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Jennifer Sutherland of Beyond School: “Failure is Progress”

Failure is Progress — As a young parent I was desperately afraid of failure. I tried to do everything “right,” because I cared SO MUCH. The most freeing moment as a mother and as a leader was coming to the realization that it’s not possible to “do it right,” it’s only possible to do our best and […]

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Failure is Progress — As a young parent I was desperately afraid of failure. I tried to do everything “right,” because I cared SO MUCH. The most freeing moment as a mother and as a leader was coming to the realization that it’s not possible to “do it right,” it’s only possible to do our best and our best will vary widely based on a number of factors. When my best results in failure, this is worth celebrating because I’m building skills and learning forward.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Sutherland.

Jennifer is the CEO of Beyond School, a revolutionary new platform for self-directed learning that is the school of the future. She’s spent the last 20 years helping families create world class educational experiences outside the four walls of a classroom. She is passionate about the intersection of education and adventure and is a firm believer that learning happens everywhere.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m a teacher by training and a deep believer in the value and necessity of public schools in society, but very early my career I remember coming home from school and saying to my husband, “I don’t know what we’re going to do if we have kids… but it can’t be this.” Knowing what you don’t want and knowing what you DO want are two very different things. What followed was about five years of intensive reading on the structure and history of our institutional schools and a deep dive into alternative philosophies of education. What I discovered restructured the way I thought about how people learn and the difference between schooling (a particular method) and education (the process of learning).

Needless to say, I didn’t send my own four children to school. Instead, we opted to travel the world full time for over a decade for the express purpose of their educations. We spanned six continents and fifty or so countries during that time using the world as their classroom. All the while, I was refining my understanding of human development and how we learn from the experiences and interactions we had around the world.

In the meantime I kept meeting people who were amazed by our experience and wanted to do something similar. I began writing and speaking on alternative education, worldschooling, and the intersection of education and adventure. As more and more families found my work I began helping people think outside the box and create educational journeys as unique as their children. I eventually co-founded a non-profit, Travel Access Project, in the gap year space, and the Family Adventure Summit, which became the world’s largest gathering of families around longterm travel and education.

When the pandemic hit and the public schools floundered, the need for educational support for families skyrocketed and I found myself inundated with cries for help… and Beyond School was born! I’m endlessly grateful to Lea Jovy-Ford and Lucy Power, my co-founders, for helping pull together a robust solution that serves so many families, children and adults, so quickly. In less than a year we’ve assembled a team of experts and developed a robust alternative to traditional educational models that is remote learning at its best.

My kids are all grown up now and, in case you’re wondering, they all were accepted to their first choice schools for higher ed. One is a successful entrepreneur, one is a boat builder and sailor, one is a chef, and the youngest is training to be a commercial pilot. I find myself in this unique space in time, where so many families are having their eyes opened to the deficiencies in our educational institutions, with the bandwidth and the experience to help hold up a beacon of light on a new path. It’s been gratifying to share the tears of relief with so many parents this year as they realize that there is MORE for their families and there are solutions to the educational crisis that not only solve for the academics and socialization issues, but also build family culture, create priceless memories, and deepen relationships.

Building Beyond School feels like the culmination of my life’s work and my gift to the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting story has happened over and over. The thing that has been most fascinating to me about that story is that it’s common to most of the parents we’ve encountered: the awakening to the shortcomings of the school systems we have in place.

First, let me be absolutely clear in saying that I believe every single teacher and administrator is doing their best this year. They’ve worked SO hard to meet their students where they are at in an impossible environment. The system itself makes it impossible for these good people to succeed.

I have lost count of the parents who have opened with some version of, “I can’t believe what my kids don’t know… I expected THIS but it turns out THAT…” It’s like there has been a mass awakening this year to the reality that our blind faith in system may not have been well placed. The pandemic has provided a peek behind the curtain and a lot of parents are less than impressed with what they’re seeing.

What comes next for most of these parents is a journey that begins in panic but then leads them along a path of empowerment to a place of confidence in their child’s ability to learn and their ability to support them in that, with or without the participation of the school system.

I get excited because this awakening we’re observing is game changing for individual families and I think it’s also a tidal wave that will drive an evolution in our collective thinking about how people learn, both kids and adults.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can look back and chuckle at it now, but it wasn’t that funny when I was drowning in it. The biggest mistake I made was born out of that crisis mode we all found ourselves in last spring. People kept coming to me and looking for help and I was doing my best, one family at a time. Until there were more families than I could handle and I was working 18 hour days to make sure their kids would have better options. I was exhausted. My business partner kept telling me that we had to find a way to pull up to help more people. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees on how to accomplish that.

That AHA moment of my own physical limitations in terms of time and energy and recognizing that I was our primary bottleneck was what pushed the evolution of Beyond School from a consulting service toward platform development. We started bringing in world class experts and professionals to teach what they are passionate about. We spent the fall completely re-imagining what education could and should look like in the real world as it exists today, pandemic and all, and applying the lessons we’ve learned from more than a decade of remote work to how people of all ages learn. Solving for the human connection piece. Designing for diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism from the foundation. And building a team that has the creativity and experience to rethink the educational process entirely.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

This is the thing I’m most excited about, actually. It’s impossible to have education without social impact, but there are arguments to be made that the social impact of our existing infrastructure are negative in some important ways. Not the least of which is the systemic racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, and other “isms” that are deeply embedded.

Beyond School is being built, specifically, by and for people that aren’t well served in the existing school systems. We’ll cover all of basic academics that exist in public schools, but we also go far beyond that, as the name implies.

One of our first and most important offerings was a workshop for adults on Anti-Racism which then grew into a class for children, and then morphed into deeper resources for people of all ages available through our learning platform. Our Beyond Allies monthly action group was formed out of the first cohort of workshop graduates and it continues to be a powerhouse of action oriented individuals.

Our Gender and Sexuality course for teens morphed into an ongoing community group that is facilitated and fully supported by Lucy Power, who is a qualified therapist, coach, and youth worker. There aren’t enough safe, supervised, growth oriented spaces for kids exploring gender issues and finding their place in the world, so we created that. This group has already been life changing and life saving for some of the participants.

When the data began to emerge about the mental health implications for children as the pandemic dragged on, Lucy leapt into action and created three full weeks of daily mental health education and support for both kids and parents that we made available to the whole world, for free. People struggling with mental health can’t learn as easily and giving kids and parents the skills to cope and develop resiliency is foundational.

Of course filling the gaps and replacing the existing educational infrastructure for hundreds of children this year has also had a massive social impact. Every day, we hear from parents whose kids were hating school, hating learning, and in a funk, parents who were at their wits end with what was being required of them by their local schools, and what was not being delivered for their kids expressing gratitude for the immediate change in their family learning experience through Beyond School.

It feels really good to be providing that kind of breath of fresh air and empowerment for families during what has been a universally difficult time.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Karrie Heneman came to me in tears, last spring, looking for solutions for her family. A year later, she’s a core member of our team and “in for life” as she puts it. Karrie is a mom of four and also has a PhD in nutrition. Through Beyond School she found the educational solution for her kids and also an outlet for her life’s work and passion!

Her kids have remained in public school, remotely, throughout this year but as their district’s offerings have continued to deteriorate, she’s ramped up the learning for her kids through Beyond School. Her paediatrician told her, recently, that her children are some of the only kids she’s seen who are coping well with the pandemic this year. Karrie directly credits that to what she’s learned as a parent and what they are learning together through Beyond School.

This past fall, Karrie came on board as our nutrition expert. She’s built resources for pre-schoolers through adults around nutrition, developing cooking skills, healthy body image, and relationship to food. You can find her on social media at Family Meals First. She’s totally amazing and we LOVE that even our our preschool students have a teacher with a doctorate in nutrition teaching them the basics of how to cut and measure.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are so many things that could be done and so many good people trying. I don’t know that the political or larger societal will exists to address the root problem in education. It’s become such a big beast with so many financial incentives stacked against change. The realization I came to, as a parent, was that I wasn’t going to be able to make change as a teacher within the system. The only thing I could control was the experience my kids had and trust that that impact would grow in concentric circles, which it has.

At the community level, I think there’s a LOT of opportunity for change, and these would be my top three things for parents and individual teachers and administrators to dig into:

Educate Yourself

Start reading about the history of education. Then move on to alternative philosophies of education. Follow the movers and the shakers and unbox your own thinking first. Making the mental shift is the first step. Think through what education means, what our goals are, and start asking WHY things are the way they are, WHY we believe the things we do, and whether those things are true or not.

Take the Wheel

Stop outsourcing control of your child’s (and your own) education, immediately. You are in the driver’s seat. You decide for yourself and your child. Your local school works for you. No one is more invested in your, or your child’s, success than you are. Trust that and become the director of your own educational process.

Collaborate

All of the best things happen in community. Find your tribe. Find the people who are doing what you want to be doing. Experiment, test, and succeed together. If you can’t find your people, send me an email. I’ll help you find them! Education is and always has been a collaborative experience.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the willingness to leap off the cliff first. To me, leadership is building community around an idea and empowering people to be their best and do their best towards a common goal. It’s about service and humility as we learn together. It’s about honouring and supporting the members of my team in their journeys as we forge a greater path together than any of us could alone. Good leaders seek to develop a culture of trust and authenticity where people are invited and encouraged to show up and do their best, fail spectacularly in the attempt at greatness, and learn forward together.

As one example of leadership in the realm of ongoing education, Lucy and I were both in the first cohort of the Anti-Racism workshop that Beyond School offered. No one asked us to be or suggested that we should register, but as white women building an organization on a platform of DE&I and Anti-Racism we both recognized that our own work is ongoing and must be done first and publicly. We continue show up in the Beyond Allies group and be challenged to go deeper. And we pay for that, because good leaders put their money where their mouths are and we don’t expect to get a “free pass” on anything just because we’re at the top.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Learning Happens Everywhere

This isn’t the motto of Beyond School by accident! The subtle message we all absorb as we grow up is that learning happens at school and everything else is “not that.” Wrong. Learning happens everywhere and it’s happening all the time. The tricks are in learning to recognize and trust that and getting intentional about how to facilitate and quantify the outcomes.

Case in point: the best two years of my education were 3rd grade and 8th grade, when I did not attend school and we traveled instead. It was that experience that gave me the confidence to chart a different path with my own children.

Schooling Does Not Equal Education

Schooling is a construct and a framework; a delivery device, if you will. Education is a process that everyone is undergoing, throughout all of life. Sometimes school is employed in delivering education, sometimes not.

So many parents this year have asked me, “What should we do about school?” Wrong question. “What should we do about education?” Better question. Educating is happening whether school is or not!

As CEO, I’m learning every day, and it’s not happening in school, it’s happening everywhere.

Failure is Progress

As a young parent I was desperately afraid of failure. I tried to do everything “right,” because I cared SO MUCH. The most freeing moment as a mother and as a leader was coming to the realization that it’s not possible to “do it right,” it’s only possible to do our best and our best will vary widely based on a number of factors. When my best results in failure, this is worth celebrating because I’m building skills and learning forward.

As leaders, we should celebrate and encourage failure from a growth oriented perspective.

Network is Everything

If there is one thing business & entrepreneurship has taught me, it’s that network is everything. Case in point: Lea Jovy-Ford. We’ve worked together off and on for more than a dozen years. A year ago on a coffee Zoom she listened to my plan to start helping “a few people” with their educational woes as the schools ground to a halt and then casually asked, “Would you like help with that?” Yes. Yes I would.

Connect with people. Not with an eye towards what’s in it for you, but with a service mindset and openness to collaboration. It’s always who you know.

Think Bigger

Think Bigger is written at the top of my white board in my office. Think and dream as big as you can, and then push it to the next level. If you can’t see what “bigger” is from where you’re standing, find someone with a ladder. There are a couple of specific people in my life who I go to when I need to be pushed. They point out where I’m thinking small and challenge me to level up. Find these people in your life. They’re scary great.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We’re doing it now with Beyond School. All of the good in the world and all of the change in the world starts with education somewhere for someone. Education is human evolution and we’re pushing hard to shift that. The next big thing at Beyond School will be creating a truly accessible option that is free, if it needs to be, to democratize the educational alternatives. We truly believe that learning happens everywhere and it should be available to everyone. If someone reading this is doing a fist pump on that right now, call me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t have just one, I have hundreds. My dad has collected a “Wisdom File” over the arc of his life that is packed with life lessons and quotes. This one, included in that, rises to the surface often:

“What people say you cannot do, you try and find you can.”

I find this almost always to be true and I was raised with this in mind. Human beings, particularly in groups, are fabulous naysayers and seem to get a lot of joy out of shouting down the box breakers and change makers. I’ve taken a lot of flak over the years from people who believed what I was actively doing was impossible, or wrong, or in some way beyond my reach. Many of the same people return later to wonder aloud at the miracle of a particular result.

Once, when I was expressing uncertainty over a ridiculously big undertaking, my brother said to me, “These people who are telling you you can’t… have they actually DONE anything themselves? Because when the 90% of people who haven’t done a thing are telling you you’re nuts, that’s right where you want to be. It’s when the 10% of people with experience speak up that you should listen.”

That advice steadied my ship. I did the thing: spent a decade traveling full time with my kids and educating them in the world. That thing lead directly to Beyond School and changing the educational game for thousands, maybe millions before we’re done; who knows!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oooh… great question. I have a list, actually, of people I want to sit across the table from and think bigger with. But, at the top for right now is Brene Brown. I really appreciate her work in leadership, particularly for women, and I know she’s got an interest and an initiative in education. I’d love to talk with her about how to take Daring Classrooms beyond actual classrooms and expand global impact. I think there are some ways we could collaborate to push the envelope bigger, better, and faster together. Brene… call me, lady, let’s talk!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My personal social media is @jennlately on IG and FB. On Twitter it’s @jenn.lately

Follow Beyond School @beyondschool.co

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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©2020 Belinda Chiu
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