How This Teacher Is Preparing His Students For An Unknown Future

TED Talk

TEDx Talk

Mike Yates

People are talking more and more about education today. Whether you hear something on the news, talk about some college scandal, or discuss the rise of college debt, we all know that change needs to happen in the education industry. To the fault of no teachers, we (even me) were trained to teach in a conventional manner. However, this way of teaching no longer aligns with the needs of the 21st-century. As our world is changing faster than we can blink, education is one industry that tends to move slow. However, if we all want a healthy and prosperous nation, we must prepare our youth now to the best of our ability, given what we know today and for possible economic changes for tomorrow.

In 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 56.6 million students today attend elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States.

Student Population

  • 50.8 million students in public schools, and 5.8 million attend privately

These Students:

  • 1.4 million attend prekindergarten
  • 3.7 million attend kindergarten
  • 35.5 million Pre-K to grade 8
  • 15.3 million attend grades 9—12
  • 4.1 million attend 9th grade—the grade students typically enter high school

Also, according to NCES, about 3.7 million students are expected to graduate from high school during the 2019–20 school year. And, right now, NCES estimates we have 3.7 million certified educators in the United States.

Preparing Our Students For An Unknown Future

Everyone seems to have an opinion about education. However, there are teachers who are working harder than you can imagine to bring forth essential change to the lives of many young people, while preparing them for an unknown future.

I’ve written about some of the most innovative educators in my past articles. There are various educators who look outside of their classroom walls, and realize something must change—and quickly.

They are not going against the system, but rather working within in it, bringing innovation to an industry that has not moved away from traditional means of teaching in hundreds of years.

These educators are not usually the ones you hear about on the news. These teachers are our private, humble and our most noble heroes.

Whether they are working inside the school system or outside, they are paving the way for the future of our youth. They work without asking for much in return—teaching young people how to fail and get up again, work through entrepreneurship journeys, manage life’s challenges, teach self-care, and also care and nurture various youth who are lost.

For some young people, they are the one and only adult who cares about them, and they’ve changed and even saved lives behind the scenes quietly with compassion.

As you know, I’ve written about many hidden gem teachers, and today I’d like to share this interview I had with Mike Yates.

This article has been edited and condensed for reading purposes. Yates and I spoke about his love for education, how he’s going about changing it, technology, entrepreneurship, and how he helps students succeed through learning critical life-skills.

On Education

Robyn Shulman: Mike, please tell me about your background and how you landed in education.

Mike Yates: I am the son of one of the most passionate teachers I have ever seen. I watched my mother work long hours, and late nights to ensure that students learned and achieved greatness. Even with this personal view, I always used to say that I would never teach. I wanted something more glamorous. 

Shulman: What changed?

Yates: That outlook changed when I started working for the TRIO and Upward Bound program at Texas State University. At age 18, as a student worker, I knew that I had been wrong about education.

Shulman: This work is life-changing, correct?

Yates: Yes, even though people may not see it, this work is glamorous. Education is now, in many ways, my life’s work.

Shulman: Can you tell me about your work with Guide?

Yates: I’m incredibly blessed to be working on two inspiring education projects at the same time. Guide is an app that I co-founded with my good friends Tim Salau and Taban Cosmos. We realized that, in the future, life-skills would be essential for students. We also realized that there usually is not time to focus in on teaching life-skills during the traditional K-12 school day and definitely not in college. 

Shulman: So, you’re building this out as a welcome addition?

Yates: Yes, so we got to work developing a product that high school students could use on-demand to learn life skills.

Shulman: Are you currently teaching students about entrepreneurship? If so, can you provide me with an example project?

School teacher talking with his students.

Yates talking with his students.

Mike Yates

Yates: I am. I am teaching students about the most basic form of entrepreneurship at the moment: eBay. I designed a seven-week workshop in which students learned to flip unwanted items on eBay. They then used the money to develop real businesses that they run to this day. 

Shulman: What else was part of the workshop?

Yates: There were elements of entrepreneurship, grit, public speaking, and money management all wrapped into one workshop.

Shulman: What does the future of learning look like to you?

Yates: The future of learning looks dynamic to me.

Teacher changing the education path

Mr. Mike Yates, educator and leader

Mike Yates

Shulman: Can you elaborate?

Yates: By dynamic, I mean that it will be ever-changing. I believe with everything in me that educators will learn to embrace technology in ways that personalize learning, accelerate kids, and empower students to do great things. 

Shulman: Where do you see technology’s role right now in education? There seems to be a lot of confusion in this industry.

Yates: I believe the future of learning will incorporate adaptive learning software, used to maximize the human moments that teachers have with students in the classroom. Using the right apps and tech to accelerate the academic portions of the day allows time for other critical things like life-skills education, relationship building, and will enable students to focus on specific interest projects. 

Shulman: I love how you included the phrase, ‘right apps,’ above in your answer. Can you give me an example of how you see this playing out?

Yates: Imagine if students could spend just two hours to cover math, science, reading, and history instead of the traditional six to eight hours currently required. What else could we do with the school day? The possibilities would really be endless. Adaptive learning software can make that all possible. 

Shulman: Given your answer above, how are you preparing your students today for the new tomorrow?

Yates: Earlier, I mentioned that I am blessed to be working on two very cool education projects. Alpha is another one of the projects I waned to mention. Alpha is a school in Austin, Texas that uses adaptive learning software in place of direct instruction. The future of education that I described above is the reality students and staff experience each day at Alpha. 

Alpha School

Shulman: Can you tell me more about your work at Alpha School?

Yates: We are preparing our students for the new tomorrow by executing three promises we make to parents. These promises, we believe are how we prepare kids for the new future.

Shulman: What are the three promises?

Yates: The first promise is that kids will love school. We want this to be a place where kids can find their passion. We want this to be a place that kids love coming to every day. We work extremely hard to create that space. 

Shulman: And the last two promises?

Yates: The second promise is that students will learn twice as fast. By learning twice as fast, we mean they will learn the same content as other kids their age, just in half the time. We believe that by using adaptive learning software, every student can be in the 90th percentile of all other kids their age in half the time because the apps personalize the learning experience. 

The third promise is that kids will learn life-skills. We teach all the skills that most adults agree should be taught in schools. Because we have the time to do so, our afternoons are filled with entrepreneurship workshops, design thinking workshops, public speaking projects, challenges to build grit, competitiveness, and so much more. 

Shulman: How do you think finding the right talent has affected your school?

Yates: I think it takes a great team of people working in schools to pull this off. The teams I get to work with, whether at Alpha or Guide, are some of the most talented people I know. I wouldn’t want to do this work with anyone else. 

Through all of this, we are preparing kids to go and do incredible things. 

More On Entrepreneurship

Shulman: How and why does entrepreneurship fit into your future picture of learning?

Yates: I think entrepreneurship fits into my future picture of learning because of all the lessons I’ve learned through entrepreneurship. To be an entrepreneur, you must engage with expertise, financial literacy, writing, reading, public speaking, math, history, and sociology, I could keep going on about this topic, but I’ll save this story for another day.

Shulman: Can you elaborate a little more? 

Yates: Taking a business from zero to one that is profitable requires a person to learn so much. For example, if you want to start a new line of sneakers, you will need to engage with the history of the sneaker industry. You will need to know your competitors inside and out. You will need to figure out your starting cost, margins, price to produce, sales price. You need to nail down a target audience, create a vision, and communicate that vision specifically to that audience. 

Shulman: What guides you with this vision?

Yates: No one is saying it this way, but entrepreneurship is the ultimate school capstone project. It makes you use everything you’ve learned. 

Shulman: With the workforce changing so quickly, what are three things you can share that parents can do with their kids now to best prepare?

Yates: I love this question. I am a parent of four beautiful and amazing kids, so I think about this and talk about it with my wife constantly. 

Here Are My Tips:

  • Let them fail. Children need to experience failure while the stakes are low, and while they have you, the parent or guardian to help them learn from it. Failure is a great teacher because it can help kids become self-aware. A self-aware adult knows how to capitalize on their strengths. We should be helping kids get to this point. So if they fall off the slide, pick them up, and encourage them to try again. If they don’t play much in the basketball game, don’t yell at the coach, help the child identify what skills they should work on, and empower them to practice.
  • Teach them to fish. There will be a moment when your child comes to you for help with their homework or with a project. Don’t give them the answers. Teach them how to find an answer. Teach them how to learn. Once a child knows how to learn, they can learn to do anything. 
  • Focus on happiness. So many parents push their kids to attend colleges or go into professions because it is the “right” school or the “best” job. We should encourage our children to do what they are passionate about, and what makes them happy. 

Shulman: Tell me more about your thoughts regarding life-skills and social and emotional development. Given we’re seeing such a tremendous upswing with anxiety and depression, how can be more aware of our students’ needs?

Yates: If I were to create my own definition of life skills, it would be the essential skills we need to live an incredible life.

Shulman: Can you elaborate?

Yates: Life-skills can do several things for a person from landing a dream job to relationship building to providing personal satisfaction. 

Shulman: What about this severe uptick we’re seeing with depression and anxiety in high-school and college age students?

Yates: When it comes to anxiety and depression, I think it is imperative to be fully aware of their needs. I think this happens in two ways. The first way is that adults should change the way we think of childhood. We have to understand that our children are growing up in a completely different world and context than we did. We may never fully understand their world, but we should make every effort to do so. 

Shulman: And, the second?

Yates: Second, we should ask more questions. In my experience, kids are very good at voicing their opinions, and can be good at voicing their feelings and emotions if they believe they are known, cared for and heard.

Teachers should have intentional, reliable (and professional) relationships with kids. Part of creating an environment that kids love coming to in school are those special adults in the building, taking the time to listen and make them feel known. 

Shulman: If you had to choose the top two most important things to teach now, what would they be and why?

Yates: The two most important things to teach in my mind are learning to learn and, how to learn from failure. If a person has mastered these two things, I believe, they can do anything.

A child who knows how to learn can teach themselves any skill they need with the resources at their disposal.

A child who isn’t afraid to fail, and can see failure as a learning experience will not be scared to take risks. They are self-aware and know how to use their strengths. 

Shulman: Any exciting plans in the works for 2020? And where can we follow you?

Yates: 2020 is going to be a great year. I have some speaking engagements lined up, will be pushing and growing Guide, and will be plugging away at Alpha.

I also plan on launching a podcast in 2020, which I am incredibly excited about. I hope to feature some of the most innovative minds in education.

Shulman: Where can we follow you?

Yates: Anyone who wants to have great conversations about education, or would like to collaborate can contact me via Linkedin or Twitter @justmikeyates.

Shulman: Thank you for all you do, Mr. Yates.

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