When Alex Grodd teamed up with Erin Osborn to found BetterLesson, the main goal of their startup was helping teachers deliver, guess what, better lessons. By his own experience at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, Grodd knew that presenting sixth graders with engaging materials every day was not an easy task, and would appreciate suggestions on how to plan his lessons, especially at the very beginning of his career.
“There has to be a better way than just Googling and finding all these random links,” Grodd said.
“It’s important to have access to great lessons, but it’s not enough.”
For the first five years, BetterLesson was, basically, an online archive of resources that teachers could download, personalize or use as inspiration for their class plans.
And it worked really well. In 2011, the company raised $1.6 million in funding from Highland Capital Partners, General Catalyst, New Markets Ventures, and NewSchools Venture Fund. The following year, the company was awarded a $3.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation. Paying teachers to create their lessons and share them on the platform took the quality to the next level, Grodd said.
Around three years ago, the company made a shift. While it was still BetterLesson, their new attitudes could have made them BetterTeacher. “It’s important to have access to great lessons, but it’s not enough,” Grodd said. “It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”
In addition to the lesson platform (which is free to join), BetterLesson offers the opportunity for teachers to be paired up with coaches to engage in a continuous learning process. The company makes money by selling this service to school districts that have specific learning goals for their teachers.
As a business decision, the company entered the professional development market, an industry that moves $18 billion annually with a forecast to grow at a 4.45 percent rate during the period 2016-2020.
Grodd said that this year, the company is coaching almost 1,000 teachers thanks to around 15 coaches. Currently, the Cambridge-based company partners with 48 school districts across 18 states.
As for how the pairing between teachers and mentors works, the process start by discussing the learning goals with the school district, according to Grodd. “We have a sort of own internal eHarmony Match.com, a Tinder-type algorithm that matches each teacher with their coaching soulmate,” Grodd said.
Here’s how it works. The teacher (who’s the student in this scenario) meet with his or her coach for 45 minutes every two weeks on Skype. At the beginning of the school year, they pick a focus area they want to work on – For example, how to help students effectively communicating in partners. From there, the coach helps the teacher develop metrics, activities and goals.
After having worked in class, the teacher is supposed to upload proofs of his or her students’ growth, such as videos, photos and examples.
“Our model is really about 1:1 personalized coaching,” Grodd said. “We truly believe that the teacher is the No. 1 driver of student outcomes.”