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What Bill Gates learned from Washington state's teacher of the year

Bill Gates
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Bill Gates

Bill Gates knows a thing or two about some of engineering's most complex concepts, but the Microsoft co-founder recently learned an important lesson from an elementary school teacher.

Gates writes on his blog about meeting with Camille Jones, Washington state's 2017 teacher of the year, to talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math education.

Jones leads a STEAM lab at Pioneer Elementary in rural Quincy. Even though Pioneer is considered a "high-needs school" and enrolls a large number of English language learners and children of immigrants, every student gets a chance to learn in Jones' high-tech classroom. Students as young as 5 learn how to solve difficult math problems, collaborate on complex engineering projects and answer complicated scientific questions.

Jones works with 400 students and spends additional time with promising students. Some have critiqued her approach, saying that STEAM is only appropriate for older students.

"It breaks my heart to hear that," she told Gates. "By the time students get to fifth grade, a lot of time they have their ideas about what they're good at and what they like to do. I say, bring STEAM in from kindergarten. Let's show them all the opportunities in the world today."

By giving extra attention to a smaller group of students, Jones is able to create a lasting impact.

"I'm looking for kids who would benefit from being pushed a little harder," she said. "I see kids who are struggling buy into the idea that they should try things that are hard. And kids who are succeeding become better advocates for challenging work. When you do something difficult and new, your brain grows. It changes your attitude and your perspective on the rest of your education."

Jones likes to challenge herself as well as her students. In a video for educational organization coalition ReadyWA, she says: "Teaching has really changed me as a person and taught me how to embrace risks and challenges within my own life."

This lesson has also been ingrained in her students. Third-grader Jaelynn Larissa Felix said: "Being gritty in school is important because if you quit, you will never get that done and you will never reach your goal." Second-grader Marco Landazuri said: "As long as you don't give up, there's always a way."

Indeed a quick meeting with Jones challenged Gates to reconsider his strengths and weaknesses.

"As much as I love computers, I never got into putting them together or taking them apart the way a lot of hobbyists do," he wrote. "But maybe things would have been different if I'd had a teacher like Camille Jones."

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