Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Chris Seanard’s classroom is admittedly unusual — more of a student-run small business than a middle school art studio.

Chris Seanard (right)

His students at Dalewood Middle School in Hamilton County run a T-shirt design and manufacturing business — honing digital design skills and entrepreneurship basics. Marketing their wares to peers, faculty, sports teams and other area residents, they have sold more than $3,000 in shirts last year.

“Sometimes I teach students, sometimes they teach me,” said Seanard, who runs the Volkswagen eLab, a classroom with digital fabrication tools, 3D printers, robotics, and more. “This interaction is a two-way relationship that creates a connection.”

His lab is one of 16 in Hamilton County Schools sponsored by the district, the state, the Public Education Foundation, and Volkswagen.

We spoke with Seanard about the genesis of his eLab, lessons he has gleaned from his students, and how his background as a snowboarding instructor prepared him for the job.

“Having a background in snowsports instruction helps remind me that teaching and learning is fun, and humans intrinsically want to learn and experience new things,” he said. “Learning should be user-focused.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I started teaching snowboarding during high school at our local ski resort in Pennsylvania. We taught beginners who had never been on snow how to tackle the slopes. This teaching experience, in addition to a few great teacher role models in high school, motivated me to pursue teaching as a career. I taught snowboarding through high school [and] college, and then full-time after college. I eventually transitioned to public education when I was 28.

How do you get to know your students?

To me, teaching is an interaction between people. It’s about sharing knowledge and experiences with others. Sometimes I teach students, sometimes they teach me. This interaction is a two-way relationship that creates a connection between two different groups. The sharing experience creates many opportunities to ask personal questions, share personal experiences, and develop a strong relationship between two or more people.

Can you tell us about a time when a student taught you something new?

Occasionally, while working with students and new technology, students find shortcuts or technology features that I did not know about.

One example was when I was teaching a student how to send computer code for controlling LED light strips to an Arduino micro computer. The seventh-grade student showed me a computer code line that I questioned. She showed me that it did work and then explained why. I was very impressed with her ability to not only create the code, but to explain why it worked.

Students also teach me how to use Snapchat picture filters, such as puppy ears, and other silly stuff.

How did your class, the VW eLab, come to be?

The VW eLabs were developed by Volkswagen,  PEF Chattanooga, Hamilton County Department of Education and the state of Tennessee. During the latter part of the VW eLab planning, we started a partnership with Real World Scholars to help us start the student-run businesses in the eLabs.

Students had to decide a business name, what they were going to sell, and what they would do with their profits. Students decided to sell T-shirts and sweatshirts, which evolved into a company that makes and sells apparel for Dalewood Middle School and other local companies. During our first year, the Dalewood Developers brought in over $3,000 in revenue. Students use money to purchase new equipment [including an embroidery machine] and supplies in the VW eLab and also use it for charity, such as purchasing food for our annual canned food drive.

The overall school climate has been impacted by the student-run business. Students learn entrepreneurial business skills and what it feels like to be a part of a company. Students take more ownership of their school and products they are making. For example, there are many times in the lunchroom when I hear student telling each other which shirts they made and arguing over which design is better. The students get really excited during home basketball games, when opposing teams are jealous that we design, make, and sell our own gear.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite type of lessons to teach [are] real-world, problem-based lessons. An example of this type of lesson is when we do a “project launch.” Students work in groups of two to four students. They are responsible for creating a project plan, researching customer wants and needs, developing a product, and pitching it to a student panel of judges.

The judges determine which product they will add to our product line up for the school year. This year’s entries included custom Dalewood Middle School keychains, embroidered polo shirts, student binder organizers and Dalewood Blue Knights headbands. The winning team was the headband team. One of the great moments was during the embroidered polo shirt presentation, the headband team raised their hands and suggested that they work together to develop a package deal.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Middle school is a very challenging time of adolescent development, which is one of the main reasons I decided to focus my work in middle schools. There are many daily challenges that arise: peer conflicts, a lack of student motivation, and students’ personal challenges. I enjoy the challenge of helping students work through their conflicts because of the personal growth they achieve when they have success in overcoming a challenge.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

  1.     That vacations would be vacation. This portion is optional, but I do spend a large portion of my vacation time working on school planning.
  2.     I didn’t think there would be this much paperwork for purchases, field trips, district requirements and so on.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I have had a few impactful moments when I shared student strengths with parents and the parents were completely surprised and impressed. The student was then very happy that I was proud of them and then worked harder to do a better job in class. Students need to know that someone believes in them.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

  1.     “Don’t tell them. Don’t show them. Let them.”
  2.     “Never work harder than your students.”

Both of these quotes help remind me that students need to be experimenting with hands-on experiences.

A simple example of this would be guiding a student through a new piece of computer software. An experienced teacher could easily take control of the mouse and make a few simple edits to fix a problem, but if is much more beneficial for the student to find the problem, find the controls to fix the problem, and fix the problem.