The following post was originally published on EdSurge on May 23, 2017:
Every year, during Teacher Appreciation Week in May, many of us think back to our favorite teachers. I certainly do. I want to share the story of an amazing educator who has forever changed my life. And I also want to underscore how gratifying it is to have a career that enables me to support the work of teachers like her.
I had a remarkable teacher—the kind who sees latent talents in her students and truly inspires them to believe they can do anything. When I was a shy and nerdy ninth grader, Mrs. Treptow gave me a custom assignment. “Memorize this speech,” she said, handing me a piece of paper. “You’ll be reciting it in front of class next week.” As a 14-year-old in all of the throes of adolescence, I was terrified to stand in front of my peers and string together a few words, much less an entire speech. But Mrs. Treptow is the type of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. She had earned so much respect from her students, it was impossible to think about disappointing her. Plus, there was no way I was going to get a bad grade! So the next week with a gulp, cold sweat, and lots of stumbling, I gave my first big speech of high school.
A few months into giving more speeches, I realized I actually enjoyed it. By the end of that year, I co-founded my school’s cross-examination debate team and by the end of high school, we were ranked in the state semi-finalist pool. Just before high school graduation—through a scholarship for students from low-income backgrounds—I had the life-altering opportunity to speak at the US Department of State about my experiences growing up. I’d later go on to use my speaking skills in business presentations and board meetings, but it all began with a nudge from a teacher who challenged me to grow in an area in which I otherwise never would have pushed myself.
I’m proud to now work in education at NewSchools Venture Fund, where we find, fund and support schools and tools that help students be better prepared to achieve their most ambitious dreams. I’m especially excited to work with education technology products that allow teachers to allocate more time for their irreplaceable human touch—all of the intangible things that change students’ lives, just like Mrs. Treptow changed mine.
Just last week, my team announced the latest round of funding for edtech entrepreneurs who are creating sophisticated tools to support students and teachers. This is the fourth edtech challenge we’ve held since since launching the program two years ago. To me, the most gratifying aspect of this work is knowing that the edtech challenges are inspired by direct feedback from teachers. We know that when teachers are equipped with the resources they need, students like me are the direct recipient. And I am grateful to be able to support teachers, especially those like Mrs. Treptow.
I benefitted academically from her instruction, but also from the kindness, compassion and service that Mrs. Treptow embodied. Often, she would encourage and incentivize her students to put in community service hours; we could get extra credit for volunteering for things such as the local food pantry, which she manages in addition to the dozen other hats she wears. And when my family fell on especially hard times, a very familiar box of food would at times mysteriously appear on our doorstep. I never mentioned it out of embarrassment, but there was no mistaking who it came from.
As a high school junior, I started thinking about college—but the process was complex and my parents didn’t have any personal experience to draw on for help; my dad hadn’t graduated from high school and my mom hadn’t completed college. I also didn’t have a computer or Internet access at home, which made the process even more daunting. But Mrs. Treptow, who also ran our school’s computer lab, let me join her in the lab after school as she was grading papers and planning lessons. As a result of this access, I was able to plan, research and earn more college scholarships than the rest of my high school graduating class combined. I later decided to go to Rice University (with her letter of recommendation), where I majored in cognitive neuroscience before starting my career in education.
Over the years, we remained in touch, and Mrs. Treptow never failed to continue in the cheerleader role. When I found myself in Houston and met up with her in person—nearly a dozen years after high school graduation and my family’s move to another city—she greeted me with an enormous hug and tears in her eyes as if I were a long-lost daughter. Over a long lunch, we spoke about her visiting me in San Francisco and she asked about my family, including each one of my five siblings by name. Not a single detail was lost in over a decade.
Last year, Mrs. Treptow asked me to come back to my high school to be a part of its career fair that—no surprise—she hosted. For the first time in my life, I had to tell her no—I was going to be at the Forbes 30 under 30 Summit with fellow honorees. But you can bet that this coming fall, I’ll be flying the 2,000 miles from San Francisco to Houston to share my story and career path with her students at the next career fair.
To teachers reading this: The dedication, love, and inspiration you bring to your students is meaningful beyond what words can describe. Thank you for the impact you have on students, especially ones who are growing up in circumstances like I did and are facing all of the familiar hurdles that accompany poverty. Your impact—all of the extras on top of the academics you teach—is being written into your own students’ life stories.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you.