How one teacher made a huge difference in my life

Clayton Leach - teacher at Schuylkill Valley High School

Most of us have that one teacher who really made a difference in our lives. Mine was Clayton Leach. He was my typing and accounting teacher at Schuylkill Valley High School, in the late 80s. In Internet terminology, he was the one teacher who applied adaptive learning to my educational experience (more on that later). He was also one of those people who always set the bar for what was possible much higher than where I wanted to comfortably put it, but where I had a feeling that I could reach, if I really gave it my all. He did that for many students who entered his classroom over the years.

I first met him in my typing class. Since I had been fiddling with computers for several years, I was already pretty good with QWERTY keyboard. He quickly realized that, and started giving more challenging assignments (numbers, characters, complicated letter types, etc.) He could have just taught me the same material, on the same schedule, as everyone else in the class, but that wasn't his style. He saw potential, and felt obligated to help it be attained.

I took his accounting class at about the same time. In retrospect, I have no idea why I'd take either of these classes. It was probably to take it easy, if I remember correctly, because 16-year-old Dave was pretty good at math and methodical tasks. But when I started, I quickly accelerated through the first several classes. Mr. Leach immediately took the same approach as in typing, and told me to do a chapter per class, when the rest of the class was spending a week on the same content. He quickly had me finish the entire first book, and proceed on to others. When I asked him if I could take it easy, at some point, he was upset with me! He challenged me to compete in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) regional and state contests, and I ended up winning one of them (regional, I think).
This approach to teaching is now framed as Adaptive Learning, with companies such as DreamBox Learning, Grockit and Knewton leading the way. But great teachers like Mr. Leach made it work before it had a 15-letter name. He saw potential in students where the students didn't recognize it in themselves, and he then made it appear. He did it through sheer will, encouragement, and love -- he wanted to see us achieve our fullest potential, and for many students, I believe that their lives are markedly better and fuller for having learned from him.

Q: So, how did this impact my life? A: In pretty much every possible way. Before Mr Leach's accounting class, I had been applying to school as an aerospace engineering undergrad (I have no idea how I picked that either :-) ); after his class, I enrolled as an Accounting major, and later became a CPA. I did that for several years, and then pursued my MBA at The Wharton School and made a career transition to product development at Amazon.com. I later spent several years working in the microfinance sector, help build the JibJab team, and eventually started my own venture-backed business (TeachStreet), where I spent the first few years doing the accounting and payroll, growing the team and business, and often emptying the trash cans.

Mr. Leach was one of those people who taught me much more than any single subject. He taught me to always do a lot more than the minimum, and that pretty much any opportunity is available, if I was willing to put in the hard work to achieve it. He taught me to do things that I enjoyed, and to have fun doing it (yes, his classes were fun). He reinforced the importance of friendship, and unwavering commitment and support. He was a truly great teacher, and I'll remember him always.

To honor Mr. Leach, I aspire to treat my co-workers and employees similarly, by setting high goals (that I know/believe they can achieve), providing assistance when needed, and operating with a hands-off approach that allows for mistakes. Everyone needs the room and support to realize their potential, but they also need a kick in the pants every once in awhile. I'm so appreciative of the kicks that he gave me; they made my life so much richer.

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Schuylkill Valley teacher Clayton Leach