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Straight-Up Conversation: ClassDojo's Sam Chaudhary

Three years ago, I spoke with Sam Chaudhary, co-founder of the then-new ed tech outfit ClassDojo. I was impressed with ClassDojo's focus on helping teachers solve practical problems relating to classroom culture and climate. Today, Class Dojo reports that teachers in more than half the nation's schools are using its offerings to assist with classroom management, social and emotional development, and parent engagement. Worldwide, ClassDojo is used by over three million teachers. A former high school teacher, Sam Chaudhary is CEO of ClassDojo and was recently named one of LinkedIn's top education influencers under 35. With the start of a new school year, I thought it'd be a good time to check in with Chaudhary, hear more about where ClassDojo is at, and what it means for the role of education technology.

Rick Hess: For those readers who aren't familiar with Class Dojo, what should they know? What are you guys about?

Sam Chaudhary: It's been a while, good to be back in touch. It's funny, when I was reading Cage-Busting Teacher this summer I was thinking how closely it's focus on helping teachers solve problems aligned with why we started the company. [Co-founder] Liam [Don] and I both had backgrounds in education. I had taught for a while and worked with the education group at McKinsey. Liam had a PhD. What we both brought to ClassDojo was a deep faith and belief in teachers and parents and kids— the human beings in the system. Our theory is that we have teachers, parents, and kids who want to move education forward and that if you give them a simple path to do good things, they'll do them. We wanted to help them with their frustrations.

Parent engagement and creating a positive classroom are hugely important, but no one has been rigorous about making these things easy and achievable. Teachers are like: "Where do I start?" We wanted to make a practical tool that teachers can use to address some of these constraints.  At the foundation of any progressive company are the culture, values, and relationships. We started with this foundation. When Liam and I moved to California, we had a belief that teachers want better for their kids. We trusted the teachers. What if we could give them a simple path to get beyond industrial era methods?

RH: How is that approach similar to or different from the way we usually talk about education technology?

SC: We took a different approach than most in education technology. We believe in consumers. We went to the consumers rather than to districts. We started the company in the summer of 2011, and it was bizarre the way education technology was implemented. You'd go sell to districts, and then they'd push it down to the teachers, parents and kids. The rest of the world is moving in a consumer direction, with the idea that you go the consumer, to the user of technology. We thought, "We should try that in education." It sounds obvious now, but at the time it was a bizarre approach.

RH: So, what is it that you guys actually do? What does ClassDojo provide?

SC: When Liam and I first started, we talked to a few hundred teachers, and asked them, "How can we help with the most difficult things you face every day?" The first thing teachers told us was that every classroom has a culture. Teachers gradually build that culture through classroom management. It's a painful process that takes a lot of time. It's a lot of carrots and sticks, detention sheets, discipline trackers, and the like. All the tools they've been given are reminiscent of the industrial age. We were like, "We can help you move beyond that to something less painful." The result was the first product Class Dojo built, a way for teachers to give kids positive feedback.

The idea really resonated. We were in California for six weeks— four weeks talking to teachers and two weeks building this low-tech web application as an easy way to give feedback to kids. For the first week, 80 teachers were using it in Palo Alto. Then the next month it was 12,000, and then the month after that, 30,000. It was kind of crazy. It all grew by word of mouth, just one teacher telling another teacher. That first product was just a simple way to help teachers build a different kind of culture in their classroom.

RH: If that was the first product, what came next?

SC: The second thing we did was try to take those cultures and relationships beyond the classroom and into family engagement. Engaging parents is a really difficult problem for teachers. Parents would turn up once a semester for a parent teacher conference, or would only hear when things are going badly.  There's nowhere else in our lives where we build a relationship by talking once every four months! We gave teachers and parents an easy way to share text messages, to share videos, the kinds of things we see on Instagram or Snapchat every day and that go beyond the electronic delivery of homework.  The core of ClassDojo now is about finding easier ways for teachers to build that positive classroom culture by encouraging kids and sharing with parents. And teachers want it. They love it. That's why we're in 70,000 schools today.

RH: So, when you say that you're in 70,000 U.S. schools, what does that actually mean?

SC: We don't mean that those entire schools are necessarily using ClassDojo, but that there are classrooms in the school that are using it. A teacher will sign up and get the app. It's free. When they sign up, they'll put in their email and basic information [including their school]. Internationally, we have on the order of about three million teachers around the world in about 100 countries. There are eight or nine of those countries with an exciting-sized group of people. We're now translated into about 40 languages.

RH: Who does the translating?

SC: That's not been us. Liam and I weren't thinking about going international when we started. It was all organic word of mouth stuff. It jumped to Vietnam and Turkey, with a huge adoption there, and even India and China. We had to handle inbound requests from teachers about using Hindi or Turkish. We're like a 20-person team, we couldn't make 40 different versions.  But we made software which helps teachers in those countries translate the application. It's like Facebook, in that it's a community-led translation

RH: How is ClassDojo being used in classrooms?

SC: Teachers pick Class Dojo up on day one and we prompt them: What kind of things do you want to achieve in the classroom this year? What are the values that you and your class will embrace this year? We find that teachers will do this with kids. These tend to be things like curiosity, persistence, working hard, looking out for each other.  These are the things they will recognize this year. They'll have their phone open and just use it to recognize these things during the year. A student gets a "plus one" for doing one of them. The kids start to understand what's important in their classroom. That's a common use case, to encourage this specific set of values, to help create this classroom culture.  

We get teachers writing in every week with stories. A third grade teacher had this girl with extreme anxiety who was uncomfortable contributing and stayed quiet. Other students were like, "Emily is really quiet all the time, we think she might be scared. Can we encourage her to be brave and speak out?" So the class added a bravery item. The whole class would call Emily out and support her when she spoke up. Over the semester, she became one of biggest contributors in her classroom. If you give parents and kids a simple way to do good things, they will.

RH: Okay, other examples?

SC: The second thing is communication with parents. In the past, teachers would say, "Here's the homework folder with a piece of paper in it." Or they'd send documents home through email lists and listservs, or they'd call parents every couple weeks— especially when things got off the rails. But that doesn't create real engagement. It makes your heart sink as a parent, because parents want to see what happened in class that day and not just a reminder for homework.

We gave teachers and parents an easy way to send texts and pictures to each other. It's simple technology; it's not rocket science. We have a mom working three jobs, who told us, "This has changed my life, because for the first time I can have a meaningful conversation about what happened in school today. I can ask her about what happened, or tell me about a certain project that looked cool."

RH: What's next?

SC: Now that we've got this foundation in millions of classrooms, we think you can start to create really interesting applications on top of that. We see more and more teachers using Class Dojo to encourage social emotional learning. Ninety-five percent of teachers agree that social emotional learning is important and that students shouldn't just be memorizing facts. Teachers have given kids over 2.5 billion pieces of feedback with ClassDojo— that's the equivalent of every kid in the world being encouraged by their teacher. These are fantastic ideas, but they have never been broadly distributed before.

Three months ago, we launched a feature called "Class Story." It's an Instagram or a newsfeed for the classroom, and is shared with the teacher, parents and kids. Teachers can post updates, and it will go out to everyone. We're beginning to reach out to some academics and partners, and ask, "Can we start to present ideas to teachers on this newsfeed? Can we add a card that would say 'Work hard' instead of 'You're smart'?" You can deliver this tiny nudge to three million teachers overnight. That's something totally new.

RH: Are teachers incorporating this into their grading?

SC: We've seen a little bit of that, but we don't encourage it. We're more excited to see them talking about it and to see teachers encourage it. The measures for social emotional learning are still pretty new. It will come in time, but when it comes, we want it to be really good and not some hokey measure.

RH: Obviously, privacy has been a serious concern lately. Especially given the kind of data you're seeking, how does that play out for you?

SC: Everyone in the industry takes privacy seriously. But it's also difficult because it's an industry in transition. It's in so much change that lawmakers and policy haven't really quite kept up. But there's also an opportunity to gain a tremendous amount of trust. It's incumbent on every company, especially those that have been widely adopted, to show leadership. We just treat it as a way of doing business— privacy is a core principle. That means we go above the law in privacy commitment. We respect FERPA and all that, of course. That's the bare minimum. But we have a privacy advisory board and privacy reviews every few weeks. We have an international privacy council, as well as third party audits to make sure everything is safe. We just make privacy a part of the way we do things.

RH: Last question. You're a for-profit venture. So how is the revenue side of this working?

SC: There we've been pretty clear. Early on, it was just, "Can we make something that people want and that's helpful for teachers, parents and kids?" That's what we've done. We want to continue pursuing this mission. To do that, we're going to have [to generate revenue] in order to be sustainable. That means at some point in the future, we'll put in optional paid features for parents and schools. In the next year, we'll start exploring the model for those paid options. But we think ClassDojo should always be free for teachers and kids. That's not going to change.

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