Danna Thomas has gone, in her words, from “Miss Thomas, kindergarten teacher” to “Danna, founder of a revolution” in just a few years.
The former Baltimore City Public Schools educator now runs Happy Teacher Revolution, an international movement that hosts mental health and wellness support groups for teachers. More than 1,500 teachers have taken part in the program to date.
“The adage is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” she says. “I’m worried no one is taking care of the village.”
Thomas was a member of the Social Innovation Lab’s 2018-19 cohort and was awarded $15,000 at the group’s culminating event in April. The money will allow her to begin scaling her venture, expand her team and expand her social media platform.
“I want to build out our online support component to foster offline connections,” she says.
To that end, Thomas also is raising money to purchase and retrofit a bus into a mobile home so she can drive across the country to meet teachers in person.
“The ‘aha’ moment happens when people are sitting in the room together and sharing their vulnerabilities,” she says.
Thomas is grateful for the support she’s received from the SIL, including access to resources and a community of fellow entrepreneurs.
“Even if you don’t get in, the process of applying was so helpful. There’s value even if you don’t make it.”
In five words, what does your company or organization do?
Create opportunities for teacher well-being.
Why did you decide to start this? Where did the idea come from?
Happy Teacher Revolution was born because of my own personal journey with mental illness. As a teenager, I grappled with anxiety, depression and crippling panic attacks. My teachers in high school and college were my heroes and “first responders” who truly saved my life. They recognized the warning signs and encouraged me to seek treatment and get help. Over the past seven years as a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, and as a spokesperson for the Music for Mental Health Campaign and the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland, fellow teachers were open with me about their personal struggles, and I began to notice a pattern. I realized educators craved the opportunity to feel less alone, to share in one another’s vulnerabilities and imperfections.
When communities come together, we find strength in one another and the inspiration to continue to make positive change. I believe that in order to solve the teacher burnout and turnover crisis, we must come together as a community and revolutionize how we professionally support educators.
What would you consider success for your project, and how will the world be different if your project is successful?
If we are able to reimagine professional development and support for educators, we will be able to keep great teachers in the classroom. Success for Happy Teacher Revolution means an authentically joyful teacher who feels just as fulfilled on day one as they are on day 10,000. Success for our organization will be the day we can confidently demonstrate that Happy Teacher Revolution results in a reduction in teacher burnout, decreased teacher turnover and an increase in job satisfaction.
What have you accomplished so far?
We have trained nearly 100 revolutionaries across the United States and the world. Our revolutionaries then facilitate free Happy Teacher Revolution meetings to support 1,500 educators in their own communities around the globe. Our largest Happy Teacher Revolution site in the United States is in Oregon and our largest site internationally is located in Dakar, Senegal. We have revolutionaries leading meetings in 20 different states across the U.S., and we are expanding our international sites to include both Canada and China.
What advice do you have for would-be social entrepreneurs or other students thinking about starting a venture?
Stop second-guessing yourself and go for it. Have fun. Love your mistakes as opportunities to grow. Celebrate every small win each step of the way. Recognize your strengths but also your weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but also remember to fearlessly stand your ground.
It’s so thrilling to build something from scratch around a cause you truly believe in. There really isn’t a better feeling in the whole world, but because you have so much passion for your mission and work, it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster.
My mother has always told me, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Starting Happy Teacher Revolution has been the most fulfilling, exciting and downright terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Spending my days planting seeds of a revolution has been an exercise in patience and resilience. As I continue to blossom in this work, the most incredible part has been to support my fellow educators in blossoming, too.
What innovator do you look up to? Why?
Richard Branson. I love how much fun he has in the work he is doing and his sense of humor. I’m not sure if I would ever be brave enough to fly in a hot air balloon around the world, but I admire how he has leapt into one adventure after the next from a place of passion and authentic joy.
It’s after a long day of work, and you don’t feel like cooking. What is your go-to Baltimore restaurant?
Clavel. All the spicy margaritas and tacos, please.
The Social Innovation Lab will be accepting nominations for its 2019-20 cohort very soon! Please check the SIL website for the latest news and updates.