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November 5, 2023

Great education starts with great teachers

Great education starts with great teachers

I’ve now been on the journey down the road less traveled for nearly three months, and it’s been three of the best months that I’ve ever had.  I was lucky enough to take the first 5 weeks of it completely off for the first time since college, and it gave me time to spend with family, learn a lot about mindfulness, and write some music.  I even published an “album” of some of the songs that I wrote!

Over the last month and a half, I’ve gotten a chance to really learn about the world of education and talk to many people that are making a difference in several parts of the world.  While I originally called this the road less traveled, I now see that there are lots of incredible people who are on this same journey to make a difference in education. I’ve talked to teachers, school administrators, entrepreneurs, investors, founders of non-profits, and technologists, and there is one common thread that goes through all of them: commitment to the mission of education.  All of them are in this to make the world better for those who don’t have opportunities, and it’s what attracted them to this in the first place.

The #1 lesson I’ve learned from these conversations is something really basic: great education starts with great teachers.  This seems obvious, but it’s something that I think we often forget about in the world of technology.  A technology on it’s own is interesting, but a technology that amplifies a great teacher is profound.  As I thought back to my own past, I’ve been fortunate to have been influenced by many great teachers.  Without those teachers, I would not have been able to follow the path that I’ve followed in my life, and I owe so much to them.  

As I thought about these great teachers, two people stuck out who changed the trajectory of my life.

Robert Thomasson was my 5th and 6th grade teacher, and he entered my life at just the right time.  Before his class, I was a student with a lot of potential but who was not doing well in core school work.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love learning, but I loved learning what I wanted to learn and not what the school wanted me to learn.  Those were often not the same thing, so I focused all my attention on doing the things I wanted to do.  As a result, I’d routinely fail math tests and spelling tests.  My 4th grade teacher was great at keeping me accountable for this, but it still wasn’t enough to make me want to get better.

Mr. Thomasson made me realize that what I wanted to learn and what I had to learn were actually the same thing.  The big insight was that there are hundreds of ways that you can teach writing and math, so, as a result, you can find a way to teach that relates the topic to things that a student cares about.  Rather than teaching us how to write a five paragraph essay, he taught us how to write persuasive letters to famous people and complaint letters to companies.   I wrote letters to the US Senators from Colorado to tell them my thoughts on “policy”, and both of them wrote me back personal letters.  As an adult, I can now imagine how amused they were to get a letter from an 11 year old talking about political policy.    

That was just one of the great, applicable lessons that Mr. Thomasson taught us.  We learned about chess and computers.  We learned about statistics by giving our friends and family Acco and Swingline staplers and surveying them about what they liked the best.  We learned silly songs to remember concepts, and I still, to this day, remember those songs (ask me sometime about what an adverb is).  With all of it, I learned the skills that I needed to learn because I was inspired in the process.  It turned me from a student that was failing basic concepts to one that was thriving.

Grady Clay in his car

Grady Clay was a race car driver, an engineer, and a businessman who retired from racing to mentor students at the high school.  Cherry Creek had an amazing science research program that let students do science projects as a separate class, and the teaching staff did everything they could to support kids doing these projects.  Through that, I met Grady, and he was willing to take me under his wing.  

He pushed me to be creative, to step out of my comfort zone, and to think really big in my ideas.  When I said that I wanted to build a wind tunnel to test the aerodynamics of automated vehicles, he and the teaching staff cleared out an old animal shed at the high school so that I had a space to build.  He pushed me to have the courage to go ask people at various shops for free materials to build it, and he helped find me the tools I needed.  When I needed to learn about aerodynamics, he used his connections to get me a week at NASA Ames in Mountain View to meet scientists that were doing similar things.  He taught me a methodology for science research that I followed diligently, and it made all of the difference.  There were many times where I was ready to quit my endeavor, and he was there to encourage me to go on.  I pushed through and finished it, and it ended up getting me to the International Science and Engineering Fair.  More importantly, I loved it so much that I continued the work for two more years and learned a ton of practical skills in the process.  Many of those skills are exactly the same skills I’m using right now to create a company.

As I think about what made them great, and as I think about the conversations I’ve had with teachers and educators, it boils down to four big things:

  • Trust and inspiration -- They were able to get me to trust them, and they inspired me to want to learn and be my best.  That was the fuel that started the engine.
  • Building confidence -- They got me to see that I could do great things, and that gave me the confidence to keep going when I thought I couldn’t.
  • Relating the content to what I loved -- They taught through examples that I thought were really interesting, and it made me realize that what I had to do and what I wanted to do could be the same thing.
  • Individual guidance and coaching-- They found the time to get to know me as an individual, and they guided me to where I needed to go.  Knowing that I had a teacher there that was looking out for me personally was reassuring, and it propelled me forward.

What’s interesting is that only some of this is about the content that they teach, and a lot of it is about their ability to connect with the student and teach that content in a way that’s inspiring.  

But the tough part is that it’s very tough to scale a great teacher, and that’s one of the areas I’m thinking about trying to fix.  There are three big constraints which limit the impact of a great teacher:

  • Geography -- A great classroom teacher typically impacts students in a particular geography.  As a result, they can have an impact over 20-200 students per year depending on their grade level.   In earlier grades, the teacher is often with the same class all day and has a deep impact over 20-30 students.  In upper grades, they have many classes and can reach up to 200 students.  In colleges and in other countries, the ratio is bigger, so they teach more students.
  • Time -- There are only so many hours in a day, and a teacher can only do what they can possibly do with the time and resources allotted as one individual person.
  • Individualized instruction -- However, the more students a teacher teaches, the less possible it is for them to teach each student individually.  I think about Grady, and I was lucky that he was willing to make a deep impact on a few students.  As a result, I was able to talk with him 1:1 several times a week.  But, a teacher in a classroom with 30 students can only do so much to cater to each individual.

I want every student to have a Robert Thomasson that builds their love for learning and a Grady Clay that can be there to mentor them at every step.  I’m not yet sure how we do that, but, if every student had that advantage, we would go a long way towards leveling the playing field.

I would love to hear from all of you with your thoughts.  In particular:

  • Who were the great teachers in your life, and why were they so great?
  • Are there great teachers that you know (or are you one yourself)?  I want to talk with amazing teachers to learn about what makes them so effective and what could help them do even more.
  • Do you have any thoughts on how we can scale great teachers?

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