Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Teachers Should Know About Parents

Last week, I wrote What Parents Should Know About Teachers based on my experiences in the classroom. Here is the other perspective, What Teachers Should Know About Parents, things that I have learned now that my kids are in school.

While teaching, I encountered three types of parents:

I’ll begin with the parents in the middle. Most of your students’ parents are great. They love their kids, they are happy with the school, and they want to support you as the teacher. You only need to know one thing about these parents: if their kids are happy, they’re happy. If you set their kids up for success, throw in some creative activities, and tell a joke or two, all is good.

There is a second group of parents, the ones with too little time. These folks are maxed out with work, with family, and with other commitments. Many of these parents belong to the first, happy group, but they really hope that you, the teacher, take care of the school thing since they are juggling so much. In general, you can help these parents by:
  • Keeping your emails short and easy to skim on their phone. I’m an involved parent, and I read all of the teachers’ emails, but even I rarely make it to the Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page.
  • Making your homework and project instructions easy for the student to understand. These parents are grateful when their kids can knock out their homework without a lot of help.
  • Avoiding projects that require trips to the craft store. You should definitely avoid the dreaded collaborative project where the kids have to get together at someone’s house – it takes forever, and they never get anything done there anyway.

The third group of parents has too much time on their hands. These folks are very involved (some might say too involved) with their child’s education. They want to know everything that is going on, and if you don’t let them know ahead of time, they will email, call, and request meetings to find out. And you know what? They have every right to know what is going on in their child’s day. More on that later.

Here are my suggestions for keeping everyone happy.
  • Send out a class newsletter periodically, either by email, on paper, or both. Elementary students might need a weekly homework newsletter every Monday while older students might only need one monthly covering the big tests and projects. This will keep the busy parents happy.
  • Meanwhile, put everything on your class webpage or Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page and put links in the newsletter. Now, if a parent wants to know the agenda for the day or the instructions for a project, it is easy to find. This requires extra work at the beginning of the month, but it will save you time answering questions later.
  • Make sure that the parent can check the student’s grades online and that the grades are current.

Now there is something that took me several years to learn while I was teaching; it is more important that I support a family’s parenting than it is for them to support my teaching. By that I mean it is good for parents to be intentional about the choices that they make for their children, choices about media, about time spent online, about language. If parents have chosen to raise their child without movies or television, it is not the place of the teacher to undo that by showing a movie in class or making the child write about a television show. If parents choose to shelter their children from strong language, the teacher should not undo all of that work by assigning a novel that contains those elements. For instance, Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest American novels, but some families may be uncomfortable with the language. I believe it is best if the teacher lets the parents know early. If a parent has an issue with the book, try to find a compromise – perhaps the student can read a different book. When I taught Edgar Allan Poe in my English class, a couple of parents over the years were uncomfortable with the violence. I found that the same lesson could be taught with a different piece of literature. Every American should read Huck Finn and Edgar Allan Poe at some point, in my opinion, but it does not have to happen freshman year.

And returning to my point about the overly involved parents, they should be allowed to be overly involved. I may not choose to parent that way, but you never know if the child has a special need or may forget to do homework unless that parent double and triple checks. Or maybe that parent just wants to push the kid super hard to get into Stanford. I don’t think it is going to make that kid into a happy adult, but it is not my choice as the teacher.

One last note, this time about surprises. All parents like to be pleasantly surprised, so catch each student doing something great, and let the parents know. Make a comment or send an email letting the parent know how helpful the student was in science lab or how well she did on the test. Most parents only get called when the child is in trouble or is hurt and will love to hear that you noticed their child’s strength. Conversely, all parents hate to be unpleasantly surprised. If a student has grades that are slipping or has missed an assignment, let the parent know early and often. It does take some time to analyze student data each week, but it is worth it for everyone. Some of my worst times as a teacher were spent with angry parents whose kid was doing poorly, but there was not enough time in the semester for the child to raise the grade. This can go for behavior problems too.

Realize that even though you have taught hundreds of students at this grade level, this is only the first or second time most of these parents have raised a child this age, so be patient with them.

And please check out our Clickademics Essay Engine and like us on Facebook.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Next Big Startup Incubators? Schools

In the past, education has been one of the slowest moving industries around. If you go into a classroom today, not only will it look very similar to the classrooms you sat in as kids, but it looks pretty much the same as the classrooms your parents sat in. But things are changing. Teachers, administrators, and students are adopting new technologies that allow students to learn just as much outside of the classroom. Students are feeling the competitive pressure for college acceptances and scholarships, so parents are paying for tutors,  academic camps, and learning apps more than ever. This is why education is the a huge growth area for tech startups.

Too many of these startups, though, don't really understand education. Just because you were a student, and your learned stuff, doesn't mean you know how students learn stuff. Teachers do. And too many of these tech startups and their investors are on a short timeline, forcing them to develop quick-fix educational apps that don't make a meaningful difference for students. You know who has patience for a long-term project? Teachers do. You know who is sits on a wealth of untapped startup potential? Teachers do.

A school is the perfect place to create education technology that will make a meaningful difference for students around the world and generate a tremendous revenue stream. I first had this thought I was developing Clickademics Essay Engine, our web app that helps students write essays at home. I wished that I were still teaching in the classroom, where I would have access to resources, students, and other teachers. 

Let me back up a moment. For those who don't know, a business incubator is a place that helps startups get off the ground. They provide cheap office space, legal advice, support services, IT, and even a small amount of capital (like an angel investor or venture capitalist). All of the things that medium-sized businesses have but startups do not. In exchange, the incubator often asks for a share of the company. Now, the staff at a school may not be able to give much business advice, but they have plenty that a startup needs to get going. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of a school partnering with a tech startup. The largest hurdle is that the people in that school need to stop thinking like a school and start thinking like a VC. 

Here are the advantages:
  • Schools are packed with education experts that understand their target market better than anyone. The average teacher has had hundreds of students come through her classroom so she understand the way students learn as well as the way their parents think. Oh, and many of them have masters' degrees. Teachers are the best source of ideas for new products. They regularly meet before or after school and even spend whole days on professional development, all of which are the perfect environment for brainstorming sessions.
  • Schools are packed with technology. Most schools have dozens of computers, have access to web servers, and staff their own IT departments. Much of the infrastructure is in place. There are no professional developers on campus, but most high schools have computer science classes with students who code and are looking for ways to earn a little spending money or add projects to their portfolios before applying to college. If a school were to develop an education tech product, it would need to hire professional developers, but students would be able to help supplement the work cheaply.
  • Schools are packed with beta-testers. Once teachers dream up an idea and a demo is built, the product can be constantly tested with their own students. It is easy to get their subjective feedback when they complain during homeroom, and the objective results of the product can be tracked through the student's class grades and standardized tests. The means of data collection and feedback are already in place and paid for.
  • Schools have access to capital. Sort of. Everyone says that schools have no money, but that means different things to different people. Does a school have money to hire five new teachers permanently? No, but many schools can hire a couple of developers for a short-term project. In addition, there are grants, both small and large, just for schools, often reserved for technology purposes. Many schools also have access to fund raising events, local businesses, and concerned parents who would be very interested in donating money for a project that could both improve learning for the current students and create a future revenue stream that will help students in the future. It's like building a football field that could be acquired by a competitor at a 10x ROI. 
  • Schools are good at spreading the word. Marketing a product developed in-part by a school would easy. It would get attention from the press, the parents would tell their friends, and the staff would be able to share the news at conferences, on blogs, and in teacher newsletters. Having a school behind the startup would give it instant credibility with other schools around the country.

Here are the disadvantages:
  • The school culture. School administrators are used to thinking within their budget constraints and are often skeptical of profit and risk. A project like this would require leadership that is forward thinking, entrepreneurial, and willing to work hard now for results several years down the road.
  • Non-profit status. All of this may not be possible in the average public school, though a small public school district hoping to distinguish itself may be interested in trying it. A private school with committed parents and donors would be the best bet, though private schools tend to have much smaller enrollment and budgets than their public school equivalents. The relationship between the non-profit school and the entrepreneurial venture would have to be set up carefully to avoid legal issues later, but I have heard from lawyer friends that it is entirely possible.
  • Work. Any teacher who is motivated enough to contribute to an education startup is already overworked. The very thing that makes these teachers qualified for a project like this is what has already lead them to volunteer to coach, attend conferences, write blogs, help students after school, and read education books in addition to lesson planning and grading. How can you enlist the busiest people to work more? Do the bulk of the work during summer vacation. Cancel summer school, send the students to the school across town, and convert the school computer lab to a tech startup. 

So if your kid’s school has extra office space and a couple thousand dollars to spare, propose that they spin off an education technology company. It would be a lot better than spending that money on a bunch of iPads.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We Already Have the Platform: It's the Classroom

It is an exciting time in education technology. I see announcements for new ed-tech startups every week. Most of them have clever names, most of them have slick websites, and most of them are worthless.

And that is because most tech startups in education are platforms: they gather course material from others and deliver it to the individual or the classroom. Making platforms is easy because you write the code and wait for others to fill your library with content and wait for customers to flock to your site. The problem is that we don't need any of them because the classroom is the original platform and still the best.

Though some of these course delivery sites are great for adult learners who want to take a Stanford computer science course from home, we at Clickademics care about students K-college. These kids don't want to watch a professor online to improve their mind, they just want to pass math class. The best person to recommend educational material is the teacher who knows the student's ability and the requirements of the class. The teacher can recommend online material faster and better than any algorithm.

The other problem with online platforms is that there just isn't enough quality content. If you ever browse the course offerings of these platforms, you see the same things:
  • Slideshows made ten years ago, mostly with text. It's basically a textbook in Powerpoint.
  • Upper-division university courses where a professor parked a handycam in the back of the classroom.
  • How-to videos that help you learn to cook or care for your parrot.
You know what is sorely lacking? Lessons on grammar, biology, history, study skills - topics that real students have to know for school. They are lacking because they are boring and incredibly hard to make - for most people. We love our work at Clickademics because we enjoy creating these lessons. After years in the classroom, we know how much students need help with core concepts, so we are energized to make content that students need.

Our first offering, Essay Engine, teaches students expository writing, something every student needs in almost every class. It was challenging to create since every video lesson is a mini-movie, but it solves a real world problem: how can a student get help on an essay at 9:30 the night before it's due? 

So let teachers recommend online lessons. All this education startup energy should go into building great content. Of course, the people that are best at creating content that really helps students learn - teachers.