Libby Fisher’s team built a solution for teachers by learning from innovative schools.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A graduate of St. Louis University, Libby Fisher taught Spanish in the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America before joining Revolution Foods, where she supported school partnerships to provide healthy lunches to students.
After a few too many cold winters, Libby returned South to join Whetstone Education as Director of Growth. She moved into the role of CEO in the fall of 2014 and is thrilled to be partnering with the country’s foremost thought leaders on instructional development.
She was recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 in Education in January 2016, and for The EdTech Awards 2017, Whetstone Education was named Winner of the Cool Tool Award for Best Professional Development Learning Solution.
What prompted you to first get involved in this relatively new sector called “edtech”?
Libby: Really, edtech chose me. I deeply believe that all children in America should have access to an excellent education. There are many factors contributing to the achievement gap in America, and I felt drawn to Whetstone because of its focus on instructional coaching, which I believe is a key lever to closing the gap.
What anecdote could you share from your past that really informs your current approach?
Libby: When I was a new teacher in rural Mississippi, I really struggled. I would have loved to have gotten regular feedback and coaching from my school leader on how to improve my teaching, but I was only observed once in two years, and there was no follow up meeting.
Whetstone’s mission is to create a world where teachers receive feedback everyday, in every school. I was excited to get on board so that no teachers have to feel alone like I did, and to make it easier for principals to give the feedback that new teachers critically need.
What are some pitfalls and highlights, what keeps you going as a startup founder, specifically in education?
Libby: Pitfalls: Do you have 10 hours? I have made every mistake in the book. I know this is nebulous, but the advice I would give to a startup founder is: if there is something on your to do list that you’re putting off because it’s scaring you, you need to stop what you’re doing and start working on that thing. Every major issue I’ve had as a leader has been a small issue that turned into a big issue because I was scared to tackle it early on. Tackle problems while they’re still small.
Highlights: When I took over Whetstone in 2014, we didn’t quite have product market fit. When I met with users, they told me Whetstone made their lives harder. Ack! This was like a knife to the heart. I did the only thing I could think to do — I followed around school leaders and teachers all day every day until we figured out their pain points and we iterated Whetstone to solve them.
Having all of the users who told me they hated Whetstone renew their contracts the next year after testing out the improvements we made was a huge highlight, and now those same users are our best partners and constantly refer other principals to us.
What keeps me going: I get so excited when I am out in schools with our principals and teachers, and I get to observe the masterful coaching work that is occuring in classroom observations, feedback sessions, and weekly data meetings across our 950+ schools.
As a CEO, I know first hand that being a boss is hard work. In addition to coaching your team, you have about four million other equally important priorities competing for your time, and it’s no different for principals.
So, when I see a talented school leader who is completely present in the process of coaching a teacher, and through the coaching conversation they collaborate with the teacher to really move the needle on her/his practice, I’m reinvigorated to go back to my team and say, “Okay, how do we make this even easier for instructional leaders? What can Whetstone do to help make each meeting even more impactful?”
What advice do you have for other startups in edtech? do’s, don’ts, networking, events, mission clarity, etc
Libby: Clarify your mission. Any time you go to build something new, ask yourself, “Will this help us accomplish our mission.”
Only spend money on conferences if you’re going to take the time to do the pre-work to make them meaningful.
Do find other CEOs/leaders/mentors in ed tech. This can be hard and lonely work. You will need people’s advice. And you need to pay it forward. Take meetings with other founders as they’re getting started and pass on what you’ve learned.
Don’t forget to take time off! Between July 2015 and March 2018, I did not take more than 4 days off of work at a time (that 4 days includes weekends). This took a huge toll on my mental health, and made me less effective as a leader.
What are some of the features and benefits of your solution that keep you unique and growing at a mad rate?
Libby: That’s our secret sauce – you’ll have to see a demo to find out!
But it comes down to really listening to our users and building to make their jobs easier, not what we think they want us to build.
Teachers may not have anything to hide, but video observation can feel intrusive, invasive even, akin to surveillance; are their consolations that turn this idea to a very different and consistently positive experience? did you learn along the way and correct course in light of this? any comment on this, thoughts here?
When we start working with a school, the majority of our clients have already established a culture of feedback in their schools and classrooms, so teachers don’t see observations or Whetstone as a threat. If anything, it makes their lives easier by putting all the emails, Google docs, and paper forms they’re used to keeping track of as a part of observation in one place.
That said, I can understand that concern, because in the early days Whetstone was solely used for evaluation. So yes, in those days, when I would walk into schools it’d be like, “Oh, there’s the evaluation lady again.”
Things started shifting when we pivoted Whetstone into observation for coaching and feedback purposes. We made this pivot because we noticed that principals were only using our platform once a year for evaluation, but every day they were observing in teachers’ classrooms using paper forms, sticky notes, and spreadsheets.
This weekly observation was intended purely for coaching and professional growth purposes, and our big insight was, “We should make it easy for them to do this in Whetstone!” Once we added features and tools for coaching, this naturally made Whetstone the coaching platform, and I turned into “The Coaching Lady” at schools, a nickname I like much more.
What lessons have you learned from listening to your clients? anything unexpected or surprising?
Libby: The pivot I named above. Our clients told us that coaching was more important to them on a day to day basis than evaluation, and we listened.
Your thoughts on technology’s role in education? what makes you say that?
Libby: That’s a broad question. Kids are digital natives — they are on devices for most of their waking hours — so it only makes sense that technology plays a major role in their education, especially with learning being facilitated on devices.
Beyond devices, because technology makes it so easy to access facts and content, it’s imperative that educators develop in students the desire to be self-guided learners, with the problem-solving and logical reasoning skills to evaluate the information they find on Google.
We have to prepare students for their world they’re going to live in as adults, and not only will that world be facilitated by devices, but there will be a new set of ethical dilemmas that arise as a result of the proliferation of technology, and our kids must be equipped to tackle those head on.
A broad question: What is the state of education these days?
Libby: I can’t begin to scratch the surface of that question, but I can say that I’ve spent the last month following around instructional leaders from all across the country and there is an incredible amount of innovation happening in schools — not just in the technology labs, but in the way principals and teachers work together to move the needle on school outcomes.
The media tends to pick up the negative things that schools are facing, but I have not met one leader who isn’t contagiously excited about their strategic plans for the school year.
There’s a ton of energy and excitement from both teachers and leaders, and the level of effectiveness of these leaders is staggering — every meeting I sit in on, I learn something new that I take back to Whetstone HQ and apply to my work as a CEO.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize about teachers, teaching practice, pedagogy, instructional design, curriculum – anything else you feel is relevant and worth comment?
Libby: Teaching is the hardest and most important work there is. Full stop.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org