In this episode, Doris speaks with Chad Williamson, Co-founder of Noble Impact. Chad shares his journey to teaching at the intersection of entrepreneurship and public service. He explains how the Sandy Hook School tragedy has influenced their work around social emotional learning. Doris and Chad also discuss the importance of leadership when embedding innovation in schools.
Do School Better: A Podcast for People Who Want to Transform Education
Doris: Chad, my friend, hello.
Chad: Doris, how are you?
Doris: I am so good I’m talking to you. And I’m so very excited about this conversation because it’s you, and of all that you do.
Chad: Well, I’m excited too.
Doris: So, I want to talk later about how you and I first connected, but can you please tell our listeners about yourself?
Chad: Now that’s the trick because this is part of our curriculum and if I do it wrong, then I would probably get blasted by our students. So really telling you who I am, we challenge our students to start in a chronological approach, starting from born and raised. But I won’t do that because obviously, you know, we might not have time for that.
Doris: You can start with how you were born and raised, I like that.
Chad: Okay well, I will give it a shot. So I was born in Salem, Ohio, which is a little Quaker town about an hour outside of Cleveland. I don’t really remember much about that because when I was three years old, my dad and mom made the biggest decision of my life and they decided to join the United States Air Force. So my dad became the first Quaker chaplain in the Air Force and my mom was a K-12 teacher, and we moved to San Antonio Texas in June of 1975. And so, that started a whole new life for me, right? It changed my trajectory because from then on out we moved every two to three years of my life until I was 18 years old. Living in Turkey, Alabama, Germany, Texas, Florida, Ohio. And then I ended up going into the Air Force myself when I was 20 years old and spent 5 years in the Air Force. Did physical therapy while I was in the Air Force, so I became a physical therapist assistant.
Met a really cool guy in the Air Force who was a physical therapist that I worked with, and we started a company, actually, because we had our official PT licenses on the outside. So we would spend all day in the military, and camouflage and treat people from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, and then after that, we would go outside in the civilian sector in Tampa and the surrounding Tampa area and treat people in their homes and do home health, so we built a business.
And then I got a call one day from my friend after I got out of the Air Force and she said, “Hey, I know you’re doing your physical therapy thing, but there’s an opening at the school where I am working, called Berkeley Prep. There’s an opening for a basketball position.” And she knew I loved basketball. So I started coaching basketball at Berkeley Prep and thought it would be really easy because I can hold on my own a basketball, and I figured that wouldn’t be too difficult. And we went 1 in 15 that year, we were horrible. I had no clue how to coach, so I really dove deep into what coaching was all about. And I think that, obviously, even shines through to what I’m doing today. And then started teaching full-time there.
And they were looking for an answer to why we didn’t have really good leadership in students. And so, I said, “Well, let’s start a class around leadership.” So I received the E.E. Ford Foundation Grant in Leadership, and we had $100,000 to build a curriculum around leadership. And I started doing some research around it. And then the following year, we actually started another course around poverty called, Poverty 101, which was a multidisciplinary approach that we took. And that research led me to this Global Leadership Institute in Little Rock, Arkansas, called the Clinton School of Public Service, which was started by President Clinton a couple years before that. And he wanted to start a master’s program that wasn’t necessarily public administration or public policy, it was more so focused on public service, which was the first of its kind. And I thought it was really interesting, and I started digging into the curriculum and really liked some of it, and sort of took some of it for myself and used it for my class.
And then a year later, the admissions director there said, “You should apply here.” And I said, “Well that sounds cool. I mean, I know I want more education, but I don’t want to just jump through the hoops to get my master’s degree. But this sounds really cool.” And they had a lot of field work, about 60% of the work was in the field. And so, I applied and got in. Much to my surprise, because I was horrible at school. Hated every bit of school. Even getting my undergrad, it’s just traditional education wasn’t for me and never has been. Traditional recess has always been for me. Tetherball, you know, I can hang with the best of tetherball for sure.
Doris: Oh, gosh. I’ve known a lot of this. I did not know that. You are on, Chad. Next time we’re together we’re going to find out. Okay, I’m going to take you on. Okay, keep going.
Chad: Are you right or left?
Doris: I’m right.
Chad: All right, so now I got some up on you already. Okay, so…
Doris: Oh, wow. Okay, I’m practicing. Okay, yeah.
Chad: So that led to me going to Little Rock, Arkansas, and pursuing my master’s degree. And my wife was cool with that and she came, and the two chocolate labs came. And so, we made our home in Little Rock from 2008 to 2011. And during that time, I started my own Sports and Public Service series where I brought in athletes to come in and talk about what they were doing in the community. Professional athletes. I brought in Tiki Barber, and Warrick Dunn, and Myron Rolle, and we did a mini documentary with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. So the Clinton School has a pretty robust speaker series. Over 100 speakers year. But I was really curious about the sports sector, especially, African-American males, and what they were doing in their communities to make an impact, not necessarily what they were doing on fourth and one or how many points they scored in a game.
And this goes back, you know, quite a bit of ways for me. You know, the first time ever heard that “N” word was in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was in 3rd grade. And the only thing, I think, that I could process was, “I’ve never heard that word used for any of my friends.” And I had a lot of friends that were black because the military is the most diverse organization in the world. And when your dad is the chaplain, everybody comes to the chapel. And we knew everybody. And I just knew that my best friend’s name was James, and we nicknamed him “Papa.” And he was black, and we ruled recess together, but I’d never heard him called an “N” word. I’d never even heard any of my other friends that were black called the” N” word.
And so, I think that stuck with me, even subconsciously. And that’s why I’m so big on black male achievement, through the work that we do now.
And so, you know, one of those guys that I came across was Dhani Jones, and we hit it off and I ended up working with him for three years out of Cincinnati. He was a middle linebacker at Cincinnati Bengals at the time. We started a couple things in Cincinnati, a one-on-one interview show on the CBS Affiliate, and then we started a bow tie organization where we created signature bow ties and designed bow ties for different non-profits around the country.
And then I met a guy, one night, at a restaurant in Cincinnati. And he said he was from Fort Smith, Arkansas. And I thought, “Whoa, what? I’m going back and forth from Little Rock. I know Arkansas pretty well. And he said, “I’m really curious about education.” And I said, “Well, you know, I used to be a high school teacher and I’d love to get back in education, but I just don’t know when the time would be right, but we’ll see.” And he said, “Well, I want you to think about this word “noble.” And so, I remember just doing some research, and there was a video on the Clinton School website where President Clinton is on there, and it’s a really impactful video. And he’s talking about his presidential library. And this is when he dedicated it, “I want people come to this library: Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, to see that public service is noble. And I was like, “Oh, that word.” And so, it resonated with me at a pretty high level then, and then the timing was right. And he sent me a text in November of 2012, saying, “Let me know when you’re ready for your next challenge.” And I hit him back in two minutes like, “Talk to me, I’m ready.”
And so, we started to have a conversation around what this noble thing could be, and then I ended up adding the word “impact” to it because I started looking up just the word “noble.” You know me well enough, I’m always looking for the meaning behind things. And when I put impact to it it just had this ring. So we launched Noble Impact, really, in February of 2013. We had a couple ideas around some things. And this was from our chairman…the guy that I met at the restaurants in Cincinnati. And one of his things, and I think that got him really thinking was his son came home from school when he was in high school, and he and his dad were talking about the homework that he had to do, and he pretty much said, “I’m not going to do my homework.” And his dad was like, “Well, why not?” And he said, “Well dad if there’s no purpose, there’s no reason.” And so, that stuck with Steve, and Steve thought, “Well, I’m I listening to the insights of you know, an average high school kid that just doesn’t want to do his homework or am I listening to the insights of a generation?”
And that’s when we started having those conversations about, “Well then, how do we create purpose-driven and relevant curriculum for high schoolers?” And so, we started in 2013, as a summer institute. It went really well. Well enough to where John Bacon, at the time…who still now is CEO of eStem Public Charter Schools in downtown Little Rock, had 16 of his kids in our program and he said, “Hey, I love this so much. Can you start a class?” And I said, “Absolutely.” So it went really well, we started with 24 kiddos, they were sophomores and juniors. And we were at this intersection of public service and entrepreneurship. So we partnered with the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Walton College of Business in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas, and then the Clinton School of Public Service to have this, you know, nice higher ed situation where we had entrepreneurship and public service that would a focus areas for us.
So the following year we learned from that but we also figured out that we’re not reaching everyone, and we had done a pilot. Our first year…actually the first time we ever did Noble Impact was in a 3rd grade classroom in Tampa, Florida, 2nd and 3rd grade in the summer. And it went really well, and I was like, “Man this works in elementary school.” But we were already committed to the High School Institute. And so, we actually flirted with it in our first year at eStem when we did a 3rd-grade pilot. And they loved it. And they pitched their ideas at the end and pitched like companies on how they would redesign their classroom. And it was during that time, I think you pretty much launched the same time I launched.
Doris: That’s right, that’s exactly right.
Chad: Then we started exchanging notes.
Doris: Yeah, exactly. And then, you know, just to add in to when you and I connected, in your research, you’d somehow come across something about what I was doing, and you reached out to me and we had a phone call. And you and I were both so excited because this was actually in the world of progressive education, this was really early. And we were so excited to find someone who was so philosophically aligned. We were so on the same page. And it was years ago, whatever that year was.
Chad: We were really early in this thought process. And sometimes I felt we were too early. I felt like, “Man, it’s too hard to get traction.” Because people just don’t believe in this stuff.
Doris: Yeah. And you and I were approaching our start in very different places. You were working with public schools, I was inside an independent school. And there was no understanding really of what we’re trying to do, and huge resistance. It was tough. So which has added to why we were so excited about each other, right?
Chad: No, absolutely. And I think, you know, you bring up a good point because doing this type of work does vary from private to public to charter school education. And there has to be some sort of a door opening and leadership that’s willing to take on new stuff. And the nice thing about working in NAIS or independent schools, those schools have the flexibility to experiment and to bring on new ideas. Not that it’s easy because it’s still not, right? Because now you’re really under the gun because you have to prove yourself because you’re answering to a lot of different people in private school, even in a different capacity than you are in public school. So, you know, if you create something and you don’t come through with it, you really look bad.
Doris: You’re exactly right. And the reason I started with Hawken, is because I wanted to find an independent school that was committed to letting me experiment because you’re right, independent schools have more flexibility. On the other hand, the challenges are different, right? So in private schools, there are expectations about what academic performance looks like, about what an academic course should be like. It’s this whole other set of cultural roadblocks. Now in the last several years I’ve been working with a lot of public schools, so I understand much better the differences. But the work itself, what’s really interesting is kids are kids, and as we have in the education industry now, much more of a movement, globally, around this kind of education.
Chad: Yeah, and just to capitalize on your “kids are kids.” You know, I think, sometimes, when you try to do new stuff and you’re excited about something, the thing that gets in the way aren’t the kids, the kids want it. It’s the adults. It’s the lack of imagination from adults that are still…really the only memory that we have of education is very traditional. So if you really want to shake it up, kids are going to love it for the majority of the time. But adults are the ones that are the first to press back, whether it be parents or administrators, teachers, etc.
So it just makes me think, you know, that word “innovation”…and it always brings me back to the Harvard Business Review article, “The Innovator’s DNA,” and those five discovery skills and association. Associating is the backbone of it. And then you have: questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. And you used experimenting the language when we first started.
So, you know, that transitioned into when we first started experimenting. And I think that’s what you’re talking about now is what are we seeing now in the space, especially based on where we came from in 2013? But if you don’t have those innovative mindsets, you’re in a lot of trouble. Like you’re not really going to be able to push the envelope too far before either, one, you get fired or two, hopefully, the administrators start to turn a little bit in regards to, “Oh, you know, what this stuff is working, maybe I should get on board with this “change.” And so, maybe we should just make our own little digital platform that rates leaders on their ability to innovate, and then we just fire the people that are below a certain threshold of innovation because they’re screwing up kids’ lives.
Doris: Yeah, I’m all for that. I’ll tell you, in the last four years, as I’ve been working now with other schools, public schools, charter schools, schools all over the world, what I have found is the starting point has to be leadership that has the will to make this happen. That has to be the starting point because if you don’t have that, you’re going to be just beating your head against the wall, and it’s not going to happen.
Chad: Absolutely. The one thing that sticks out to me when you say that is, then you have innovative teachers or educators that really want to make a difference. They’re coming with all this energy, and gusto, and then you hit a brick wall if you don’t have the innovative leader. But when you do though…and this goes back to my first interview with Tiki Barber, he said this quote, and it’s my favorite quote now. He said, “The ability to respond with enthusiasm to someone else’s potential is almost as rare as talent itself.” And so, that thought process is when I respond with enthusiasm to potential, whether that be kids, teachers, etc., watch out, because then you empower them. You validate their thoughts, and their feelings, and their actions. And then they, you know, for lack of better terminology, they have that wildfire, right, that…
Doris: Yeah. Good word, yeah.
Chad: …that gets into them, and then you just have to navigate and facilitate.
Doris: Yeah, when you and I first connected, my head and heart were all full up and into the impact on the students of this kind of education. And in the last few years, what I have discovered, which is exactly to your point, is that this work is about opening up the adults as well, the teachers and the administrators to the power of what’s possible. And it’s been really exciting to start really focusing so much on the adults in the education space, and seeing what’s possible when they have agency and they’re empowered, and they’re able to experiment and draw on their strengths.
I’m really interested, Chad, from you in hearing about what you’ve been experiencing lately with the schools and the districts you’ve been working with.
Chad: Yeah. Sure, and I just want to capitalize on some of the things that you said, if you don’t mind. Well, you know, what comes to my mind, and we’ve done a lot of training over this past summer for a lot of different groups because now we’re getting into this professional development space because people are finding out what we’re doing and hearing the stories about how we’re making an impact. And so now, we are able to take it to the adults and maybe even take it to the decision makers. And I think that to your point, you know, you have to be able to influence the adults, the teachers, the parents, the administrators. And the only way to do that, at least through what we’ve experienced out of Arkansas is storytelling. I mean, we have to be able to tell the stories of the kiddos that are benefiting from this type of curriculum. And we’ve used that language a couple times now because it’s hard to describe sometimes, right?
And in all reality, it’s just empowering kids to be their own advocates. And however they do that, but for us, we do it through three, you know, different skills. And we see these three skills as paramount to what we do. And number one is listening, number two is story telling, and number three is reflecting. And then we say…and then we have our own purpose statement, right? The purpose of Noble Impact is to increase access and opportunity for every student we serve.
And, you know it’s last year, 2016, and I’m at SXSW and at this point, you and I had had maybe in the hundreds of conversations, at this point about, “Man, you’re doing good work. You’re doing good work.” And I thought, “You know what? Yes, this is it.” Like we’re on to something big and kids love it. And so, at this point, we have about, you know, over 1000 kids in our program from 5th grade to 12th grade, and we’re starting different things. But then in 2016, I go to SXSW, I get there really early, it’s a Sunday, and it’s about 2 p.m. and I get there so early that they aren’t giving out the name badges yet..
So I go across the street, I think it’s the Hilton across the street, and there’s a huge restaurant downstairs, and it’s only me in the entire restaurant. And I’m watching…there’s like ESPN is playing and they’ve got these flat screens. And there was a UFC fight the night before. And this guy pulls up to me, three seats down, I’m sitting at the bar, and he said, “Oh, did you see that fight?” And I’m like, “Yeah, actually I did.” He said, “Are you a fighter?” I’m like, “No, no, I’m not a fighter.” I was like, “How is this the first question that I’m getting?”
And he looked about my age, right, like early 40’s. And I said, “Well, you’re a fighter?” You know, and he said, “Yeah I love that stuff, that MMA, UFC.” I’m like, “Oh, cool.” And he said, “But, why are you here?” And I said, “Well, I’m here for SXSWedu.” He’s like, “Oh, me too.” I said, “Oh, cool.” He said, “Are you a speaker?” I’m like, “No, are you a speaker?” He said it, “Yeah, absolutely.” I said, “Well, what are you speaking on?” He said, “Violence and compassion in K-12, and how it relates to neuroscience.” And I’m thinking to myself this is some deep stuff. You know, I don’t even know if I’ve really heard that type of language together. And I was looking for something easy like curriculum development or something of that nature, And I said, “Well, so where are you from?” And he said, “Newtown, Connecticut.” And I was like, “Newtown, Connecticut?” And I got my wheels turning, I thought, there’s something there. And he could see me struggling with trying to connect the dots. He said, “My six-year-old daughter was murdered in her 1st-grade classroom in Sandy Hook.” And I said, “I can’t even imagine.” And he said, “Yeah, you can.” He said, “That’s why you responded that way.”
And that’s when I met Jeremy Richman. And that changed the way that I thought about what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and who we even are in relation to all of this. And Jeremy scoots three seats down and we spent the next two hours together. We share our lives, we share our stories. He shows me all these pictures of Avielle, and tells me that when the Sandy Hook massacre happened, that just like a lot of other parents and even the community like, “What can we do?”
Well, it turns out Jeremy is a neuroscientist, his wife, Jennifer, is a scientist as well. And they started the Avielle Foundation after Avielle was murdered to focus on preventing violence and building compassion in communities, schools. And then this focus on neuroscience while also focusing on social emotional learning.
And so, I just started engulfing myself. Like I just started diving deep into all of this language and realized that you know what? We’re not doing entrepreneurship, we’re not doing public service. It is a byproduct of the social emotional work that we’re doing on a daily basis with kiddos in Little Rock that…and if you know anything about Little Rock, one of the things you do know, obviously in 1957, Little Rock 9, there’s significant history behind desegregation. You know, there’s a lot of history there. And there’s still to this day a lot of pain. The school district itself was taken over by the state due to “dysfunctional board,” you know, at the time. And is still run by the state. So there’s a lot of work we do that just can’t be chalked up to the Lean Canvas and entrepreneurship, right?
Doris: Those are tactics, right? And I’ve had this for years, and I think it’s getting better, but for years I’ve had that baggage that comes with what I call “Edujargon.” You know, people want to put it in a box, “Oh, this is that Lean LaunchPad stuff or this is the design thinking stuff or this is entrepreneurship stuff.” And it’s like, no, it’s a completely different approach to teaching and learning, and those are just tactics and tools that you use as you’re doing this work. And that’s what it is. It’s a toolkit.
Chad: Yeah, and those tools still need to begin with compassion, right?
Chad: And even like design thinking, it begins with empathy. And I like to use compassion a little bit more, especially now that we’re so tight with the Avielle Foundation. And now we’ve actually…I forget if I told you, but we entered into an understanding, an MOU, with Avielle Foundation, and they’re our scientific research partner, and we’re their education partner in regards to, “How do we know that we’re really making a difference and making an impact in the lives of others.” And Jeremy Richman and Avielle Foundation are going to be our scientific research partner going forward with all of our curriculum, which we believe is beneficial to the kids in our program because it’s building their social emotional capacity.
And so, I think, when we look at the greatest entrepreneurs in the world, even today and years past, one of the things that they probably do have a lot in common is a high level of social emotional intelligence. And so, even going back to the new masters…what is the new grading system that you’re doing?
Doris: The Mastery Transcript, so…
Chad: Yeah, The Mastery Transcript. It’s not only about ACT and SAT, it’s so much more.
Doris: Actually, it’s not at all about ACT or SAT. Yeah, exactly.
Chad: Absolutely, absolutely, it’s about who these kids are. So, you know, that’s what I like about you know, talking with you and knowing what you’re doing and what I’m doing. And I think we’re both pushing in the direction of sustainable and transformational change as opposed to transactional change, right?
Doris: That’s exactly right.
Chad: So we’re looking for that transformation. And I think, you know, there’s something that tells me we’re on the right path now, especially with our social emotional work. And I know all the social emotional buzzwords today, but I’m just sort of curious like how we’re building social emotional capacity in kids. And I think, to your point, and to what you’re doing is you’re building social emotional capacity through the activities of what Wildfire brings to the table.
Doris: Absolutely. And when it comes to measuring, it’s about measuring growth in social emotional capacity and skills. And that’s the point. And it’s very personal. The whole transaction-based system of education that we’ve built over the last century has proven time and time again, and now more than ever to be failing humanity and the planet.
And I know that sounds really melodramatic, but I think that’s what people are realizing that this work it’s, Maria Montessori, I keep quoting her because it’s the best way I know how to put it. Is what she said that “The path to world peace is education.” I believe that.
Chad: Yeah, and you know, you said, what are you seeing in the districts and who you’re working with. And so, this year was our first year to really branch out of eStem in a big way. So we really piloted a lot of our curriculum in eStem. And John Bacon gave us the flexibility and the leadership to do that, right, from an innovative perspective. And so now, we’re in the Hope School District in Arkansas, we’re in Jacksonville High School, we’re in Baseline Academy, which is now an elementary school, were in Sheraton High School. And so now, we’re getting into that public realm as well, and so we’re going to be seeing a lot of stories happen. And you know, I like to use Twitter for that kind of stuff, right? Instagram, Twitter, etc. because we have to tell these stories. And if we’re not telling the stories and they’re not telling the stories, and we actually don’t know how this stuff is affecting kids, teachers, students, administrators, etc, etc. So I’m really excited this year because we’re going to learn a ton.
And I forget if I told you, but there’s a film coming out on Netflix called “Teach Us All.” And we’re in that film, but highlighted in that film is Baseline Academy. And it comes out on Netflix on September 25th. And Ava DuVernay, her production company acquired it and it’s to mark the 60 years after the Little Rock Nine in 1957. So it’s now 60 years later. So what does education look like now? Equity and education.
And I think, in all reality, Doris, that’s what we’re all trying to do, right? You and I are trying to have a bigger play in transformational education, taking kids from victims to victors or trauma to triumph and trying to decrease the drama and increase the empowerment where we believe kids can thrive. And we might do it a little bit differently, but in all reality, the philosophy, and the motivation, and intent is the same. And I think that’s why…well, that’s why I like talking to you, so.
Doris: Yeah, well, and ditto back at you. And I’m so excited about and proud of the work that you do, Chad.
Chad: I appreciate that.
Doris: Yeah, and so, you know, we’re in our… I don’t know, 3rd, 4th, 8th chapter of this, and it will be fun to see what our next chapter looks like. Won’t it?
Chad: Absolutely. We’ve got to keep building, got to keep writing those chapters.
Doris: That’s right.
Chad: And actually, and just to get out of the way the allow students to write those chapters.
Doris: That’s right, you got it.Thank you, so much for talking today, Chad.
Chad: Thank you, I appreciate your time as well.