When we started the Masteryconnect blog, we decided that we would not just fill our blog with posts talking about our latest feature releases and regurgitated content from the industry (although we do that too)…we wanted to write about our thoughts and even express our opinions and an occasional controversial idea. We see the edtech startup experience as more than just a set of features and product announcements. We see it as a grand endeavor to make things better for teachers and students. Many of us at MasteryConnect have parents, spouses, and siblings that are teachers and our children go to public schools. We are a team with passionate ideals and a deep emotional connection to education that comes with an incredible desire to have real impact on student achievement and a push for getting at the heart of what our kids know and don’t know relative to the core. As the co-founder/CEO of MasteryConnect, it’s often hard to find the time to sit down and share my thoughts in a post, but tonight I wanted to share something that was on my mind. You see, I come from a family of teachers. I grew up with a father, who, in the 1960’s, spent his first two years as a teacher in a small Inuit village in Alaska. He came back to the lower 48 and taught history and social studies with great passion and the desire to inspire kids to do great things in life. That passion of my father translated into my two siblings becoming teachers and ultimately inspired me to channel my software skills to education. I even married a teacher!

With that long background, I wanted to share a quick experience. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with an elementary teacher who has been using MasteryConnect for over a year now. We’ll call her Miss Jones for this post. I didn’t know Miss Jones very well, we’d had a few email exchanges and I had been to her classroom once before for a feedback session. After a recent email from Miss Jones, I wanted to get with her personally and gather her feedback and thoughts. More importantly, I wanted to really connect with Miss Jones as a user and as a teacher. As our discussion started, we talked a lot about her experience in rolling out the Common Core this year. It was fascinating to hear her talk about the first two weeks of school and the challenges of managing 30 students while teaching and assessing standards and managing all the new expectations. It’s important to note that Miss Jones is what I would call a “super teacher.” This is the kind of public school teacher that labors night and day researching for lessons and developing formative assessments and going back and spending the time to identify students that don’t understand concepts and reteach them. She’s the kind of teacher that when you have your own kids in public school, you fight tooth and nail to make sure your kid ends up in her class.

Miss Jones shared with me that her school was piloting a new Common Core textbook from one of the major publishers (as with Miss Jones, we’ll keep that name quiet too). I sometimes like to refer to myself as a “Common Core Geek,” so I immediately wanted to see the new text and see what the major publisher had done. I asked her if I could take a look at the new book. As she pulled the shiny, new teachers-edition out of her book bag, she said to me, “Please wipe the table underneath it and please don’t get any of that chocolate cake on it, and please please don’t spill on it.” At first I thought she was being overly cautious about a new book, but she elaborated on why she needed me to be careful. I was shocked to hear that her principal had presented her with a piece of paper from the legal department of the publishing company. The legal document stated that, should anything happen to the book, (be it chocolate cake spills or an accidental coffee slip), she would PERSONALLY be responsible for the $500 cost for the replacement. Given that Miss Jones is a team leader, she was also entrusted with a special set of materials worth about $1,000. I quickly did the math of a teacher’s salary and realized that an accidental slip of my drink or chocolate cake could cost Miss Jones a significant portion of her monthly income.

Now it’s easy for a small company like ours to throw darts and take pot shots at the big Goliath multi-billion dollar publishing companies (that often buy-out many start-ups like ours), and yes, sometimes it’s fun to throw a little mud, but a couple of things struck me at that moment. You see, I was there to get connected with Miss Jones and find out how we could improve what we are doing. I was looking for unfiltered feedback after deep use of what we had built and after she’d bruised and beaten up what we had created. The disconnect I had in my brain was that a start-up education company like ours labors night and day to get usage in the classroom and gain insightful feedback from a teacher, and yet, this publisher has the power to actually strike fear in the heart of this teacher and “threaten” her with a monetary punishment for a product that she was being told she would have to use. She expressed to me that she was afraid to take the book home. Wow, I was dumbfounded…this felt so broken. As a CEO of an edtech startup desiring feedback, my thought was, ‘why wouldn’t you want to make this teacher feel like they could take the product home, pour over it, write her notes in it, highlight it, bend the pages, USE it!, and yes, even possibly spill on it?’ So what if she spilled on it or dropped it? The value of her buying into what you are giving her and the feedback you gain has to be far more valuable than the $20 cost of printing in China. Why wouldn’t you just give it to her? And wouldn’t you want to take a peek at that note-filled, bent-paged, run-over, highlighted copy so you could see how she used it and the feedback she provided and make your product better?

My point here is that teachers are often made to feel less than professional and sometimes even second class citizens in their own profession. It’s difficult enough that we often undervalue them with pay, but we go deeper when we, through these types of situations, imply that they are not trusted as professionals. A few years back, my wife signed a similar agreement with her district-issued laptop. She was forced to sign a document saying she’d replace the full $1,500 cost of the laptop should something happen to it. The school told her that if she didn’t sign the contract saying she’d pay for the laptop, she might even lose her job. This made her go through the same thought process as Miss Jones…‘Why would I take this home if it’s going to cost me my month’s paycheck if I drop it or spill on it?’ When I looked at my wife’s situation through the eyes of a business owner and through the lens of productivity, this baffled me as well. I quickly did the math in my head of the number of extra hours my wife spent at home (outside of contract hours) vs. the value of that laptop. My crude calculation showed that the value of productivity the district gained from the issuance of that laptop equated to a few weeks of work my wife did with the laptop after hours. Wouldn’t it make more sense to set aside money for accidental damage, or even look into some sort of hardware insurance policy rather than making my wife feel second-class, untrusted, and that she’d have to replace the whole laptop with personal money?

To finish off the story, Miss Jones sent me an email today. She writes in the email, “I want you to know that one of the things I have loved about working with MasteryConnect is that I feel valued as a professional. Whenever I visit with one of you, I feel like you get that teachers work hard, care about kids and are invested in their success.” With all the hard work and pain of an edtech startup, just reading her email seemed to make it all worthwhile.

Now, I don’t share that quote to toot my own horn or say that MasteryConnect is perfect, it’s to illustrate the point of what it takes to value our teachers as professionals. Ultimately, we’ve all seen that there is often a giant gap between educators and “solutions providers”. I’ve seen many an engineer come into this market having “the answer.” As many non-educators come into the market trying to solve problems in education, it’s easy to take an attitude of “we know how to solve your problem” without taking the time to really listen and connect with teachers with the spirit and understanding that these are professionals that care about kids and know a lot about solving these problems and doing their jobs. We need to find more ways to bridge the gap of the solutions that we can provide to improve student achievement and what happens on the ground at the classroom level. When we first started MasteryConnect, we worked with a 17-year veteran educator (Trenton, who you see writing on this blog) and we immediately found a gap between his understanding of what was possible technologically and our understanding of the real-world classroom. It has been a great journey as we’ve worked and continue to work to bridge that gap.

My hope is that we as solutions providers (especially my colleagues in the start-up world) remember that we have a deeper calling because we work in this industry of education. Ours is to seek to understand the difficulty of the task that teachers have, and to make sure that teachers feel like esteemed professionals as we go about serving them and the students we are all trying to educate. As teachers head back to the classroom this month, I’d like to express my deep appreciation and humble gratitude for the dedicated and selfless work of all teachers. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude for teachers like my father, my sisters, and those like Miss Jones, whom we work to support.

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