided. I mean, you were taught to be laser-focused.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And you really do trace it back to your time in the convent?

EMILY FEISTRITZER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

There’s no question about that. People sort of say, where did you get your training to be a successful businesswoman? And I say, the convent.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She left the convent, and the Catholic Church, at 31, earned a Ph.D and launched a career in education that has spanned more than four decades. She was a professor. She wrote books on teacher training, started a clearinghouse on best practices.

And then, a few years ago, she plopped down half-a-million dollars of her own money to launch a brand-new digital company.

You could very easily have just said, you know what, it’s time. I’m going to have a peaceful retirement and just enjoy the end of your life.

Instead, you dove into what may be, arguably, the most intense period of work in your life. Why?

EMILY FEISTRITZER: Well, I was sort of playing around with retiring. I was already getting a Social Security check, and I really didn’t like it.

I have to be engaged in something. And I didn’t want to, like, do pottery.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That decision has more than paid off. Today, her company, known as TEACH-NOW, has 15 full-time employees, and more than 40 part-time instructors around the world.

EMILY FEISTRITZER: It’s now bringing in revenues of around $4 million and a profit margin of about 20 percent, 20-25 percent.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Teach-Now charges $6,000 per person to take its nine-month teacher-certification program. That’s a cheaper and faster alternative to what most traditional universities offer. And since it began, more than 1,200 people have completed the course.

Classrooms look like this. Students log in virtually anywhere in the world. And lessons are given by veteran teachers. Dan Roggenkamp lives and works in Taiwan. He’s leading this discussion.

DAN ROGGENKAMP, Teacher: So, we’re looking for as little redundancy in information as possible.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Before completion, however, people like Walter Allen must spend at least 12 weeks in a real classroom, where they are filmed and monitored by mentors online.

WALTER ALLEN, TEACH-NOW Student: As a teacher, it helps a lot. Like, I know a lot of first-year teachers personally who didn’t have to undergo any field experience prior to getting hired, and sometimes that first year is like a disaster.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Allen is teaching reading intervention at Kelley Miller Middle School in Washington, D.C. It’s a class designed to help students who have fallen behind in English.

He’s aiming to not only be certified as a special-ed instructor, but he also wants do something much bigger.

WALTER ALLEN: Growing up, going to D.C. public schools, elementary, middle school, high school, I didn’t — personally, I didn’t have many African-American teachers, African-American male teachers.

So, enrolling into the TEACH-NOW program, taking education seriously, graduating from college, furthering my education, all of this allows me to become that idea, that possibility for African-American students that I teach now. They see me inside of their classroom teaching as an African-American male teacher and say, hey, maybe, one day, I can become a teacher.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Kerri Valencia is an elementary Spanish teacher in Washington, D.C.’s Sheridan School. She completed the Teach-Now certification three years ago while living in Ecuador, where she was teaching English at an international school.

Valencia had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, but thought that wasn’t going to be enough to land her a teaching job back in the U.S.

KERRI VALENCIA, TEACH-NOW Graduate: And I was just really drawn to the fact that it was a nine-month program. I have a family. I wasn’t in a place where I could go back and do another four-year degree or two-year degree, which is kind of what looked my options were.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Feistritzer says she’s met several teachers like Valencia, who came to the profession late or had been working, but without certification.

EMILY FEISTRITZER: So there’s really been a groundswell of interest in teaching on a part of mid-career switchers, people who’ve raised a family and decided to do a career later in life, people who want to move in and out of careers.

So, that market, I saw coming. When you run the kind of program we’re running, which is not only so good, but it can be taken anywhere, any time, it’s very desirable.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As for what the future may have in store, Feistritzer says she’s keeping an open mind, even to another business opportunity coming up.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Washington, D.C.