Notes from Our CEO

Life Hacks for School Leaders: #5 - Stop Waiting in Line at the Airport

Leave policies at schools can be tough for people who live far from family and friends. Principal Ron Gubitz said that another time it’s tough to be a school leader is when “your friend is getting married and you want to travel on a Friday.” While you may not be able to change your district’s vacation leave policy, there are lots of ways to be more efficient in airports, which translates to more time for you to do literally anything you want.

Step 1: Get TSA Pre-Check. You can save yourself 30-45 minutes (or more) spent in line at the airport by signing up for TSA Pre-Check, putting you on an earlier flight out that may not have been possible otherwise. It costs $85 and is good for 5 years. If you fly 5 times a year, you’ve just given yourself 750 more minutes to play with your kids, plan professional development, talk with students’ parents, or just take a little time to do some reading for pleasure.

Step 2: Check in for your flight online. If you’re not checking a bag, there is absolutely no reason to stand in line to check in at the airline counter. Almost every airline has an app where you can not only check in for your flight, but also get a digital ticket that doesn’t require you to print a paper copy.

Step 3: Gate-check your bags. This other airport hack may sound strange, but it has made the difference in whether or not I’ve caught a plane in time. If you are checking a bag for your flight, you don’t necessarily have to check it before you go through the TSA line. As long as nothing in your bag is prohibited in carry-ons, you can take that big bag through security and then check it at the gate. The gate agent might look at you funny, but you’re far less likely to miss your flight this way, and you’ve successfully avoided standing in a 100-person check-in line.

Life Hacks for School Leaders: #4 - Hire Someone to do a Low-leverage Task

Just because you can assemble furniture, doesn’t mean you have to. As a school leader or teacher, your time is much better spent on high-leverage tasks like analyzing student work to identify misconceptions than on putting together your latest purchase from IKEA. IMAGINE: you’re seated comfortably at your couch, re-writing lesson plans to incorporate new questions to push students to think analytically. Across the room, someone else deftly assembles your new kitchen table.

It’s not a dream! There are a bunch of services and apps out there that solve this problem for you. Taskrabbit is one service available in many cities that gives you your own personal assistant and handyman/woman. Here are the six categories of help they offer:

  1. General Cleaning
  2. General Handyman
  3. Moving Help
  4. Delivery & Shopping
  5. Furniture Assembly
  6. Lift & Shift Furniture

Taskrabbit is competitively priced, so if you have the means, consider it. Don’t want to use Taskrabbit, here are a bunch of alternatives.

Life Hacks for School Leaders: #3 - Get Toilet Paper Delivered to Your Door

I asked principal Ron Gubitz for a list of errands that are hard to get done when you’re a school leader. His first reply to me was “EVERYTHING.” When he finally made a list, I was struck by this one: “Buying ANYTHING from a store ever.” This item struck me because there is such a simple answer: online shopping. You can find ANYTHING online and have it shipped to you in a matter of days. At the Whetstone office, we’ve set up monthly Amazon shipments for staples like printer paper, toilet paper, and La Croix. If you can do it for the office, why not at home? Set up monthly Amazon deliveries for pantry staples like paper towels, aluminum foil, band-aids, and kleenex. Beyond the ease of having these items come right to your door (in two days if you have Amazon Prime!), keeping your cupboards stocked with auto-deliveries will shorten the length of your trips to the store when you absolutely have to go.

Life Hacks for School Leaders: #2 - Your Phone is also a Bank

If you haven’t yet switched to online banking, now is the time. If you are a school leader or teacher, your time is far too valuable to go out of your way to get to the bank and sit in your car waiting for the ATM. And, in 2016, there is almost no reason to go to an ATM! Most major banks now have phone apps that allow you to do pretty much anything you would do at an ATM -- including depositing checks -- from anywhere. Need cash? Get cash back the next time you’re at the grocery store or pharmacy and combine two errands into one. In addition to replacing the ATM with your phone, save yourself even more time by setting up your recurring payments. Just do it. Sending a check to your landlord or mortgage company each month may not seem like a huge lift, but beyond writing the check, it requires you to keep checks, envelopes, and stamps stocked, and remember to send it. Teachers and school leaders have better things to do. If you set up recurring payments through your bank’s online platform (and almost all banks have one), you can pay every bill -- rent, health care, electric, water, etc. -- without even thinking about it. If you estimate that it takes about 5 minutes per bill to read the bill, write the check, address the envelope, and put it in the mail box , then you can give yourself back 20-30 minutes a month (add 30 minutes if you have to go to the store to get envelopes or stamps) to spend with your family or tie up loose ends at work. Why wouldn’t you give yourself this time back?

Life Hacks for School Leaders: #1 - Dry Clean at Your Desk

School leaders and teachers are the busiest people I know. They get to school before most businesses open and leave after most close. Rarely do they get to leave campus to run errands on their lunch break, so it’s nearly impossible to make it to the dry cleaners, the bank, the dentist, or even let in the cable guy. Whetstone’s mission is to build technology that makes life easier for instructional leaders. While we haven’t yet created a dry cleaning app (maybe someday!), we’re starting a series of weekly time-saving life hacks for school leaders and teachers to help redirect their time to what matters most: their students and families.


Most dry cleaners are only open 9am-5pm and rarely on weekends (so convenient!). And, as far as I know, iPhones still can’t do our dry cleaning for us, sadly. But, if you can’t get to the cleaners before it closes, a handheld steamer can get the job done in a pinch. I keep a steamer at the office and use it to dewrinkle when necessary. They’re cheap, portable, and can get you an additional one to two wears out of a suit, which is a lot of time (and money!) saved at the dry cleaners.

“You can find it in the Google Drive”

“You can find it in the Google Drive” is a banned phrase at Whetstone. As a company leader, I’ve made a conscious effort to make Whetstone’s culture flexible -- everybody’s got unlimited paid time off, and we can work from home or leave early pretty much anytime we want to accommodate daycare pickups and dentist appointments. In general, I try not to be a tyrant, but I did make a tyrannical (albeit necessary) move when I placed an absolute BAN on this phrase: “You can find it in the Google Drive.”

If you haven’t already stopped reading, you may be wondering why I’m devoting an entire blog post to something as mundane as a Google Drive. Well, mundane as it may seem, “You can find it in the Google Drive” is a direct contradiction of Whetstone’s company values.

Whetstone-ism #1: Make it easy.

Whetstone has 5 core values, but the one I credit with bringing us the majority of our success is hospitality. Everyone has a different definition of hospitality, but at Whetstone we distill it down to this: “Let me make that easy for you.”

When I think of the best dinner parties I’ve ever attended, what made them great was that the host made me feel like everything was a breeze. I knew exactly where to put my coat, where to get a drink, which person I should talk to because we have “this, this, and that” in common. A great host makes it easy for me to have a good time at their party, and that’s what we want Whetstone to feel like for Whetstone users and team members alike.

So, what does this have to do with a Google Drive? Well, the drive itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the You can find it part of the phrase, “You can find it in the Google Drive.” The problem is sending someone to hunt for something that you could have shared with them directly in a matter of two clicks. When you welcome someone to your home for a dinner party, do you say, “Dinner’s in the fridge; go ahead and heat it up in the microwave when you get hungry”? No. Of course you don’t say that. If the goal of a dinner party is to make your guests happy so that they come back, isn’t it much easier to get that outcome by saying, “Dinner will be served shortly; here’s a beer, come join us in the living room.”

It’s the same with the Google Drive. If I want someone to do something with my document, isn’t it easier to get that outcome by just sending them the document directly?

Whetstone-ism #2: It’s really easy to make it easy for people.

As I write this blog post, I know that I’m going to send it to a team member to copy edit. I could write an email that goes like this:

  • “Hi Allison, my blog post is ready for you to edit. You can find it in the Google Drive.”

OR, I could write an email that goes like this:

  • “Hi Allison, my blog post is ready for you to edit. Here’s a link to the document.”

Whetstone-ism #3: When you make it easy, you get the results that you want.

The difference between these emails is subtle, but important. By taking the extra 5 seconds to link the document, I can:

  • Convey to Allison that I think her time is just as valuable as my time; that we are equally important contributors to Whetstone
  • Get my document edited faster by (i) reducing the amount of time Allison has to spend finding the document and (ii) by giving her a clear action to take -- Click the link. Telling her to go find the document herself in the Google Drive is akin to saying, “Edit the document when you get around to it.”

By simply linking a document, I’ve reiterated to Allison that I value her, and I get the outcome I want -- my edited document -- faster than I would otherwise.

Are you sure this matters?

Libby, seriously? How long does it really take to find something in a Google Drive?

You’re right, it takes about minute to find something in a Google Drive. The time lost searching for a document isn’t what matters; what matters is that, in my experience, “You can find it in the Google Drive” is a bellwether of a company’s culture. I’ve worked at companies where that phrase felt like punishment. It felt like hearing the other person say, “My job is more important than yours” or “Your time is not valuable.” It felt like hearing, “We are not teammates.”

It’s SO easy for office relationships to become strained. Whether it’s peer to peer or manager to subordinate, the stress inherent in a workplace is enough to manage on its own. If you can reduce that stress by taking 5 additional seconds to link a document in an email, why wouldn’t you?

Beyond employee morale, if you’re in the habit of making life easy on your teammates, then you’re probably going to make life easy on your clients. And when you make life easy for your clients, they’re more likely to tell their friends about your product, renew their subscription each year, and pay their invoices on time. What have you got to lose?

4 Ways Teacher Coaching is Like Getting in Shape: Part 4

Strategy 4: Tools can help you accomplish your goals.

Technology has completely transformed both the educational and health sectors, making it easier than ever to map your progress. Fitness tools can help you effortlessly track your steps, heart beats, calories consumed, and even sleep quality—just as education tools can help you identify which standards students are struggling with. Most ed tech tools are student-focused, but teacher coaching platforms are growing in popularity.

These tools have two main benefits: putting everything in one place and real-time insights on teachers’ strengths and areas for growth.

Many school leaders try to cobble together observation systems with a mix of binders, spreadsheets, and email chains. Having one place to store observation notes, share feedback, and analyze trends can reduce the amount of time principals have to spend managing paperwork, leaving them more time to spend in classrooms. Plus, these tools are designed to help users meet their observation frequency goals, with reports that, like a FitBit, track daily progress and help identify and prioritize which teachers should be observed. Beyond that, many platforms have tools for teachers to take the lead on their own professional development, with the ability to conduct peer observations, self-reflect on videos of their own teaching, and goal-setting tools to track their professional growth over the school year.

This post is a 4 part series. Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

4 Ways Teacher Coaching is like Getting in Shape: Part 3

Strategy 3: Accountability is a powerful tool.

According to a study conducted by the Society of Behavioral Medicine, while many people struggle to reach fitness goals by themselves, they show significant improvement when exercising with a partner—even if that friend was only there virtually, communicating via text or an app like DietBet.

Sharing your observation and feedback goals can be similarly motivating. If you have an assistant principal or instructional coaches, set goals as a group and check in regularly to talk about your progress and where you’re struggling. Challenge your leadership team to a friendly competition to see who can observe the most teachers in a given month. Beyond the incentive to win, these types of competition help to identify trends across a school as well as highlight inefficiencies in your process. You’ll get great insight into whether a special PD session should be given to help a group of teachers working on the same skills or if unequal coaching loads should be reassigned.

Don’t have anyone on your leadership team to hold you accountable? Ask your teachers!  If teachers expect you to share feedback with them, it will be much more difficult to cancel or postpone observations. Plus, by investing teachers in the process, you can set the expectation that coaching is all about feedback ahead of time, and help quell any discomfort that comes with having the principal in the back of the classroom.

This post is a 4 part series. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

4 Ways Teacher Coaching Is Like Getting In Shape: Part 2

Strategy 2: Planning Ahead of Time Will Set You Up For Success To build a culture of feedback, scheduling is key. School leaders lives are BUSY. There is always a pressing issue to deal with that may make it tempting to postpone an observation. But just like it’s difficult to get up and go to the gym in the morning after a late night at work, you’ll be glad you did it once you get there. Every teacher, no matter how veteran, can benefit from feedback, and every opportunity to watch them teach is valuable.

Here are three scheduling strategies to help you set yourself up for success:

  • Set goals: Identify how many times you will realistically be able observe each teacher in your school over the school year. Is it 3 times a year? Once a month? Once a week?! Whatever is feasible, write it down and post it somewhere in your office. As they say, “What gets measured tends to get done.”
  • Schedule in advance: At the beginning of each month, add all of your observations and feedback sessions to your calendar for the next four weeks. You’ll be able to schedule your other priorities around observations, and if you share calendar invites with teachers, they’ll hold you accountable to delivering the feedback.
  • Batch process: Things come up that make it easy to cancel or postpone observations. If you can’t schedule four weeks out, block off one or two mornings each week on your calendar to knock out all of your observations, and build your schedule around that.

This post is a 4 part series. Click here for Part 1.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

4 Ways Teacher Coaching is like Getting in Shape: Part 1

Building habits is hard. Whether you’ve resolved to get in shape or a school leadership team resolves to start observing and coaching teachers, success does not happen overnight. Luckily, the same strategies that help people accomplish fitness goals can be applied to the goal of providing regular feedback and coaching to teachers. For the next four weeks, I’ll share strategies to help set school leaders and their teachers up for success when implementing a teacher coaching program. Here’s the first:

Strategy 1: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Like all good habits -- whether that’s eating more vegetables or working out regularly -- sharing regular feedback with teachers takes time to develop. The thought of observing every single teacher every single week can seem daunting, especially for school leaders who already have nearly every minute of the day booked. But, just like marathon training -- which begins with a 1-mile run and works up to 26.2 -- successful school leaders slowly build a culture of feedback in a school by starting with small steps.

Start small with this sample schedule:

  • Quarter 1: Pop into each teacher’s classroom for 5-minutes, once a month; leave a sticky note with one thing you observed that you loved
  • Quarter 2: Keep up the monthly pop-ins, and add one monthly, 10-minute face to face feedback meeting with each teacher to discuss what they think is their biggest area for growth
  • Quarter 3: Continue the monthly pop-ins and check-ins, and add one 15-minute observation focused on the area of growth the teacher identified (email the feedback or share it during your check-in)
  • Quarter 4: Keep up with everything above, and add one 30-minute end-of-year conversation with each teacher to reflect on growth and set goals for the following school year.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

Pen and Paper vs. Online Evaluation

Is it time to switch to an online platform to track my [fill in the blank] data? There are all sorts of school data platforms out there:

  • SIS: Student Information System
  • LMS: Learning Management System
  • MOOC: Massive Open Online Course
  • FAP: Formative Assessment Platform
  • TEP: Teacher Effectiveness Platform
  • RtI: Response to Intervention Platform

Usually before making the full switch to a data platform, schools try to manage the different types of data they track with pen and paper. Often when we say “pen and paper,” we’re actually referring to Excel. Every once in awhile I run across a school that is still completing evaluations on a paper form, making three copies, and submitting each copy to the necessary stakeholder (i.e., teacher, school office, district office), but more often than not, schools have cobbled together observation systems out of spreadsheets and word documents.

And this is a fine and logical place to start! Whether you’re tracking teacher observations or behavior systems or assessments, spreadsheets allow for complete flexibility and customizability. However, these benefits can actually create problems in the long term.

Sharing Problems

  • Spreadsheets must be formulated, linked, and shared with all stakeholders across a district (i.e., teachers, instructional coaches, principals), and then shared back at various points of the year. The process of tracking down all of this information usually leads to the creation of more spreadsheets, to confirm who has/hasn’t received emails, responded to emails, or turned in their data.
  • An errant click or keystroke can undo a complex formula in the blink of an eye. When dozens of people have access to a spreadsheet, the likelihood of this happening goes way up.
  • It’s difficult to confirm that everyone is using the system the way it’s intended. I have modified many a spreadsheet because the original I was asked to use didn’t work for my system. This worked for me day to day, but when it came time to report at the end of a term, I had to translate my data to match the original. This process creates double the work, generally means data isn’t input until the last minute, and, when the data finally is inputted, the translation makes it unreliable by nature.

Privacy Problems

  • Trackers are very rarely encrypted, meaning it could be easy for an outsider to access them. Plus, when you factor in FERPA, you may risk non-compliance with regulations by students in an unencrypted system.
  • With both Excel and Google Sheets, employees have the ability to make digital or paper copies of the data that the owner of the spreadsheet no longer has control over.

Paper Breeds Bad Systems

  • When you’re not confined by the constraints of a database, it’s easy to create a system that doesn’t actually measure what you think it measures. A prospective client came to us with their paper system, which was essentially a mash-up of a checklist and a Likert scale. By trying to measure two things at once (i.e., “Is this thing happening?” and “How well is it happening?”), the scores were either diluted or inflated, and ultimately the data was unclear and untrustworthy.

If you’re running up against any of these problems with your self-made data systems, it may be time to explore platforms.

We want to hear from you: What are the benefits of a self-made system? What other problems have you run up against?

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

If a tree falls in the forest...

“If a teacher improves his practice and nobody is there to check a box, did he actually improve?” This was the question winkingly posed at a SXSWedu panel on teacher-centered professional development. The session, “Unauthorized PD,” explored this idea: in order to make schools places where students will thrive, they must first be designed to make teachers thrive.

It’s a scary thing to say out loud, because one risks being misheard. The argument is not that teachers matter more than students, but that schools are not a zero sum game: it is possible to design and environment where both students and teachers can thrive.

The presenters, a Theater teacher and a Physics teacher from Long Island, argued that if schools only dedicate one hour of time to teachers per week (during weekly PD), they are setting themselves up for failure. They believe that schools can be re-designed to create an environment where teachers are valued as highly as students.

They argued that school re-design doesn’t have to be done by consultants or implemented in one fell swoop. Rather, it’s likely much more effective for schools to convene teachers and leaders to work on the smallest problems the school is facing (e.g., teachers can’t go to the bathroom for hours because there is nobody to supervise their class), and slowly work their way up to more complex problems (e.g., literacy scores are stagnant but the daily ELA block is already 120 minutes).

What do you think? What small tweaks can schools make to improve the daily experience of teachers in order to ultimately make students thrive?

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone.

Open Systems Make Better Products

When I have conversations with schools, a common question I hear is, “Can Whetstone also do [FILL IN THE BLANK]?” People ask for all sorts of things, from running payroll to capturing student assessments. At Whetstone, we’re experts in teacher effectiveness technology -- how to capture valid and reliable teacher performance data and use it to help coach teachers to better outcomes. We don’t pretend to be experts in payroll or HR or student assessment, nor do we want to be! If we tried to build in all sorts of functionality to solve problems outside of our expertise, we’d end up with a slow, clunky, mediocre platform. Yet, people keep asking.

I’ve begun to realize that the frequency of these questions speaks to a bigger, industry-wide problem: most ed tech platforms don’t talk to each other. Schools have platforms to manage all sorts of needs (SIS, LMS, SAP, TEP, RtI, HR, etc.). When these platforms can’t integrate with each other, a world is created where teachers may have to log into as many as 10 platforms a day to manage their workflow. Most ed tech products purport to make their users’ lives easier, but “too many platforms that don’t talk to each other” is a side effect that we must solve if we want to succeed as an industry.

If ed tech companies want to work in a world where we get to be experts in the one problem we’re solving rather than scrambling to solve 50 problems, then we should make interoperability the standard. Schools shouldn’t have to dread the burden of populating a new system with teacher or student data; “another login to remember/forget” should not be a legitimate bullet point on a Pro / Con list during the purchasing process. Companies should realize it’s in their best interest to allow other platforms to integrate with their software, and in doing so reap the dual benefits of working on the problem we care about and truly keeping the promise of making our users’ lives easier.

We know that schools don’t want one big platform because the majority of our partners come to us after using systems that try to do it all. They switch to Whetstone because their old platform was stretched too thin to truly solve their problem. These schools don’t want one platform that does everything poorly, they want excellent platforms that solve one problem really well, and seamlessly integrate with their other excellent platforms.

I’ll end with an example that everyone can relate to: social media. People under the age of 30 are fleeing Facebook and flocking to platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat that serve one purpose, and serve that purpose really well. The fact that the most tech savvy demographic prefers to use multiple excellent platforms over one big platform that does everything moderately well should be instructive to us in ed tech. The millennials will soon be making the purchasing decisions for school districts, and they will expect open APIs and single sign on. Let’s not make them wait.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

Interoperability saves time and money

Hiring a new teacher in 2016 puts in motion a long series of administrative events. Someone in the district office must:

  • Create a new email account for the teacher
  • Add the teacher’s demographic data to the HR database
  • Add the teacher’s bank information in the payroll system
  • Add the teacher to the Student Information System (SIS)
  • Add the teacher to the School Assessment Platform (SAP)
  • Add the teacher to the Learning Management System (LMS)
  • Add the teacher to the Teacher Effectiveness Platform (TEP)
  • Add the teacher to the Response to Intervention Platform (RtI)

And the list goes on.

Without interoperable systems, that is, systems that can talk to each other and share data back and forth, this one teacher must be manually added in all 8+ platforms. Including the time it takes to fill out each field in each platform, plus the page loads and consulting other data sources to ensure everything is correct, let’s estimate this process takes 10 minutes per teacher.

  • Multiply 10 minutes by the number of new teachers that are hired by a school district each year.
  • Multiply 10 minutes by the number of teachers that leave a school district each school year and have to be removed from these systems, one by one.
  • Beyond teachers, student data must be entered in the same systems. Multiply 10 minutes by the number of students in a district, and you have enough work to create 2-3 full-time positions in the summer dedicated solely to adding and adjusting users in multiple school databases.

The amount of time spent on manually creating users in ed tech platforms at the start of the school year is incomprehensible! Closed systems create an administrative burden like the example above that saps districts of time, money, and brainpower that could be spent on higher leverage things. Sure, options like CSV uploads can save some time, but they, too, require time to format, and one errant comma can break the entire thing.

Interoperability between ed tech platforms is the solution. Our company has already moved in this direction with an open API that can connect to other systems (e.g., HR, payroll, reporting, etc.), so that when teacher data is entered in one system, it automatically updates in Whetstone. As an ed tech industry, we are trying to make our users’ lives easier so that they can spend time on the important stuff in schools. However, if our products don’t integrate, we actually create more work. Schools should be able to pull data to, from, and between their platforms to save time and add context to the data in each system to make informed decisions. Openness won’t just make users’ lives easier, it will make their data more powerful, which will keep them coming back.

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

A Call For Interoperability

“Regardless of whether a product is free or paid, what’s essential is that it works well within a larger ecosystem designed by educators to promote student success.” -- Stephen Laster In a recent post on EdSurge, Stephen Laster, the Chief Digital Officer of McGraw Hill, argued in favor of an interoperable ed tech universe. He envisions a world where ed tech platforms work together seamlessly, saving teachers time and money while helping students go deeper in their learning.

He notes that people often conflate “open” and “free,” and that a “more useful definition of open is technology or content that can integrate painlessly with other resources.” His core argument is this: It’s important that ed tech systems integrate with each other, because “technologies that live within closed systems create roadblocks in students’ learning pathways...add[ing] complexity and cost.” He continues, “I rarely meet a committed teacher who simultaneously wants to be the IT helpdesk and systems integrator for his or her classroom. Those are too many demands.”

The same is true for teacher effectiveness platforms. When systems don’t talk to each other, administrative time and resources are spent recreating the same data in multiple systems -- time and money that could be spent on, say, personalized PD.

Laster argues that to make this happen “existing stakeholders to agree on standards.” This means that users and vendors need to come together to decide on the rules that would allow these platforms to talk to each other. Openness is a core value at Whetstone, and we’re on board to move toward this world.

What do you think? How have closed systems impeded your work? On the other hand, what are the potential pitfalls of “too much” openness?

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

The Changing Classroom: The “Find a Job That Makes You Happy” Effect

A unique challenge facing schools is that the majority of millennials that will enter the teaching force in the next two decades will not do so with a mindset that teaching will be their only career. Some will, but most won’t, and this isn’t limited to teaching. Job-hopping is a well documented phenomenon (here, here, and here), with the latest data naming “3 years” as the amount of time millennials expect to stay in a role. There are lots of factors contributing to this, but I believe that it stems in part from the “Find a Job That Makes You Happy” Effect.

This message is everywhere -- parents, relatives, teachers, TV shows. The “dad is forcing me to go to law school when all I really want to do is be an artist” is a trope that’s been around for centuries. This message is why ping pong tables, beer fridges, and nerf guns are becoming standard office equipment. It’s what led me to think that, as a Liberal Arts major, I was somehow superior to the kids in the Business School. (Don’t worry, the Universe has gotten its revenge with the ultimate karma of me trying to run a business without ever having taken an accounting course.)

We hop jobs because we expect that work should make us happy. This expectation sets up both the employee and employer for failure because a) “happiness” is defined differently by everyone and b) work is work! Sometimes a spreadsheet has to be filled out and, whether or not that makes you happy, it just has to get done.

As it pertains to schools and the future of the teaching force, there’s not a clear solution to address job-hopping. I believe the ultimate solution will be a combination of increasing teacher salaries, redesigning schools and classrooms, and restructuring the teacher preparation process. In the meantime, it’s also imperative that schools make the most of the teachers they have when they have them, and this is where teacher coaching comes in. If the average millennial teacher is expected to stay in the classroom for only 3-4 years, then they need to be coached to a high level of effectiveness as quickly as possible. Plus, by making teachers feel both supported, challenged, and engaged in their work, teacher coaches can potentially push an effective teacher to stay in the classroom for an additional 2-3 years, if not more.

What do you think? How else can teacher coaches help lengthen the amount of time teachers stay in the classroom? What other factors need to change to lengthen careers (both in education and outside)?

Libby Fisher is CEO of Whetstone Education.

What Forbes "30 Under 30" Means to Me

Last week, two Whetstone leaders were named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education list for 2016. As Whetstone’s CEO, I received the honor for creating partnerships with national teacher effectiveness leaders like Uncommon Schools and YES Prep in 2015; Whetstone’s co-founder, Eric Lavin, was honored for his current work connecting education entrepreneurs with Aspen Institute resources at Aspen Ventures. I won’t deny it, being named to a Forbes list is a pretty great way to start a Monday.

More importantly, though, we believe this honor is validation of the importance of the teacher development work our partners are pushing us to do. Whetstone was founded five years ago by school leaders who needed an easier way to store teacher evaluation data. We’ve evolved into one of the leading dynamic teacher effectiveness platforms because our partner schools continually push us to iterate our platform to help make teacher coaching and development an integral part of the school day.

2016_30under30_logo_horizontalOur 150 partners are the school leaders on the cutting edge of teacher development. They are setting the trend toward high-frequency, high-leverage teacher coaching, and they’re so far ahead that, at the moment, there isn’t even an agreed-upon name for this type of platform. Teacher Effectiveness Platform (TEP)? Teacher Coaching Platform (TCP)? Teacher Development Platform (TDP)? Whichever acronym comes to the fore, it will soon be as ubiquitous as SIS, LMS, or CRM because of what these school leaders are proving is possible with respect to using regular coaching to improve school outcomes.

At Whetstone, we believe everybody needs a coach. I have a coach. Eric has a coach. My coach has a coach. I would not be on this list without my past coaches and mentors pushing me to get a little bit better every day, and Whetstone would not be where it is today without our schools pushing us to do the same. We are honored, humbled, and grateful for this recognition, and excited that we get to keep doing this work every day.

The Changing Classroom: Personalized Learning

The Angry Birds Effect: Millennials want differentiation and they want it now. Millennials and post-Millennials are being raised on games that are automatically differentiated to their skill level. They expect games to get harder as they get better, and they expect this differentiation to happen in the moment. Many tech companies jumped at the opportunity to apply this expectation to curriculum software. In classrooms across the country, students are learning Math and English from computer programs that automatically differentiate for their needs, and reinforce the specific tasks or concepts they’re struggling with. Plus, these programs provide teachers with a ton of data about their students’ strengths and needs.

Education is solved!

Juuuust kidding -- while these programs have the potential to move the needle on student learning, transitioning to these systems and navigating the sea of data pouring out of them can create extra work for teachers. Again, strong routines and effective use of classroom space are necessary to manage technology in the classroom. In addition to helping teacher improve routines and transitions, instructional leaders play a critical role in helping teachers apply the data coming out of student learning software. For example, during a “data deep dive,” a teacher may identify that 40% of his class is struggling with dividing fractions, while the other 60% are ready to move on to a more difficult standard. An instructional leader can support the teacher in restructuring upcoming lesson plans to divide the class into two cohorts focused on different standards, as well as spiral these concepts back in during lessons focused on other standards so students don’t lose ground.

At a more basic level, regular observation by instructional leaders can help identify infrastructure improvements that all teachers may need to effectively implement technology (stronger wifi, anyone?). For example, School A has a 1:1 iPad program. While iPads are great for personalized math learning, the lack of a keyboard can make it difficult to compose essays during ELA. A school leader observing this problem in the classroom could potentially requisition keyboards to make typing easier, which is a much more cost-effective option than laptops to replace the tablets.

We want to hear from you: How else can leaders support teachers in implementing personalized learning technology into their classroom to better differentiate instruction for students? Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education

The Changing Classroom: How Do We Coach and Teach Millennials

This is week one of a three-week series on the opportunities and challenges that come with teaching students who have grown up surrounded by technology. We’ll begin with Google: The Google Effect: Millennials’ are programmed to do research.

“Google” was declared a verb in 2006 (I looked that up, coincidentally, on Google). I’ve had a phone since before I could drive and most students today have never experienced life without a “smart device.” Admittedly, there are downsides to compulsive phone-checking and limitless interconnectedness. However, one positive outcome of everyone having a search engine in their pocket is that all of us not only expect to have all of our questions answered within minutes, we expect to do it ourselves.

Smart phones have molded the millennial generation and those that come after to expect to find answers for themselves. When I was in school, my teachers dedicated one day each school year to teach us how to do research. We’d traipse to the library, get a refresher on the Dewey Decimal System, fight over encyclopedias of with the most common letters, and check out books that we inevitably returned late.

Children now come into schools with self-taught habits of research that are continually reinforced by Google. Now that search engines have taken care of the lowest rung on the Research Hierarchy of Needs, teachers can dedicate more class time to complex skills like selecting reliable sources and challenging students to understand the difference between Googling and learning.


How do instructional leaders play into all of this?

  • Letting students use their smart phones in class requires very strategic classroom management. While it’s lovely to think of a Utopian classroom where students a) actually use their phones for research when told to do so and b) only do research using credible sources, the reality is that 30 teenagers rarely do what you ask the first time. Teacher coaches can support teachers in creating routines to keep students on task, observing these “research sessions” to identify the circumstances that lead to students opening non-research apps or texting, and work with the teacher to practice various interventions that allow the teacher to monitor student work without hovering.
  • There is a hugely important difference between Googling and Learning. It’s critical that teachers continually challenge their students to internalize the difference, and a teacher coach can be a thought partner in helping teachers help students use smart phones as a means of uncovering their own learning, and not simply an answer-finding tool.
  • In addition to operational and instructional support, instructional leaders should be learning from teachers in order to share best content and practices across classrooms. Incorporating smart phones into lesson plans requires a mindset shift across a school. If students can use their phones in Teacher A’s classroom but not Teacher B’s classroom, everybody is set up for failure. Plus, teachers are the ones continually iterating and figuring out what works when experimenting with new ideas or practices in the classrooms, and it’s a tragedy to confine this expertise to four walls. Instructional leaders are responsible for mindset shifts across faculty, and should be observing classrooms with a keen eye toward identifying exemplar instruction and sharing it across the school.

Tell us what you think! How else might teachers leverage students’ mobile devices in the classroom? How else might teacher coaches learn from the teachers they’re supporting to help strengthen the greater school community?

The Classroom Is Changing: Millennials are ruining everything. Or are they?

There has been much wailing, gnashing of teeth, and think-piecing about the Millennial generation. It won’t be long before David Brooks starts in on the post-Millennials, postulating about the damage hover boards are causing to their ability to walk. During a recent Whetstone La Croix-ppy Hour, Whetstone’s CTO, Cody Brumfield, offered an antidote to all of this anti-Millennial hand-wringing in the form of a theory: Millennials are an inherently pleasant generation because they’ve never had a dinnertime argument over “the name of that actor in that movie.” Any time a question comes up in a social gathering, it’s solved within minutes by somebody’s phone. Thus, no bar arguments about Tom Cruise’s height or the length of his marriage to Nicole Kidman. Furthermore, all Millennials are sweet, kind-hearted people.

While, as a Millennial, I appreciate Cody’s generous theory, I’m not here to defend it. Rather, it got me thinking about how smart phones and search engines change the way Millennial and post-Millennial students expect to find information, how gaming apps change the way they expect to learn, and how Millennials entering the teaching force expect to be developed by their instructional leaders in order to leverage these high expectations and feel fulfilled professionally.

For the next three weeks, my posts will explore each of these trends individually. I’ve named them:

  • The Google Effect
  • The Angry Birds Effect
  • The “Find a job that makes you happy” Effect

Per usual, I’ll offer and seek ideas on how teacher coaching can help teachers of all generations adjust to and leverage these shifts faster.