Friday, May 8, 2015

Teachers vs. Technology: An Ode to Mrs. Fritz

As an ed tech investor, I am often asked if I think technology can ever replace teachers.  Indeed, many wonder aloud how technology fits into the classroom while silently fearing that teachers will lose their jobs if computers and online learning platforms get too good at what they do.  Now, I could be controversial and tell you that this is one of the most absurd questions I have ever heard.  I could be controversial and declare that refusing to use or invest in technology due to a fear of obviation of teachers is not only a gross disservice to students, but also a blatant misunderstanding of what 'an education' really is.  But, I won’t.

In some parts of the world, it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  Now, I could be controversial and state how ridiculous it is to choose one week to acknowledge teachers.  I could be controversial and highlight how counterproductive it is to make people believe that it’s ok to say thank you only one time per year to the people that are playing the most active role in shaping our lives, our identities, our futures.

However, that would not be very productive.  Nor would it make my teachers proud.  So, instead of being controversial, I’d like to share a story about a teacher who changed my life.  I’ve acknowledged her in the past, but it isn’t until recently that I’ve come to fully understand just how powerful a force she has been in my life, and now seems as good a time as any to call her out for it.  This is the story of a teacher who educated me in a way that no textbook or online module ever could.  She did something neither content nor product can do.  She believed in me. 

Her name was Barb Fritz.  Mrs. Fritz was my second grade teacher and calling her a remarkable person is an offensive and drastic understatement. 

To provide some context, I grew up attending a public grade school in Illinois, where I was most certainly not part of the “cool crowd”.  In fact, I was what some may describe as a big nerd.  I loved homework, I cared more about how I organised my pens than how I organised my friends. I wrote and illustrated books about fictional aardvarks named Dixie. I was so scared of getting sick I would wash my hands until my knuckles cracked and bled.  Needless to say, socially, this didn’t play out too well for me, and I soon learned to keep my excitement and my ambition to myself.  Academically, it meant I was in a position to go far, but given I didn’t fit in with the rest of the students in my classes, even my teachers often found my enthusiasm to be a nuisance.  Honestly, who could blame them? They were struggling to get most of the class to even start their homework, what could be more annoying than me asking for more and more and more?

From the first day I sat in Mrs. Fritz’s class, she made it clear that she valued my curiosity and that my hunger for learning was a good thing.  She asked me to be respectful of others while she created new opportunities for me to be creative, take initiative, and explore the unknown.  She encouraged me to write more books through her “Writing Workshop”, she gave me extra projects to work on outside of class, she encouraged my questions but also delicately let me know when I was crossing a line.  She believed in me, she told me I was capable of anything, and when she looked at me with encouragement, I felt like I was okay just the way I was -  no more, no less.

Of course, life went on, I went on to Middle School, Mrs. Fritz kept teaching and inspiring.  After I had graduated from Harvard, I reconnected with her through the wonders of Facebook.  We met up at her home in Evanston and sure enough, she was the same old Mrs. Fritz - so kind and loving, curious, open-minded, and generous in spirit.  Back in second grade, I had declared to her my aspirations to be a writer, an astronaut, and a geologist.  She told me I could do anything.  When I told her that I graduated from college and decided to go work at an investment bank - a decision for which I was more than mildly self conscious - I was scared she’d be disappointed.  But she smiled and let me know that that was okay, too.  

By the time we reconnected in 2010, however, she was battling cancer.  Only one year later, she lost.  I distinctly remember where I was when my mom shared the news of her passing.  It threw me for a tailspin and once again caused me to question — what am I doing with my life?  It wasn’t a question of whether or not I was making her proud, it was a question of if I was doing enough to share her spirit.  Mrs. Fritz had given me such a gift, how could I pay that forward?  What was it about her that was so special, that I needed to emulate in order to live a fulfilling and worthwhile life?

This was just one of the many factors that led me to jump ship from Wall Street and dive into the entrepreneurial world, which ended up taking me to places I couldn’t have ever known.  Even from her grave, Mrs. Fritz empowered me to do whatever I wanted.  She was still telling me that I was okay, just the way I was, and that it was good to be curious.  Good to question things.  Good to always be learning.  Who knows where I would be today if it weren’t for her.

So now, instead of being controversial, I’m taking this opportunity to not only say thank you, but also to shine a light on the power of teachers.  In so many ways, teachers are our education.  Technology can never, and should never, replace them.  It can, however, make their lives easier and more efficient so they can spend more time actually teaching. Technology can relieve teachers of unnecessary and tedious work, allow them to streamline their workflow, feed them with valuable data about what students need help, when they need it, and how.  Who knows how many more lives Mrs. Fritz could have changed if she didn’t have to waste time grading papers, dealing with administrative work, sitting in unnecessary training sessions.  Technology simply empowers teachers to scale their time and their impact.

No matter who you are, where you live, whether or not you had a formal education, surely there is one person who has impacted your life as deeply as Mrs. Fritz has impacted mine. Whether you acknowledge it this week, or every week, there is no question that the power of another human being looking you straight in the eye and telling you that they believe in you is completely irreplaceable.  The goal is simply to empower those individuals to look as many people in the eye as possible.  Now that’s what I call scalability.