How Listening to a Teacher from Missouri Led Me to Startup Chile

For the tl;dr crowd, this post has two lessons:

  1. Never underestimate your own influence.
  2. Never miss an opportunity to learn from anyone you meet.

This whole journey that ends with me in Santiago, Chile, started with a conversation with a teacher from a small school in Missouri.

Mountains in Chile

I had a conversation recently discussing a mutual friend who always thinks he is the smartest person in the room and tends to tell people his solutions without listening too much. He is a smart, well-educated guy. I’m pretty smart and well-educated, too, but I tend to be the opposite of him.

My assumption is that if you have a position that I don’t, say, sixth-grade teacher or principal or program director, then you probably have that job because you are qualified and however much I might know in general there is almost a dead certainty that you things I don’t and I could benefit from listening to you.

A few years ago, I met a kind, caring teacher from Missouri. We were talking about our games, Fish Lake and Spirit Lake, that teach math and social studies in an adventure game format.  Somehow we got on to the topic of teaching students whose first language is Spanish.

She sighed and said,

Every year or so, I will get a student in my class who speaks no English. I grew up in a small town in Missouri, went to a small college in Missouri to get my teaching degree and ever since I graduated I’ve taught in small towns in Missouri. I don’t speak Spanish and neither does anyone else in our school. So, when I get one of these kids, I tell them just to watch what the other students are doing and I KNOW I’M NOT DOING RIGHT BY THESE CHILDREN.

It’s popular in Silicon Valley to talk about finding the point of pain for customers but I could literally hear how it hurt this teacher not to be able to help her students.

So, I collected up a bunch of smart people I knew and we designed and made games like Aztech: The Story Begins, which you can get in the app store, free for your iPad.

images from Aztech

and Making Camp, Bilingual , which runs on any device and can be bought for only $1.99 .

With three bilingual games completed, we found people were using our games in rural communities as intended, but also in urban schools where they did have a lot of Spanish speakers, but they also had students at all levels of English fluency and only one teacher per class. Spanish classes were using our games as supplemental instruction to improve Spanish pronunciation and increase vocabulary.

SO … when we saw the application for Startup Chile, a seed fund investing in companies expanding into the Latin American market, it was a perfect opportunity. Yes, we were one of the small fraction of companies that made the cut and in a month I will be heading to Santiago, Chile to apply the technology developed under our U.S. Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research grant to create a game designed for Chile.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Aztech Games and Startup Chile in future blog posts but the main takeaway today is this all started to listening to someone who I was sure had something to teach me about the challenges of teaching in a small rural school.

Listen up. You never know where it will take you.

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