How NOLA Shaped Whetstone

It seems hyperbolic to say that Whetstone’s DNA has as much New Orleans in it as, say, jazz, but it’s not not true. Whetstone is a New Orleans-based technology company that builds teacher coaching and evaluation software. If you’re reading this blogpost, you probably know a little about our work already, but if you want to know exactly what we do, click here. The purpose of this post is not to detail how we help schools support their teachers, but rather to discuss how this wonderful city we call home shaped our company.

New Orleans

Three factors have molded Whetstone into the company it is today:

  1. Hurricane Katrina
  2. NOLA’s unique school governance structure
  3. Crawfish, daiquiris, & jazz

Hurricane Katrina:

When we originally built Whetstone in 2011, it was designed strictly to manage once-a-year state teacher evaluations. However, our users’ demand for a software tool to manage high-frequency teacher coaching data drove us to quickly evolve our product to solve for two needs: annual evaluation and weekly coaching. Like many things that have happened here over the past 10 years, this demand ties back to Hurricane Katrina.

After the storm, organizations were set up in the city with the intention of “importing” into New Orleans the highest-leverage education ideas from around the rest of the country. (Before I say anything else, I must say that it cannot be overstated that good things were happening in NOLA schools pre-Katrina. Nevertheless, what happened after is important to Whetstone.) Post-Katrina, a flood of money was given to schools to implement these “imported” ideas, one of which was high-frequency teacher coaching. Many of Whetstone’s early adopters were principals and instructional coaches who joined instructional leadership fellowships at the New York-based Relay GSE and Columbia Principals Academy. After trainings and school visits in New York, the Bay Area, and Boston, these leaders returned to NOLA begging us to build features into Whetstone to support frequent teacher observation and feedback in their own schools. So, we built it for them. Now, our early adopters are the ones being shadowed by school leaders from Kansas City, Denver, and Washington, D.C., who are interested in implementing instructional development technology in their own schools. When it comes to data-driven teacher coaching, NOLA has become an exporter.

Royal Street

School Governance Structure:

I know that subtitle is a snoozer, but stick with me, I’m getting to Mardi Gras in the next paragraph. Over 90% of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools. Because of their autonomy, each charter school in the city created teacher coaching systems that differed from its neighbors. Some schools shared feedback with teachers quarterly, some weekly; in some schools, the principal was the primary teacher coach, while other schools utilized veteran teachers. Some schools used the state evaluation rubric to guide weekly feedback; other schools used completely qualitative coaching templates. Given this wide range of processes, we were forced to build Whetstone’s infrastructure to be flexible enough that it could be used by schools with seemingly opposite processes and philosophies. This flexibility allows us to work with all kinds of schools with all kinds of systems: traditional public, private, and charter schools alike.

Crawfish, Daiquiris, & Jazz:

Many outsiders fixate on Bourbon Street when they think of New Orleans as a party city, but anyone who’s been here more than a couple of days will tell you that parties in New Orleans come in all shapes and sizes, and all times of day or night. This truth has manifested itself in a few ways at Whetstone:

  • Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are official company holidays.
  • We celebrated our first six-figure sale with a $2.50 bottle of Thunderbird, because champagne isn’t sold in the neighborhood where we work. (Nobody seemed to mind.)
  • More than once, meetings have been delayed because “traffic was stopped for a parade.”
  • Our new office was selected because of its large outdoor space where our Chief Technology Officer can boil crawfish.
  • Rather than a traditional weekly happy hour, we have “La Croix-ppy Hour” on Thursday afternoons. Sipping sparkling water gives us our “bubbly” fix, and lets us celebrate our small wins and still be able to return to our workload with clear heads on Fridays.

Crawfish

For all the reasons named above, New Orleans has been integral to our success in taking Whetstone from a small slice of the Bayou to 150 schools across 12 states. But, real talk: starting and growing a company is HARD. I think I speak for our entire founding team when I say that if we didn’t have New Orleans to go home to when we leave the office each night, we probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We’re still trying to figure out the whole work / life balance thing, but the beauty and comfort of launching a business in a city that’s not defined by the rat race is that everyone around you genuinely wants you to have a good time. While it’s rare that we actually stop working at 5pm, what keeps us going is that when we do finally call it a day, we walk out the office door and straight into whatever party New Orleans is throwing itself that night.

So, here’s your official invitation -- come see us in NOLA. We’d be happy to show you around the city and, if there’s any time left over, we’ll even show you Whetstone.

Libby Fischer is the CEO of Whetstone Education.