The 4th and final profile in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.
“When students know what you want them to do, and they can do it, they tend to do it. You’ve built in a chance for them to be successful in your class and it has nothing to do with content mastery– It’s about acting like a student and students want that.”
Mitch Weathers was destined to become an educator. From his early years in college he knew he wanted to work with at-risk high school students. After a brief stint in the nonprofit sector with Young Life, where he spent time as Executive Director, Weathers decided he could have a greater impact helping kids be successful in the classroom. His teaching journey began in 2001 in Sacramento, and shortly afterwards he moved to Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, where has has been teaching science for the past 12 years. (He also serves as the Chair of the science department.)
The motivation to create Organized Binder came directly out of his experience at Sequoia, where he taught students who were coming to school everyday but often without completing any work from previous days. Somehow the students didn’t believe they could be academically successful, but Weathers believed otherwise.
“Much of our effort and emphasis in education is around content, yet, it quickly became clear that these students lacked the basic skill set to even access that content,” says Weathers. Organized Binder is exactly what it sounds like: a physical 3-ring binder that houses a paper-based system to help educators ritualize the classroom, by setting clear expectations about class work and processes.
The system is composed of different color-coded pages that represent a set of best practices, thus clarifying expectations so students know what it means to be ready to learn. It establishes clear classroom processes to make explicit what some refer to as the “hidden curriculum”– learning skills unrelated to content (such as organizing papers created or handed out in class, taking good notes, managing calendars, and tracking progress towards tests/deliverables) that students often struggle with.
After prototyping the system for much of 2003, Weathers began to see meaningful improvement in learning and engagement with the students in his classroom. Soon, other teachers began to inquire about the Organized Binder system and the following school year Weathers led a pilot across all the 9th grade teachers and students at Sequoia High School, thus expanding the usage from 3-4 people to 50. “As I walked through various classrooms observing the Binder in action it became very clear the system was content agnostic.” Epiphanies like that really drove Weathers to continue refining the product.
While currently in paper form, Weathers is working with a couple of designers and developers, with input from several other educators, to translate the process into a web version with a mobile app for teachers which they hope to release this summer.
Beyond the School Walls
Growing the Organized Binder user base beyond Sequoia High School happened serendipitously. In 2005, Weathers was asked to share his model at the California Teacher’s Association’s (CTA) Good Teaching Conference. Having never presented at an education conference before, he was a bit surprised when his proposal was accepted, and even more so when hundreds of people tried to get into his session. “About 50 people followed me down to the lobby after the session and the hotel made more copies of the binder pages because we ran out.”
Organized Binder is now being used in over 30 states and around the world, with both school and district-wide implementations. The results speak for themselves, where schools using the system are making over 100 point API gains, and EL and Special Education students earn huge gains on standardized exams. Weathers started off by traveling to each school to conduct training sessions himself. Over the years he’s built up an army of regional trainers to scale the business and provide support around the U.S.
Bridging the Offline and Online Worlds
Through his many training sessions with teachers around the country, Weathers has captured valuable insights into what teachers want and need in order to successfully integrate technology into their teaching practice. “For many teachers the issue with tech is that when you bring in new tools and you have the ‘wow factor,’ but then each thing becomes a discrete chunk in the lesson.” One of the challenges with integrating tech into classroom instruction is achieving lessons that flow smoothly. These insights are helping shape the digital version of Organized Binder and future training methods. “What I’m most excited about in translating this system online is that it will function very much as a virtual binder. That is so important to educators who have been teaching (and often using paper-based systems) for 15-20 years because they understand a classroom that functions in that fashion; it fits into their way of thinking and conducting their class.”
However, there are challenges around moving fully to virtual binder, such as cost, access to hardware & wifi, as well as the ability to actually see if a student is disorganized. With all this in mind, Weathers is designing a blended system that allows for both on and offline elements.
Balancing School and Startup
Weathers is straightforward about the lack of any work-life balance, having very little time for much beyond the classroom and Organized Binder. Weathers has impressively built Organized Binder into a sustainable business, with profit built into each of the school contracts, however, managing the growth is a different story. The question of leaving the classroom is a sensitive subject for him, but he openly acknowledges that juggling two full-time endeavors is not sustainable. “For years, standing in front of crowds saying that I’m a teacher and that I use this tool myself on a daily basis gave me incredible legitimacy. I’m getting closer to a time where I will have to leave the classroom or go part-time and I’m not sure what that will look like.”
As with any entrepreneurial enterprise, the trajectory is uncertain but Weathers is confidently optimistic about what the future holds for Organized Binder. You can keep up with his progress by following Mitch Weathers on Twitter @OrganizedBinder, get updates on Facebook and reach him directly at mitch (at) organizedbinder (dot) com.