Why do we do what we do?

At Kelvin, this question means everything. Sure, there are bills that need to be paid and all that. But like any good millennial — and pretty much everybody — there’s got to be more to the gig. I heard that intrinsic motivation boils down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and it’s largely intrinsic motivation that stirs us awake in the morning or propels us over distant peaks. So, how did we choose our mission, and what’s our purpose? For me, that answer is very personal.

Up until sixth grade, I was an enthusiastic and attentive learner. Like most kids that age, I loved school. I couldn’t wait to show Mrs. Rhodus my Golden Gate Bridge project. Fashioned from painted popsicle sticks. My mom’s front lawn the unfortunate casualty, with red smears spray-painted all over. But something changed. Middle School came along, and boy-oh-boy did things decline. I was a handful. More than a handful. I was a menace.

Me. Kindergarten. That’s a matching geometric pant/shirt getup.

I was disruptive. Defiant. Angry, even. Or at the very least disengaged and withdrawn. I had lost my love for school, and gone were my beloved Golden Gate Bridge projects. Instead, I was “that kid.” The problematic one that’s in every class, and things didn’t get any better in high school.

What’s weird is I loved learning despite my dislike of school. Every question led down an exciting and endless road of discovery. I relished my time reading. Researching. Synthesizing. I was still in the 99th percentile for standardized testing (whatever that’s worth). I was passing my AP exams. By golly, I was even the top Albertsons grocery clerk in all Southern California. I wasn’t all bad. But my grades were dismal, my attendance even lousier. I was on my way to nowhere fast.

Things had come to a head by junior year. I couldn’t get it together. I slid comfortably into being an all-too-familiar conundrum. On one hand, I was a contributor to a state championship Mock Trial team. On the other, I spent every fifth period parked outside my guidance counselor’s office after being kicked from class for misbehaving. Lucky for me, my mom saw the train wreck and stepped in. She helped me graduate early, and off I went to community college where I continued my aimlessness for the next few years.

Unfortunately, this story is too common. It’s the same for countless children and young people across the country. If you’re an educator, you’ve seen this too many times to count. There was something else going on; something I didn’t want to talk about. Behind that ornery, disrespectful, arrogant facade was a hurt little boy. Lonely, sad, and lost. I had survived years of abuse, and doing homework or paying attention in class didn’t matter much in the face of everything I was juggling. I was resigned to a dead end future.

Later on, I found that many kids dealt with similar things — or worse. Some had endured neglect. Or hunger. Homelessness. The loss of a loved one. Not having clean clothes for school. Taking care of a sick parent. Abandonment. Racism. Harassment. It’s not all bleak and dreary though. I was one of the lucky ones.

I was very fortunate. I had a handful of people who looked out for me, and with time, self-work, and lots of help I was able to grow. I learned to focus my curiosity. Apply my creativity. To be more consistent, to listen better. I learned my past didn’t define me, and that my experiences gave me my own sort of strengths. Things like resilience. Grit. Humor. Calmness in calamity. I’m still working at it, but by my mid-20s I was inconceivably the Product Manager for a successful EdTech product used by over 5 million students (now ~15M).

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Who would have thought? Me — a dud of a student — working alongside dedicated educators for five years. I even got to work with my old school district. Through this experience, I developed an enduring admiration for what educators do and a thirst to do more. How could I help? Not everybody gets lucky like me. How many kids out there drop out? How many get pushed into the school-to-prison-pipeline? How many are hiding behind a brave face, masking those same scars I had? It’s scary to think about.

But let’s think about it for a moment; let’s look at the numbers.

  • Every year, 1.2 million kids drop out of high school in the U.S. That’s 7,000 a day. (source)
  • Nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S every year. (source)
  • “More than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances,” and this trauma often spills over into the classroom. (source)
  • “About 15 million children in the United States — 21% of all children — live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold” (source)
  • 28% of students report being “not engaged” in school and 19% are “actively disengaged.” (source)
  • Only 34% of students report having a strong individual relationship with their teacher. (source)
  • Only 42% of employers believe new grads have the necessary skills for success in today’s workplace — especially with social and emotional skills. (source)

Despite all the hard work done in our schools, those are troubling stats. What could help? We asked a former colleague, Doctor of Educational Psychology, Chief Research Scientist, and lifelong educator on a call last week what’s the one thing he’d recommend to other educators to make a difference.

“To have kids develop a healthy relationship with just one adult.”

Powerful stuff, and he’s not alone. Loads of research shows incredible things happen when students feel connected to their teacher or school. Even more so when they have a voice in their schools, are engaged in their learning, and develop strong social and emotional skills. They do better in school and later in life. They’re better prepared for the workplace and less inclined to drugs and behavioral problems in adulthood.

Imagine if every educator could know students even a little better? What would we learn? Could we reach those unreachable kids? The ones struggling, invisibly. What if educators could see the climate of their school week-over-week? What if we saw the ongoing story of a child vs. snapshots taken once or twice a year? What would happen if we helped all students foster skills like grit, confidence, empathy, and a growth-mindset? Could we help them thrive now and tomorrow? Certainly, technology could help facilitate some of that.

It takes a village to raise a child, or maybe just one person who cares. As a near disaster, reformed bad kid, and lackluster student who improbably made his way, this is why I do what I do. This is why we build the tools we build.

. . .

Thank you to the following adults who helped me along my way:

  • Mrs. Rhodus for teaching me to dream and celebrate being different.
  • Mr. Rochester for your endless patience and that genetics book.
  • Mr. Berman for making a safe place to learn and recognizing my strengths.
  • Rachel Garcia for your tireless warmth giving, and kindness.
  • Donna Tolp for your humor and opening your home to me.
  • Every physician and provider at San Antonio Regional Hospital for teaching me what empathy, professionalism, and calm under pressure looks like.
  • Gail, Katie, and Rufus for your optimism and always trying to see the good in people.
  • Lane Rankin for teaching me what it takes to chase a dream, to follow through, and that you don’t have to settle.
  • Grandpa. For everything.
  • Mom. For your incredible work ethic, for fighting your way out of poverty as a young single mother with two kids. For showing me the power of quiet selflessness.

Coming soon! Lots of successful people have difficult backgrounds. We’ll talk to people from all walks of life about some of their struggles, and how social-emotional skills helped them rise up and flourish. Sign up to receive updates here: https://bit.ly/2wTPAsZ

Kelvin Education

Helping students get a little better every week

Thanks to Matt Light

Baxter Julian

Written by

Adventures in amateur thinking. Co-founder of Kelvin. Not a dog (or a cat). Veteran. Nerdery. Equality. Physics. Design. Tech. Soccer. Surfing.

Kelvin Education

Helping students get a little better every week

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