By Jack Lynch
President, Chief Executive Officer, and Director, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In the autumn of 1999, I met Kathy Noble, my son Colin’s Special Education teacher. Colin was 10 at the time, and until then my experience with doctors, therapists, psychologists, and geneticists was centered on Colin’s disability. By contrast, conversations with Kathy focused on Colin’s unique sense of humor, his all-consuming fascination with Harry Potter books, and his uncanny ability to catalog facts regarding the myths and folktales of cultures across the globe.
Kathy had that talent, to bring out the strengths of each child in her classroom. She accepted all her students’ idiosyncrasies and treated each of them with dignity and respect. Always flexible, Kathy built in time for the inevitable outburst or behavioral roadblock, creatively adapting her lesson plans to foster a positive learning environment.
Kathy was one of the very best, most faithful, most empathetic educators I have had the honor to meet over the last two decades. She made it her job to know what made Colin tick. She embraced all his flaws and even indulged his compulsion for lunch menu restrictions—every day with the same peanut butter and jelly, a slice of baloney, and a drinkable yogurt. She personalized her instruction around Colin’s passions as well as his developmental needs, met his stubbornness with patience, and worked incredibly hard to reveal his extraordinary gifts—not for us, his proud parents, but for him, so that each hard-won level of confidence building achievement would be the foundation for the next.
When I first joined HMH a little more than a year ago, I said that it is easy to get stuck in a maze of school reform initiatives and lose sight of what really matters. In our case, what matters can be summed up easily—it is the relationship between a teacher and a student.
We nourish that relationship, creating solutions that lend themselves to those awe-inspiring classroom moments of growth, mastery, and confidence. We want students to see their challenges become opportunities. We want them to embrace their passions and help create a world where learning is the instrument for transforming lives, restoring communities, and making society more tolerant, more inclusive and more just. We want them to believe their potential is limitless.
That is what we want and what all teachers want for their students—to first see and then realize their potential. That desire is what animated Kathy Noble’s teaching career. With all the challenges disabled students faced on a daily basis, she knew—through decades of experience—that the vast majority of the challenges they would encounter were self-imposed. And that, of course, is true for all students. Their learning journeys are fueled by a mounting belief in themselves.
Helping educators build that confidence within their students is the reason our new reading and math programs focus to the extent they do on student agency. At HMH we believe that students have to be active participants in their learning and that cultivating a growth mindset affects how a student persists in overcoming a learning challenge—“productive struggle” is an essential part of the learning journey.
Weaving together evidence-based content with deep and actionable insight and professional learning to improve student outcomes is the core of what it means to be The Learning Company. And it is what teachers like Kathy need from us to instill the belief within their students that they can overcome any learning challenge, that they can build the capacity and understanding to take responsibility for their own learning, and that their potential is limitless.
Jack Lynch is president, chief executive officer and director of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This blog post originally appeared on HMH’s Shapedblog in July 2018.