How real classroom experiences influence Renaissance products

When you hear the term “Silicon Valley Start-Up”, what do you imagine?

You might picture people who are passionate about changing how we interact with artificial intelligence or someone solving tomorrow’s problems. Yet, plenty of current and former educators are doing just that and working to change the way students learn, solve problems, and shape the future of education.

Teach for America, otherwise known as TFA, is a nonprofit dedicated to helping students in under-resourced public schools. TFA recruits recent college graduates to become members. Recent graduates and those interested in education are encouraged to join, undergoing a five-week teaching “boot camp” course, before being selected to teach at a predetermined location for a two-year commitment. Each member is employed by the local schools and confronts both the challenges and joys of expanding opportunities for students.

Since its beginnings, TFA members have taught more than 400,000 students all over the United States—giving countless members the chance to get in front of a classroom and make a real difference.

Several of our employees are TFA alumni and continue to make a mark on education. Having taught in Las Vegas, Dallas, and other cities, our colleagues were left their comfort zones, and also learned just how important educators are to their local schools and communities.

Maggie, a Senior Account Executive, and Gracie, an Account Manager, are two of our employees who found a career in education through TFA. We sat down with them recently and talked about their first-ever classroom experience and how it led them to edtech.

Renaissance: How did you both become interested in education?

Maggie: While in high school, I became interested in equity in education, and I found out about TFA while enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. I took the plunge and joined TFA and was assigned to teach middle-school special education in Las Vegas, Nevada—a bit far from Wisconsin.

Gracie: After majoring in public policy at Duke University, I became interested in education policy and reform. I applied to teach in the Northeast or California, but instead, was assigned to an elementary school in Dallas, Texas. I looked at it as a new adventure!

Renaissance: What was it like teaching in a classroom for the first time?

Maggie: Overwhelming. As a recent college graduate fresh out of school, I didn’t feel equipped to meet students’ unique needs. However, I did pick up on the benefits of edtech in the classroom. Our school was a 1:1 school that used iPads, but I noticed the need for additional professional development around iPads and best practices to ensure students remained focused. It was tough to keep students engaged in learning because I had to reinforce that that iPads were tools, not just toys.

Gracie: Like Maggie, I felt not-quite-equipped. I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to have a room full of students reading at different levels and having different learning styles. It also opened my eyes to how much time educators spend on prep.

Renaissance: How did edtech play a role in your classrooms? How did you use it?

Maggie: We used technology quite a bit throughout the school day. The thing that jumped out to me was keeping students engaged. Sometimes, students would get distracted on the iPads or go do something else. It could be difficult moving around and making sure each student remained on task and focused. I feel like professional development about some best practices would’ve helped me that first year.

Gracie: I noticed the impact right away—like how my students’ eyes would light up when they got to use the Chromebooks. I also noticed the positives and negatives of using technology in the classroom. For example, our school used an online math program that had an animated penguin to keep students engaged. However, the program didn’t offer supports or scaffolds when students got stuck. Sometimes, the penguin would waddle back and forth across the screen for 10 minutes as the student sat there—not helpful or motivating. Things like that showed me the importance of both good design in edtech and good implementation, as well as the importance of educators monitoring what students are doing in the programs.

Renaissance: How did teaching in the classroom translate to Freckle? What sticks out?

Maggie: While I interact with educators day-to-day, Freckle’s “Summer Seminar” sticks out to me as a highlight. A full-day workshop, the Summer Seminar brings together more than 50 educators in San Francisco to advise Freckle and be heard. Events like these provide educators the chance to share powerful stories of how they use Freckle in their classrooms to support students. I would have loved something similar while teaching.

Gracie: Two things from me. 1. The educators. Teaching is hard and a great supporting cast makes all the difference. Hearing stories from educators, helping them accomplish their classroom goals, and knowing that we’re making a difference makes it all worthwhile. 2. Small successes. I had a student who arrived several weeks into the fall semester when I was teaching. He got frustrated and would cry, but then went home and bragged to his mom about mastering a concept. Little spurts of growth like that were amazing to see.

Transitioning from the classroom to Freckle

While Maggie and Gracie are just two examples of former educators at Freckle, real classroom experiences like theirs influence our products and continue to guide product enhancements. (Both even heard about Freckle through friends and old colleagues, sparking their initial interest in edtech!)

Speaking to Maggie and Gracie uncovered some things that stood out:

    • Educators have tough, demanding jobs. Perhaps the most eye-opening fact that comes out of doing TFA is the realization of just how much educators have on their plates day-in and day-out.
    • Educators are some of the most giving humans on Earth. Educators often spend their own money on school supplies. According to a recent New York Times article, 94 percent of educators reported spending their own money on school supplies during the 2014–15 school year. (And an average of $479!)
    • Being an educator involves so much more than teaching. In addition to meeting state standards, grading, and ensuring student growth, educators are the rocks in a lot of their students’ lives. This rang true for our TFA alumni, who often served in under-served public schools.
    • Education is so important. This is what leads so many former educators to work at Freckle and Renaissance—a mission to make educators’ lives easier and help accelerate learning for all. While in the classroom, our employees noted the impact that the right technology can have on student learning, which led them here.

These four things, along with so much more, influences the work we do every day. From understanding what reports make the most sense to product enhancements designed to give educators their most-requested features, we put educators first. It’s also why we created Renaissance Royals, giving educators a voice and platform. It comes through in our day-to-day interactions too, such as understanding that it might take a couple of days to get to an email or adjusting coaching schedules to best meet educators’ needs.

Interested in learning more about Freckle? Visit www.freckle.com to explore how Freckle empowers educators to differentiate instruction across math, ELA, social studies, and science.

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