Over the weekend our partner in India, nonprofit Agastya.org, began piloting Hello PLATO’s MVP with kids all across the country. These kids are living in rural areas in and around the “Tier 2 and 3” cities in India, where wifi is rarely available. They don’t have access to online learning at home due to this lack of bandwidth, but they do have access to cell phones and mobile data. What’s more, they’re comfortable using Whatsapp.
Research shows that this conversational method of learning is simple and clean, works well, and is appreciated by students.
But it isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to make you choked up. Except it did. When the usage started to spike and tens of thousands of messages (30k/day and rising) were successfully passing between our bot, PLATO, and those students, my co-founder and Chief Product Officer Julie messaged me, giddy with excitement. It was WORKING! Our dream of making online learning ACCESSIBLE to all of those kids was working.
I have to admit that I teared up. And I know (even though it was just through messaging) that she did too. I congratulated our hardworking CTO and development team, who toiled through the Memorial Day weekend to make sure everything was working. We found some kinks (of course) that we were able to fix. Meanwhile, the learning continued…and continued…and it’s still happening. And the entire team came through with the same response – THIS is why we do what we do.
THIS IS A COMPLETELY BINARY IMPACT
Before Hello PLATO: Learning online not possible for these kids. Learning data not going to teachers.
After Hello PLATO: Learning online with AI to personalize it, now possible for these kids. Learning data now going to teachers.
The Dream of Doing Something that MATTERS
Most of us working in the technology space are driven by the idea of doing something that MATTERS. This is exactly what technology is supposed to do: open doors, level playing fields, foster curiosity, and drive innovation to make more of that good stuff happen for the next generation. It’s always been our team’s dream to leverage technology for good, both in terms of impact and financial return. We believe deeply in the necessity of venture capital and the finance of innovation. But making it happen is the reward.Read More
An Open Letter to the Teachers of the World
I consider myself to be a teacher by nature. When other kids were working in retail or food service every summer, I was working in educational camps. My dream from childhood was to become a Ph.D. Biologist, but I have to admit that most of what I actually pictured was teaching. I was a TA in college, a substitute teacher in grad school, and a middle school science teacher at the start of my career.
I share these things to suggest that I know what it’s like to be a teacher. And I do. I know what it’s like to manage a classroom, lead parent-teacher conferences, participate in professional development workshops, coach after-school sports, and attend pep rallies with the school letters painted on my cheeks. As if that could give me any context for what you’ve just endured.
Here’s what I do know. In the best of times, in the best of schools, teaching is a challenging profession. There are so many reasons for this that we won’t explore here because that is a treatise, not a blog post. But if you chip away at that best-case scenario – schools that lack financial support, technological support, community support, administrative support – you end up with an increasingly stressful (even while rewarding) occupation. It’s not surprising that we had a teacher shortage and waning enrollment in teacher education programs at colleges and universities before the pandemic. Too many teachers, schools, and communities lacked the support that they needed to thrive.
Enter COVID. Exit Light.
A friend of mine launched an educator wellness initiative in the middle of COVID and interviewed 50+ teachers. I asked her what they’d shared about student engagement, technology challenges, and keeping it all coordinated. She said, “Rachel, they didn’t talk about any of that. They all just cried.”
My heart broke. I can’t imagine what it was like. Not the technology challenges. That must have been insanely brutal, especially with elementary-school-aged students. But that’s not it. Not the exhausting politics of whether and when and how to return to the classroom. There’s not a teacher I know who wouldn’t want to get back to their kids if they believed it was safe for themselves and everyone else. But it was so unclear when and if we were safe this year that we made choices. Devastating choices. Time will reveal how devastating as we go back and study what, exactly, just happened here. But I don’t even mean THAT part.
Teachers love their students, even the ones that drive them crazy. They want them to grow up safe and happy and silly and LEARNING. They want them to have every opportunity in the world. I can tell you firsthand that it’s a struggle teaching them and knowing how little you can actually protect them or support that goal. But with COVID teachers had some students simply disappear from their classroom. They watched others completely melt down under the new regime. They had to watch students whose families lost employment struggle to even get food, with support services shut down. And they had to watch those students and their families drowning through their Zooms. All while undergoing the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that came with COVID in their own lives, and attempting to oversee homeschooling for their own children.
Or Perhaps All the Light We Cannot See?
There is a well-liked and critically acclaimed novel titled, “All the Light We Cannot See.” Set in WWII, the story was so bleak that I struggled to see any light. I panned it on Goodreads when I read it because it seemed to be a lie. I understood the point of the title. You can’t see the light, but it’s there in every tiny act of human kindness that happens in the midst of a hellscape. Only I didn’t feel it when I read the book. There just wasn’t ENOUGH light to beat away all that darkness. Now, imagining what it was like for teachers during COVID, I finally get it. I may have to take down that review.
Because through everything that’s come at us this year you can see teachers’ perseverance. With no warning and no time they had to move entire curricula online, learning how to use the tools to deliver it (this is akin to learning to fly while taking off with a plane filled with children), and somehow still attempt to manage student behavior and keep them on-task. More than that, to try to boost their spirits, to serve as a positive and strong light in all the darkness the children must have felt.
And they did that. I’m speaking to the parents out there now when I say that I don’t know if you’ve seen the DELUGE of teachers teaching teachers material that has appeared online, nor if you’ve seen the efforts that teachers have gone to in order to support their students, their families, and their communities. If you haven’t, go Google it a bit. There hasn’t been much light in the news lately. Finding these stories will make you smile and that alone is worth it. What’s more, take time to think about the opportunity you’ve just had if you’re a parent. You’ve just had a unique-in-history peek into your children’s classrooms. You may have a better idea of what it takes to wrangle and educate 20+ little humans, particularly under such difficult circumstances.
And teachers, you’ve had had an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of your students as well. As a teacher, you learn quickly that many kids’ home lives are not what you may imagine, but it’s hard to truly know what’s going on unless a child or parent is very forthcoming. Now teachers may have a better understanding of what challenges their students face outside of the classroom.
In an idealistic worldview, which as an entrepreneur one must have, I could see this ushering a new era in which the schooling and raising of children could become more of a coordinated team effort, now that teachers and parents have gotten a better understanding of one another. Let us hope that we will make such lemons out of lemonade.
I’m sorry. Thank you. We are so grateful.
To wrap this up, I want to go back to the title of this post. This past year I felt like I was watching friends and family who were on the frontlines of education be run over by a truck and all I could do was say, “I’m sorry. Thank you. I’m so grateful.”
“I’m sorry for what you just endured. I’m sorry that you were asked to do SO much more than me, and than so many other Americans and other citizens around the world. I’m sorry that you watched kids and families struggle who matter to you. I’m sorry that society wasn’t always supportive of you or mindful of your challenges and sacrifices. I’m sorry that we’ll never be able to undo the trauma that you and your students just experienced.
But I thank you. And I’m going to go ahead and go out on a limb and speak for everyone else. We are so grateful.Read More