Derek and Jessica Balsley: The Art of Education and the business of lifelong learning

While working as an elementary  school art teacher, Jessica Balsley realized that there wasn’t much by the way of continuing education for teachers in her field. So she and her husband Derek Balsley set out to change that.

Together the pair founded The Art of Education, an online platform where K–12 art educators can access professional development resources like online classes, teaching materials, lessons, videos and more.

Recently the Balsleys answered a few questions about building their business in rural Iowa and working together as a team, as both a couple and as co-founders.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

Clay & Milk: Tell us about what you’re building with The Art of Education.

As with many businesses, The Art of Education was founded to solve a very real problem: K–12 art educators were being left behind in their schools when it comes to professional development. We wanted to close that gap and give art teachers around the country the type of professional learning they deserved.

Today, The Art of Education is attempting to build the world’s first graduate university exclusively for art educators. Perhaps even more importantly, we’re attempting to reinvent what a higher learning institution should look like in the 21st century.

We began with a few basic questions we were wrestling with: Why do universities teach their students for a few years, grant a degree, then promptly abandon them for life? What if paying $40,000 for an education bought you a lifetime of learning instead of just a few years of coursework and a diploma? Why do so many universities advocate for “lifelong learning” yet fail to facilitate it? Why do most professionals learn more on the job, from peers, listening to podcasts, or by attending conferences while universities sit on the sidelines as their pedagogy ages, becoming less relevant and useful to the real world?

We are attempting to build a modern higher education institution which marries many popular learning platforms together. We publish a daily online magazine, read by hundreds of thousands of professionals each month. We broadcast a popular podcast every week. We provide high quality lesson plans, workshops and large conference-style events attended by thousands of art educators each year. Each learning platform strengthens the other. This approach allows us to help amazing art teachers grow by meeting them where they’re at and providing meaningful learning opportunities at every stage of their career.

C&M: How did you get involved with this type of work? Why did you choose to pursue it?

As a K–5 art teacher and professional development facilitator, Jessica noticed there were not a lot of content-specific options for art teachers to gain credits or further their learning. This frustration lead to the creation of a blog, which expanded into what you see today as The Art of Education.

C&M: What have been some of the benefits of building a company in rural Iowa? What about the downsides?

We’re proud that we’ve been able to move back to our hometown of Osage, Iowa [population roughly 3,500] to build The Art of Education. There are too many benefits to list them all, but access to family and friends, affordable real estate and affordable local taxes have all helped.

Because we’re running an online business, we can technically do it from anywhere. Sometimes we wonder why we don’t move the whole organization to Bermuda, but most days we’re happy to be where we are in beautiful Iowa. It’s a great place to raise a family, and the value of being surrounded by a support system of people you’ve known for your whole life can not be overstated.

C&M: What keeps you motivated to continue growing The Art of Education?

We want to make a positive difference in the lives of our customers, students and fans. We want to make a genuine dent in the higher education universe. We have lifelong followers of our website and offerings. This makes for really strong relationships. The need was there, so The Art of Education has naturally grown on its own. We have so many exciting projects and such a wonderful team, it doesn’t always feel like work to grow and improve the organization.

C&M: How has building a business as a couple helped strengthen your business and relationship? What’s been most difficult?

Believe it or not, we love spending all day together. Due to the unique challenges and pressures of starting a fast-growth business, we feel incredibly blessed to be doing it together. To have your partner truly understand and appreciate your struggles, your frustrations, your goals… this type of support system must be a huge benefit to anyone trying to do something difficult.

As a couple, and as co-founders we feel the same pains, we experience the same joys, and we strategize together to build a stronger future. Second only to to raising two kids together, building The Art of Education has brought us closer together than anything else we’ve ever been through.

C&M: What has been an unexpected source of inspiration for your work?

When we first started out, it was tempting to look within our own industry when seeking inspiration. Derek was very adamant that this was the wrong road, and that we should instead be comparing ourselves to the best and brightest minds in the world, regardless of industry. 

About Derek and Jessica Balsley

Location: Osage, Iowa

Twitter handle: @theartofed

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer based in Des Moines and a regular contributor to Clay & Milk.