Robert Bell Wilkins

0103 - Robert Bell Wilkins

Dedicated to childhood education, Robert is a first responder and determined warrior in the fight against the structural inequality that makes up so much of social injustice.

INTRO

During the height of COVID disruption, Robert Bell Wilkins ‘13 spent the middle of 2021 journeying emotionally and physically from the end point of one life trajectory to the beginning of a new one. Their transition made us think about many questions regarding how we are equipped for change and how we are motivated to discover or make -- and take -- new paths that convert loss or barriers into opportunity and influence. Robert Bell left San Jose in June as one person, and resurfaced in Atlanta a new person. But in what sense? Here is what we learned… in September.


A MISSION


Suzy: Hi again Robert Bell! I don't know if we want to start with what you're doing now, or if we want to go backwards to an earlier starting point. What do you think?


Robert Bell: I guess I can start with now and then move back to when I was in the classroom. I'm working at a tech company for schools to help them with budgeting. We basically help them move from Excel spreadsheets and Google sheets to a platform that's a lot easier and faster to use, so they don't waste money. Right now it's kind of difficult because it's back to school, but we're trying to have the people we're working with understand this is important because you have all these relief funds that are floating around.


And we’re a super small startup. It's literally me and some interns right now, but once they leave at the end of this week, it's going to be me and the CEO in the marketing side of things. So that's very, very small.


Suzy: And you're working with administrators?


Robert Bell: Yeah, so it's with school administrators and we work with some nonprofits but mostly K-12 schools.


Suzy: Do you feel like your classroom experience has helped you in this or not?


Robert Bell: Not in terms of the actual work, but definitely in terms of credibility. I'm able to talk about, “oh yeah, I was in the classroom. I have my clear credential. I know exactly what you went through in 2019, 2020, and then last school year, which was just calamity.”


And then I guess just the resilience, like I am calling all these people and getting rejected and -- I told my boss I get that enough on dating apps. Like [laughter] people just ignore you.


But I manage to stay okay. I mean like, I did special ed elementary! I would have kids who, I would try and teach them a single letter for like 30 minutes and I show them a letter and it's not like we just look at it. We draw it, we put it in sand, we put it in shaving cream. We draw it in the air. And then I'll ask, “Hey, what's this letter?” It's the letter P and they'll say H, and that’s where the resilience kicks in -- we're gonna start over. That did help some, in a way. It did help.


Suzy: There aren't many more important skills or attributes than resilience, so that's good.


Malcolm: So you had a little time though, between arriving and starting this job and when we first talked to you.


Robert Bell: Yeah. So I had been doing on and off part-time tasks and then once school got out, I had a couple of weeks just to kind of put the last school year behind me. Because however bad y'all think it may have been, I guarantee it was much worse. So I think that I needed to kind of just like, not do anything for a couple of weeks and just relax.


Michael: What's the startup’s name again?


Robert Bell: Edstruments, like education instruments.


Malcolm: The “EdTech” market has been a big thing here for like 10 years, but it seems like it had a bunch of false starts. That's pretty interesting that you're connected to one that's making it so far.


Robert Bell: Yeah. I'm excited to explore something new.



COMMITMENT


Corliss: How did your time at Westminster influence what you're currently doing?


Robert Bell: I just remember thinking to myself or just taking it for granted that I had these amazing teachers. Amazing assistant teachers and small class sizes and all of these resources. And then, when I was in middle school, I started volunteering over the summer at Odyssey, which is the summer program that they've been doing the last 15, 20 years maybe. At one point when I was in sixth or seventh grade maybe we were in the cafeteria. All students in Odyssey are from Atlanta public schools. And sometimes their teachers and principals will come to Westminster too. I just remember being at a table with a principal and she's looking around and being like, “I can't believe this. Like, how is this real?” And at one point she just started laughing when she saw the library or the cafeteria or something.


And I remember thinking , “oh, wow, this is NOT normal. Just the type of education we're getting here.”


I love that and I'm still super close to my classmates. And especially now that I'm back in Atlanta, we talk about our teachers. We have teachers who stayed there long enough to say “Oh, I taught your dad.” That's not something you will ever find in a lot of low-income public schools. So I think when I was in college, I was just like, “you know what? I love working at Odyssey.” And I loved the idea of being that type of teacher for someone who doesn't have, well, tuition in my time? like $20,000 a year, to spend on independent school. So I ended up going into teaching through Teach for America, because it was the most affordable way to enter the profession.


I also wanted to do it with the population that really gets the short end of the stick a lot, like students with disabilities or who are English learners and who are low income. I taught at my school for three years, and the three years before me there were seven different teachers in my role -- because people kept quitting in the middle of the year. Because it was hard.


I was really lucky to have extra support from Teach for America, and I also had the core goal that I wanted to be consistent. I wanted to be at least at some level more consistent than what they've had, and give them a teacher like I had, year after year after year. That's why I stuck it out. I just remember my second year coming back and my kids were like, “you're back! People don't come back. That's different.”


And that was hard. I would have gone back for a fourth year, but my dad passed away in January, and I wanted to be closer to my mom. But the person who replaced me is also a Teach for America teacher. So I'm hoping I can pop in virtually and say hi to my old students. I was special ed in a way that loops with my students year after year, so I have the same ones. I've seen them go from kindergarten to second grade. We got really close.


Suzy: But then, you made the decision to not only come back to Atlanta, but to leave the classroom. Is this just, like, leave the classroom for now, or do you think about maybe going back or not ever going back? Have you thought about that at all?


Robert Bell: I have. I even went and signed up for Atlanta Public Schools' job board out of curiosity. So I have talked to a couple of principals. School has already started, but there's a lot of openings, still.


Suzy: Especially in special ed.


Robert Bell: Yeah, and a lot of them have these huge bonuses. So I know they're getting kind of desperate. I think that part of me really wants to go back and teach in APS part-time or as a sub.


Right now I'm just feeling it out. Like I've signed up for APS and I've sent them my credentials because my license transfers to Georgia. But I'm sure that they're just swamped with everything going on with the Delta variant right now. So I'm not surprised that they haven't gotten back to me.


HAZARDOUS DUTY PAY


Malcolm: You're obviously working remotely now, but maybe a year from now, if we somehow get a grip on health protocols that allow some modicum of familiarity than we now see in the classroom, it still strikes me that your special ed students -- and the kinds of things that are routine for you in that role -- present some extra large challenges.


Robert Bell: Yeah. That's exactly what happened last year.


It was just like this impossible situation. We in special ed had to start going back in person earlier than the rest of the teachers did. We were starting to go back in January before a bunch of us got vaccinated.


And then with some of them, I could tell based on their eye position that they weren't even looking at what's on the screen. They had their cell phone propped up against the Chrome book and would just be like going through it. So I'd be like, “get off your phone.” And they’re like, “How did you know, like, are you watching me?” Well, I just would tell them “I know everything, I'm your teacher.”


The idea of us having to go back, it was not really a tenable situation. It was hard, first of all, when we went back and I had my medically fragile students who I hadn't seen in like a year, and they're trying to run up and hug me and I'm like, no, you can't do that, I'm sorry. You can say all you want about six feet apart, masks, hand sanitizer, but it’s one thing to say it and another thing to enforce it with kids that young. I'm fast enough to kind of run away from my students when they try and hug me. Some teachers aren't and they're like, “well, excuse me, a kid tries to hug me and coughs on me and I go to my family, it's just not safe, I'm not doing this.” So we just lost a lot of great teachers for that type of reason.


That, and as well, we had to wear masks and I'm teaching phonics, which means I can't see the way that their mouths are moving and I can't help them, and I can't hear them as well.


A lot of special ed teachers went on leave or just quit.


MAKING THE PROGRESS


Malcolm: So the work that you're doing right now is you're helping your clients to adopt new tools that make their work better and easier. Do you think of yourself as having the ability to help them readily because you know what their processes are like or what their responsibilities are like, or are you a tech person also? And you're just getting into it?


Robert Bell: No, I'm not a tech person at all, really. I think there's only like 5% of students at Stanford who never take computer science courses and I was in that 5%. I feel like I'm connecting the skills I use in the role back to that first question about Westminster. It's more about being able to think creatively and communicate with a broad audience. The thing that we were doing before, we would just send out these blast emails to hundreds and hundreds of school administrators and be like, hello person. I noticed you work at blank school district. Would you like to learn more about blah, blah, blah? I would just think, “this is not working”. We would have 2000 emails go out, and zero people respond, literally zero, like a 0% success rate.


So I would start doing really, really personalized outreach with a genuine level of curiosity and excitement, caring. Like, “Oh, I noticed that you just had your in-person graduation with these fireworks, I saw it on the website. That's amazing.”


Then, even though I sent so many fewer emails, I was a lot more successful in actually getting people to get interested in this very new product that otherwise, for very understandable reasons, they might not be interested in learning more about, because it's like in the middle of summer break when they're trying to get ready to go back in person.


And at first, I wouldn't know how to use the product if they asked me questions. I had to learn really quickly because the interns were leaving. But it's more about getting them excited enough that my CEO can show them the product and get them even more excited and hopefully have them sign on.


Malcolm: Michael [Slade, of WAM], you may remember, was with more than one company that created products and services.


Michael: The original reason I moved to San Francisco was to work for a company called DesignWare that was developing educational software for publishers at that time. So this would have been around 1980. Reader's Digest and Encyclopedia Britannica, those kinds of companies were funding what we called edutainment, products where you tried to have gaming and so forth with an educational bent to it. There are lots of educational games and stuff now, but that was an early one.


So is your founder, the CEO, a guy you met at Stanford?


Robert Bell: Not really. I overlapped with him, but I knew I wanted to do something every summer in between teaching. Otherwise I would just be a couch potato and do nothing but watch TV. I just happened to run across him on LinkedIn. And if you were doing any sort of education related thing, the Education Pioneers fellowship would, kind of like, let you join. They have partners that they work with, but because of the virus, their partners were not taking many fellows this year. So I kind of just sourced my own internship, then I'd be able to do Education Pioneers.


And that's how I started working for him a little early. I had to audition basically, for him to say, “okay, do I really want to take you on over the summer?” Which worked out. So, yeah, I just met him by reaching out cold.


PERSPECTIVES


Michael: Cool. So, with startups, the ability to deal with disappointment, that you were citing earlier, is a very good trait. It's often hard to get people to understand what it is you're doing, as I'm sure you've found out.


Suzy, how many years were you teaching in Stockton?


Suzy: About 17, in Stockton, it was all fifth and sixth grade. I did a little bit of second grade and reading specialist work in Rio Vista before that. So, I know that you all know, even if you haven't taught, it's a ridiculously difficult job. And special ed has all sorts of different issues. Although there are a lot smaller numbers and aides. I would have 32 kids and no aides. But, yeah, I did it quite a while.


Malcolm: It seems like there's a lot that's missing in the equation. I mean, my own experience with special ed has mostly been second and third hand. I have friends who, that's what they're doing. But I always was confused about how some adequate level of support materialized.


Robert Bell: It doesn't!


Malcolm: It seemed completely implausible to me that a school system, you know, in quotes, could take on all of that. And I think of teachers in general, as being people who have five jobs and are not getting paid enough for any one of them,


Suzy: You're totally right, Malcolm, that what the school system is asked to do, especially given the resources they have to do them, is basically impossible. There are isolated cases of success, but as a system, there are just so many different issues. At my school we had a lot of autism classes.


There are lots of different types of special ed, that's the other thing. My husband, before he passed away, was a school psychologist. So he would be at the beginning of the process. Initially a student has to get into special ed, and that includes everything from a six-year-old who can't articulate letters but has no other issues -- that's actually a special ed kid with an IEP [individualized educational program] -- to the people that Robert Bell's talking about or to the autism cases at my school and everything in between. I don't know what the solutions are.


Robert Bell: I feel like the first step is just making the problem more known. I mean, I totally agree. I feel like the backbone of why schools work, even though they're underfunded, is that schools and the system depend on unpaid teacher overtime. I'm very curious what would happen if the teachers only worked 40 hours a week and only used the materials without going out of pocket.


Suzy: We actually tried to do that when we were in contract negotiations that had been going on for years. It's called "work to rule." And so then you say, okay, they're not doing anything, we're gonna work to rule. And a lot of us said, we understand the principle, but if we do this, we're not helping our kids. So you're right. I mean, it doesn't work. There are teachers who do that regularly, but they're in the minority.


Robert Bell: Yeah. And I also feel like, with any under-resourced school, it's frustrating that teachers in the schools get so much flack, when there's research that says it would take like $17,000 a student for them to meet all these standards. And then you look at the funding, and it's literally $13,000 a student. You can't have it both ways. You can't not give us the resources that data says we need to meet performance standards, and then be mad at the schools when students don’t meet performance standards.


I also think, especially after my dad passed away, I'm now just like very much more Zen about the teaching profession, especially in like the most vulnerable schools. It's all about context. When my dad was in hospice and had his doctors say, basically, “okay, this is the end. We just want him to be comfortable.” You could say the doctors failed because dad died, but I would disagree. They were so caring. They were so professional. They were so gracious and obviously competent. I would challenge anyone who said they failed.


And for me that helped me be easier on myself, because I had kids who just could not read in March, 2020, and they could not read by June, 2021. And they were going into sixth grade. And I, for a while, I would think “I'm failing so much because these kids are literally going to be in middle school. I don't know how they're going to read schedules and switch bells. That's going to be very hard for them.” But the context was: we were in a pandemic and they just didn't have wi-fi and they could barely get on to school. There were just a lot of things that were way out of anyone's control.


That's why I feel like I always want to have teachers be the main voices in these discussions. Because every teacher understands their context more than any policy maker, more than anybody else.


SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY


Malcolm: When people do get into policy making, and they're in some sense coming in from the outside, I'm really fishing now, but I'm very curious -- to what you personally might attribute the kind of chronic inability to solve some of these problems?


I mean, it's obvious there's not enough money going to the right places, but any money that becomes available comes with conditions on it. We all went to a private school and never had a problem with resources.


I now live two blocks away from an elementary school, and two blocks away from a middle school. And I've seen them both over 20 years rise or fall. From this close distance, it looks like the big difference was the amount of influence that the principal had.


Suzy: That is so true, Malcolm.


Malcolm: So I'm wondering. You don't become a principal without having some pretty significant commitment to the kids, but you're also hip deep in the system and you're willing to struggle with the system. Do things not change significantly for the better because the people keep changing and things kind of fall back to square one again, or is there some other more obvious barrier? I mean, obvious to you guys who've been in the business.


Suzy: I'll let Robert Bell answer first and then I'll give you my thinking.


Robert Bell: I think that you're right. Principals, if they have a lot of influence, that's kind of what my startup is trying to solve.


The way that districts will sometimes say, “we're just gonna throw all this money equally at all the schools, because it’s all based on the averages of teacher salaries, so this is what everyone should get.” But when School A has a super wealthy neighborhood, all the teachers stay for 20 years. So all the teachers get paid a lot more. And then School B, all the teachers get run through every other year, so they get paid less, so when all is said and done, the wealthier schools get another advantage because of the funding formulas.


In a perfect world, there'd be more incentive to teach at School B, because high-poverty schools need more consistency, and they have more needs. But it just doesn't work that way. And if a principal does have influence, maybe they can go to the district, and say “oh, we need XYZ.” And if a principal isn't great at managing the money that they have, it does end up going back to the district and they can't use it at all, but Suzy, I'm not experienced enough to speak.


Suzy: Well, no, I sadly had experience with as many or more, I was going to say “poor” administrators, but rather, not the best administrators. And you know, again, there's a lot of politics involved in who gets the principal job. And then it goes up to, if you look at superintendents, Stockton has had horrible superintendents, and they paid them a ridiculous amount of money. And then you have school boards and that's where a big fight is now, politically. But I did not have the best. I had some good administrators. I had several who I got along with really well, but they weren't very good. And I don't know what you do about that. I also know people who, I mean, obviously you have to be a certain type of person to want that job.


Malcolm: Listening to these problems just kind of opens up the complexity and the frustration of the world, that the daily world that's around the classroom and it's not even about the direct engagement between the teacher and the student. And so, Robert Bell, now you've got a toe in the administration bathtub.


Robert Bell: It's super interesting to compare it to Westminster. I remember when I was in elementary, there would be the carpool line of Range Rover, BMW, Lexus. No one was getting bused, obviously. And it's very, very, still, stunning to see those differences close up. It's still as wild to me as it was when I was like 13, volunteering at Odyssey and seeing this principal just laugh at the size of Love Hall and how nice it was.


Malcolm: Can you imagine yourself, in the future as a principal or superintendent, or somebody on that side of the problem?


Robert Bell: I don’t know, I only had one principal at my school the entire time I was there, but we started butting heads after I became the union rep.


My first year of teaching our union rep quit in the middle of the year. She was like, “this is not working.” Her class was a lot. I would watch the substitutes who replaced her. They would burn out within an hour, and I'd be like, “Just go take your smoke break. I'll take it from here.” Someone took over for a union rep for that woman who left and she also quit. So the union just comes and it's just like, someone needs to take over for the school. And I said I’d do it after no one else volunteered.


Suzy: Wow. That's impressive.


Robert Bell: It was just like we were literally just sitting there in silence for three minutes. And I loved that experience. I was just like, I get to fight for my colleagues. But it also meant directly challenging my principal, my direct supervisor, by like, you're asking us to put in how many minutes each child spent on this reading software into this stupid spreadsheet that no one sees. We're not doing this anymore. And that was hard. I'm talking to this woman who is clearly a more experienced professional and more experienced educator. And effectively just saying, “we're not doing this. We need to change this, blah, blah, blah,” because it wasn’t fair to the teachers. I did student government at Westminster. So that kind of helped, I guess, in talking to senior people, even though I'm intimidated. but I understood why she was making us do all this extra stuff. It's because the district, her bosses are always looking for “what are you doing to get these scores?” And I'm like, I understand that completely, really I do, but…


Suzy: It's usually tied to when you get the funds, you have to provide the documentation of how these things were used. But it's meaningless documentation. If you're measuring something important, then I'm all for measurement data. I'm a total data nerd. But what Robert Bell's talking about is the kind of absurdity of “how many minutes was this kid on this thing?”


Michael: If you want that, that's something the software should do for you.


Suzy: Exactly, they should provide that report. But it's not measuring the effectiveness of the program. It's not measuring anything else, just how long the kid was on it. I mean, they could have it on there and not be doing anything. And it would show that they were on it.


Robert Bell: I think teaching is an emotional profession. A kid comes in. Oh, why are you limping, honey? And they’ll say “I have to sleep on the floor. We're in a shelter right now.” And I’ll just have to say, “Here's fractions.” And I definitely saw, especially after the pandemic, people were getting to the end of their rope.


I'm not in the classroom this year partly because the last three years just really wore me down. They wore my principal down. I could just see like they wore all the teachers down.


And I'm very curious, like how Westminster teachers are feeling, cause obviously it's a different context. Like you have these super engaged parents and teachers can safely assume everyone has wifi and everyone has parents who are fluent in English and can help them with homework. That's just a different situation than what we were working with.


YOUNG, GIFTED, AND...


Malcolm: I mentioned something to you that Michael brought up, last week and also a couple of times before, which is the extremely small number of male teachers and black male teachers, even more so. In your personal experience, do you feel like you had to be different in any way to have your opportunity as a teacher accommodate you, as a peer or as a potential leader. And was there anything about it that was complicated or inhibited by being male or being black?


Robert Bell: I taught in San Jose, a 90% Latino district, and I was the first black person that some of my students had ever really interacted with. They would be like trying to touch my skin. They would be like “what is this? I don't understand.”


But when all of the stuff with George Floyd happened last year and everyone was talking about race and everything in class, I was just like, “there's layers to this.” And it was the first time I talked to my students about race because you know, it was more than that. I have to just try and talk about fractions and like how to spell their names.


And I taught them how people look different because of who their parents are, and their parents' parents, and whatnot. I knew that I was interested in teaching, and had that not been the case from like my earliest childhood, I probably would have been impacted by the lack of teachers of color.


That's something that, in my long-term vision, that's something I do want to work on . How do we get more teachers that look like the people in their classrooms?


They're looking at a career where salary is public knowledge. You can google it. I made $58,000, which was this close to qualifying for low-income housing in the Bay Area. You can't tell that to someone who's in college. You can’t say “Yes, you can go into teaching and never be able to afford to be a homeowner, or you can work in tech and make triple that, triple what a 10-year veteran teacher makes, during your first year out of college!” It's a hard sell.


Michael: Well, and the figure I understand is that only about 2% of teachers nationwide are black males. So you're in an extremely rare population.


But here's another question. When I went through Westminster and I went from beginning to end, I don't recall there being any black teachers. Were there any black teachers when you went through Westminster?


Robert Bell: Yes. There were a lot. I don't know about you, Suzy. And now I believe the lower and the middle schools have black principals. There are a lot of black male teachers, given the 2% statistic. We maybe had five or six. And a lot of black women teachers as well.


Corliss: Robert Bell, you don't know, but I think I've shared with the rest of the group that both of my older sisters are retired educators and they both taught over 30 years. I mean, this was their only career. However, they both came out in their early fifties because they started right out of undergrad or graduate school.


They both do have master's degrees. But one taught math in seventh and eighth grade in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. And the other taught fifth grade pretty much her entire career. Then she got some advanced training. You guys were talking, and not kidding, but when I was thinking about the 40 hours versus the teachers that were really vested, who spent not just their time, but their resources and, you know, I've long thought the teachers are just woefully underpaid. It's just a fact and it's very, very sad that we can't get more traction behind trying to do something about it.


But, at the school, at Westminster, there are some efforts. I'm on the Black Alumni Council. We just finished our first year of, I guess, commitment to the group. And it did report out to the board this past June.


We start up again at the end of this month, and we've been asked to sign on for two years. So I guess this will be an ongoing commitment and part of what we're doing. So Malcolm should be, I guess, into the fall getting some invites. We're going to recognize the 50 year anniversary of the first black graduates from the school, next spring, I think in April. But there's a lot of attention to, I guess, the curriculum and having the resources like counselors, people that look like more representative of the student body, and having the resources, not just for the haves, because a lot of the students, I was real shocked that I think it was about 70% of the students now at least get some type of financial aid. You were talking about $20,000, but it's like $38,000 a year to go to Westminster. It is not inexpensive. I, for one, was obviously on financial aid. There was no other way.


My hat's off to you, especially dealing with special education. I would have been a teacher if a lot of things were different, including the pay, But, you know, I've always done things like Junior Achievement. I mean, I did that for like 15 years. I've always gone back into the classroom. I teach, I've always taught through my church. You know, I've spent a lot of time with young people and, and I think my hat is off to educators in general because they are not just asked to teach. They're asked to raise these children now and that's tragic because you can't, you can't do all of it.


I've just been excited listening to your story, especially you as a young person. And I don't know how you instill the type of passion that you have for helping the underrepresented and you know, those, the have nots, if you will, because I'm not sure that that's there. It's not very common.


THE VIEW FORWARD


Malcolm: Now at this point, even for you, you're well out of college, but you're living in a different world than we did. And when you look forward, I'm guessing that you see a lot of different paths, many more than we could see, when we were as young as you are now.


But the paths may all seem fairly uncertain, too, which just makes me wonder how you're approaching things psychologically. Does it make the most sense to you kind of intuitively to take it a month at a time or a year at a time? Are you still mainly exploring and that's what you're committed to is just exploring right now? Or are you looking for a specific way to get back to something pretty definite that you know you want to do?


Robert Bell: Yeah, I've been thinking about this a lot. You read all these things like that climate change report where it's just like everything is going to be under water and like all these fires and there's just a lot of scary things on the horizon. And then being in like the tail end of millennial and very beginning of Gen Z, that’s a big part of the culture. I don't know if you've ever been on Tik Tok, the app, but on it there is a lot Gen Z humor where people say “this doesn't matter, nothing matters, 'cause we're all going to be working in an Amazon fulfillment center anyway.”


There's a lot of, and maybe this is just the media that I'm exposed to on social media, just cynicism. And I get it, and am trying to fight it.


And it's been a really formative experience losing my dad. I’ve been thinking a lot about “Okay, what do I want to do?” Because my dad would say, “I'm going to do all these things [after retiring] and blah, blah, blah, blah…” -- but then, pandemic, leukemia, hospice, gone.


Life goes too fast not to just, I think, live your best one. But, I feel really lucky in the fact that I know I love working with young people so much, that I've found something that like whatever peripheral thing that I end up doing, I know that that will be part of it. I feel like a lot of people don't find it that early.


At my age, and we're about to have our 10 year reunion in a couple of years, I'm feeling a lot more comfortable with that uncertainty. Some people already have like two kids and they're married and they own a home and they're my age. And some people are still digital nomads, traveling everywhere. I'm a lot more comfortable with where I'm at and like doing my own thing. Even though there's a lot of pressure coming out of Westminster to do the whole: go to law school, work at a firm, these very cookie cutter, not cookie cutter, but these well-worn, traditional paths that are going to be lucrative and can lead to the same lifestyle where you can send your kids to Westminster.


MAKING THE GRADE


Malcolm: You know, when I think, half of us, if not most of us are getting used to the level of uncertainty, that's pretty unusual. How do you know what children should know? Does it seem paradoxical at all, or is it just very ambiguous, as to what “good” education ought to be now?


Robert Bell: I think that's what it's all about, 'cause at the end of the day, like I remember my coach who'd been teaching special ed for like 35 years. She saw me teach this student once. So as soon as he left, she was like, that boy is never going to learn how to read. I've been doing this long enough that I can tell, but he will be able to learn how to follow instructions if you teach him just how to audibly understand verbal cues, and he'll be able to function if he knows how to pull up a cell phone to words and have an app that can read to him. He'll be able to use a calculator. So it’s impossible to say what one of my students should know until I meet them, and I’d say it’s similar for most people in special ed where everything's so individualized; you have to teach everything that you know is accessible to your students, and teach them to think critically.


And I think the most important thing is teaching them to ask for help and advocate for themselves because so many of my students would just sit in a classroom for like twenty-five minutes and do nothing. Then I would walk in and say, “honey, you've been on page eight for 10 minutes. Do you need me to read it to you?”


And then we'll actually get some good instruction. And honestly, at a school like Westminster, things are different. You're not just teaching students to think critically, you’re also giving them tasks and exercises far beyond grade level that are going to push them past limits of what they should know. I remember in fifth grade they gave us sudokus to do with like multiple sudokus linked together. I couldn't do that now! And kids were doing that in fifth grade.


So it's clearly a different level of instruction, but ultimately it's because Westminster has the ability to pick and choose its students.



Malcolm: So to say “special” education and to say “personalized” education, they overlap, but they're not really the same thing.


Suzy: I can talk about this a little bit, if you want. So, you may or may not know, Robert Bell would know for sure, but any student who's in special ed has something called an IEP, which is an individualized education plan. And so many of us teachers and other people would say, Hey, you know, every student needs an individualized education plan, not just special ed students, which is exactly what you're talking about. Because again, these kids all come with unique backgrounds, unique abilities, unique obstacles to learning, whatever. In the best of all educational worlds, every kid would have an IEP, an individualized education plan. It doesn't happen. I'm not sure, but it's just that, that's what kids need.


Malcolm: Robert Bell, you're working for somebody now who, and I'm not saying this to be cute. You're working for somebody who has significant relationships with investors. And I'm wondering -- if you woke up one day and you had an idea about a method, a tool, a technique, you know, that would be especially meaningful in the context of special ed students. Do you feel like you could have that conversation with your boss?


Robert Bell: No. I don’t know enough about product management yet to do something like that.


Michael: He's not looking for the pivot yet.


Malcolm: And again, your ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes is probably going to be a key to his success!


Meanwhile, in a bigger picture -- we’re not surprised that you haven’t left the fight but instead found another front on which you can try to make a difference. With so many of us being privileged relative to so many others, it’s important to me that your example of commitment is more convincing than most ordinary examples of achievement. Thank you for being an inspiration.


Suzy: And as Corliss was saying, the fact that you have this passion is really admirable and gives one hope. Best of luck to you Robert Bell.