Elisabeth Stock founded PowerMyLearning, a national nonprofit that leverages technology to transform teaching and learning in low-income communities, in 1999 — a time when the cloud was still in the sky, the search engine Google was only a year old and most still logged on via a dialup connection. Even then, Stock saw software’s potential to boost students’ learning, but she didn’t want to replace classroom teachers with lessons on a screen; instead, she wanted the technology to strengthen the learning relationships among students, teachers and families. Today, Stock points to growth in math proficiency (and great gains amongst children with learning disabilities) at PowerMyLearning partner schools across the country compared to similar schools.
NationSwell sat down with Stock at the organization’s offices in the Garment District of Midtown Manhattan and discussed her outlook on leadership, learning and racing a Chevy Impala with her dad.
What’s the best advice you’ve received on leadership?
There’s this expression of the mirror and the window. What really strong leaders do is this: when things go right, they look out the window to see who they can give credit to. And when things don’t go well, they look in the mirror, and say, “What did I do wrong?” Really lousy leaders do the reverse. When things go badly, they look through the window and ask, “Who can I blame?” And when things go really great, they say, “Oh, look at me! I’m so great!”
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I’m very excited about how the technology is becoming much more user-friendly for teachers to do data-driven instruction and support student-driven learning. I also think we’re at a particularly exciting moment in time because the prevalence of cell phones and smartphones in the inner city has gotten really high, which provides the ability to combine texting with other things we’re doing to help parents stay in the game with their kids’ education.
What’s on your nightstand?
It’s depressing. You really want to hear it? I’m reading “When Breath Becomes Air,” which is a book about a young doctor [Paul Kalanithi] who gets diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and decides he’s going to write a book before he dies. And then the other one I always have is “Thinking Fast and Slow,” [by winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman].
What’s your biggest need right now?
PowerMyLearning is in the process of developing our national board. Finding people who want to get involved in our work and will bring their networks, hearts, heads and wallets — all those pieces that will help us get better — is probably our number one need.
What do you wish someone had told you when you first started this job?
The key thing is to surround yourself with good people and to surround yourself with people who really believe in what you’re doing. You may meet somebody who has the best skill set for what you’re looking for, but if that person is not super excited about what you’re doing, it’s not worth it to bring them on board. They don’t have to work the same hours as you, but they have to be as committed and passionate as you.
What inspires you?
The thing that inspires me is this really strong sense of unfairness that exists, that if you are born in a certain zip code, you have different outcomes than someone else. It just seems, to me, so wrong, and I’m very driven to change that.
What’s the accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
I think it’s two things. We’re all about developing the capacity of people, so I’m very proud of helping teachers become better teachers and helping parents know how they can be more helpful for their kids at home, and then, seeing my staff do the same thing. We have people on staff who have been here for a long time and seeing them grow and develop is just so rewarding. If you can do that, you can do anything. All these other things we’re trying to make happen (like kids having better academic outcomes and socio-emotional learning), will happen if capacity is developed.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
Growing up, my father was a psychiatrist, so you’d assume that he’d be this kind of quiet, docile, glasses-wearing kind of guy. As my mom described it, she married Clark Kent but got Superman. The other side of my dad was that he was really into car racing. He could not wait until I turned 16, so I could start racing with him. He started me off taking the Chevy Impala out on weekends to race around cones in a parking lot, and eventually I graduated to a real track going 100 mile per hour on the straightaways. I think that my interests in how things work physically (I studied biomechanical engineering as an undergrad), a lot of it came from my dad.
What does your perfect day look like?
Every day is a perfect day. I don’t complain a lot. I mean a perfect day is when everyone is healthy and putting in their all, including my kids and my husband. You go home and everyone’s happy, and at work, you’re strengthening your own relationships. I’m not going to say it’s a day where you hear about some big grant or we get state test results back and our kids have done well, because those are just easy days. Those aren’t necessarily the best days. The best days are when you work hard, right?
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This article has been edited and condensed.