In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, Alex Lipoff '07, founder and owner of GiftEd Philly, recounts memorable experiences and faculty members from his time at Haverford; discusses what led him into the fields of education, psychology, and tutoring; and gives advice to current students about how they can best serve the world.
Can you recount a memorable Haverford School experience or faculty member?
I had a US History teacher named Sam Heed in V Form. He’s not there anymore, but his wife Janet is. The Heeds were huge in my life. Sam Heed was unlike any teacher I’d ever had before or imagined; he was a force of nature. Even though the content we were covering was important, and was tied to how well you did, there was really no rhyme or reason for the grade that you got. There were times I remember scoring in the 70s, 80s on a test and Mr. Heed would take me aside and tell me how proud he was, and there were other times where kids were scoring in the 90s and he would tell them that they weren’t performing at their best. The whole reason I bring up this point is because it stopped mattering your outcome when it came to learning. The outcome was totally de-prioritized. What was more important to Mr. Heed was the person you were being while you were learning.
I’ll never forget, he took me aside at the end of the class. He put his finger in my chest and he said, “Alex Lipoff, you better be somebody someday. You better make something of yourself.” I think it really felt meaningful to me because I knew I wasn’t the most excellent student in the class, but it had nothing to do with that. It was something he saw in me about the person I was and the values I wanted to carry forward. When he said that to me it felt like this was a person who knew me, beyond what the standard student-teacher relationship was. It was above and beyond - and that was Sam Heed to a tee. Mr. Heed lived by this principle - that it’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about who you’re being while you’re doing it. I really have carried that forward and thought about the fact that whatever you’re doing in the moment, whether you’re picking up trash, or you’re teaching a class, or you’re running for public office, it’s about who you’re being while you’re doing it that’s important or of value.
I also have to acknowledge Janet Heed and Michael Reichert, who still run peer mentorship, which was another powerful experience for me. I think I ended up going into education and psychology because of that experience. It functions like group counseling. One of the most important things we learned was active and engaged listening. I think that has had a big role in my life not only as someone who’d become a future clinician, but in my relationships and with my family. The ability to listen and be more present in my life was a true gift. Throughout my college and graduate school years, Michael Reichert continued to be a mentor. I would attend his co-counseling workshops, he would meet me for coffee or for lunch, and we would talk about my career path and how to enter into the world of counseling and psychology. He actually recommended me when I applied as a first-time teacher to Hun School in Princeton and then he wrote on my behalf to both the UPenn and Temple counseling programs. He’s an amazing person.
I’ll never forget, [Mr. Heed] took me aside at the end of the class. He put his finger in my chest and he said, “Alex Lipoff, you better be somebody someday. You better make something of yourself.” I think it really felt meaningful to me because I knew I wasn’t the most excellent student in the class, but it had nothing to do with that. It was something he saw in me about the person I was and the values I wanted to carry forward.
What led you from teaching in the classroom to founding your tutoring company, GiftEd Philly?
Starting from when I was 22 years old, I taught for five years at the Hun School in Princeton teaching high school English and creative writing, and I absolutely loved my job. One of the things I started to realize was that the highlight for me were those times when I was alone in my classroom, and a kid would poke in and ask to talk. It has nothing to do with what’s happening in class, but they need to talk because they feel like you are a person who can help them talk through problems - with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or an disagreement with their parents, or to discuss what sport they should play in the spring. These things for a kid are on the forefront of their hearts and minds every day. The actual things that we were studying in my class were the least interesting things to me about the class. I was much more interested in what was happening in kids’ lives and how they saw the world and the kind of people they were growing up to become. It occurred to me after a couple years in the profession that that is a full-time job I could do – talk to kids and families about their lives and their emotional worlds. I decided I wanted to go back to school.
With that decision, I left Princeton, went back to Philadelphia to start a degree in counseling psych at Temple. While I was in that degree program, which was three-and-a-half years, I started tutoring a Haverford seventh grader. And all of a sudden, without even trying, over those years, I was working with around 20 families a week, tutoring on the side outside of my studies. At that time, I thought I was going to become a therapist. Upon graduation, I looked at what was happening and said, this is a business. This is something people aren’t doing. And when I say that – everyone is tutoring and getting tutored, especially in Main Line schools. Kids and families are not strangers to tutors. But the things that weren’t happening, in my opinion, were people who understood the complex interplay between what’s happening into the psycho-social world and what’s happening in the cognitive world, simultaneously as a child is learning. It turns out this is actually a field of study in the world of psychology and education, and it’s actually Michael Reichert’s area of expertise. It’s called relational pedagogy –a teaching technique or strategy that centers on the relationship between a learner and an instructor.
I now know would have been so much better as a teacher if I had known these things before I started in the classroom - the ability to profoundly relate to someone, to understand them on their level, to be generous, not to be so harsh or hold themselves to such a high standard all the time, which as a young teacher I felt like I had to do. Even if that may be good for compliance and classroom management, it’s actually kind of destructive to the learning experience and the relationship that needs to be central for powerful learning to happen. I only learned things about profoundly relating to kids and what it does to the brain after I left the classroom and was in Temple. It occurred to me that nobody is really doing this in the world of tutoring, where content is always prioritized and most often tutoring is a short-term band-aid to fix a problem. Once the problem is fixed, the tutor goes on their way never to interact with that child or family again. That’s the opposite of what we did at GiftEd. We start relationally, and we build really powerful bonds with kids and families so that we end up becoming important people in their lives. And that’s not just an academic solution. I have families who call and they want advice about how to help their kids in areas outside of the classroom too – things like family conflict, going through grief, or going through a parental separation or divorce. I’ve worked with families and helped advise in all those different areas when it comes to making sure the wheels and the train stays on the track academically. That has become our area of expertise - the interaction between the academic world and what’s happening in the emotional and social worlds of that student.
We start relationally, and we build really powerful bonds with kids and families so that we end up becoming important people in their lives. And that’s not just an academic solution...That has become our area of expertise - the interaction between the academic world and what’s happening in the emotional and social worlds of that student.
Can you talk more about how the philosophy of GiftEd sets you apart from other tutoring companies?
One of the guiding principles of GiftEd is that for us, while we are experts in content, the content is not the most important thing while we’re working. But you’d think, wait, aren’t you a tutoring company, isn’t your whole world content? Actually, what we believe is that same thing that Mr. Heed lived by – that it’s who you’re being while you’re working and not what you’re working on, that is much more determinative of how powerful that learning experience is. It’s about recognizing the child and where they are, and it’s throwing out the need for the teacher in the paradigm to be necessarily an expert in content. What we’re experts in are building relationships with kids and families - and it’s only through that that powerful learning experiences happen.
We typically believe – and the research is actually really supportive of this – that for most students who learn within the normal range, who have normal cognitive abilities, most often if they are not achieving academically, it is not a cognitive issue. It’s actually something that’s happening in the psychological or social realm – lack of feelings of connectivity or not having a powerful relational bond either to your peers or to the instructor. The role of a GiftEd tutor is to actually replace that relationship that’s not working in order to help open up the student to feeling motivated, into working differently, and into making changes. It’s the same thing that happens in therapy if you’re trying to get someone to make other kinds of changes in their life that are hard. The motivation that comes to make those changes only happens through relationships. It’s the same exact thing when a child is learning – to get them to change something they’re doing, and to try harder or to try differently, that’s impossible to do without establishing a relationship first. That is what we focus on at GiftEd as the pillar of the experience for kids and families.
No child doesn’t like to learn. That’s not how the human brain is wired. And no child doesn’t like to be socially connected. The human brain is wired to want to be connected, to want to do well, to please others, to achieve, because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. The kids don’t know about the complex philosophy behind the company, but they like it because it works, and all of a sudden, they’re doing better in school, and they’re looking forward to their meetings with their tutor, and it doesn’t feel like drills or rote practice. It feels like this person who you like, who’s your fun teammate or buddy. There’s no hierarchy like there is in the classroom, so it feels like a good meaningful experience for kids and families. When we start with a kid and a family there’s no one thing that we do – it all depends on who the kid is, who the family is, what the goal is. It’s just like when you walk into therapy – there’s no way of knowing what the treatment will be. It’s something that evolves and becomes different over the course of the relationship.
Also, part of GiftEd’s mission is that there is a service component where we use the, for lack of a better word, sticker price that Main Line families are able to pay for private tutoring, which is enough for us to pay for students who have no ability to pay for or access these services. We provide identical services to any family who wouldn’t necessarily be able to pay for it, at any degree of discount. We have currently about 10% of our students on some level of scholarship, anywhere from 50% discount to full tuition.
I think there is also a way to do anything in the world as an act of service. To figure out how, the question that I learned that I would like them to ask themselves is: Where does your great passion meet the world’s great hunger? And that’s a slightly different answer for each person.
What advice do you have for current students?
I think the thing I would want for Haverford students to do is to think about the way in which they would like to serve the world. There are a lot of ways to serve yourself, and I think the Haverford community and Haverford network do a really nice job of showing kids how they can do that. There’s a lot of models for how one can serve oneself – it has to do with athletic achievement, academic achievement, and conventional success. I think there is also a way to do anything in the world as an act of service. To figure out how, the question that I learned that I would like them to ask themselves is: Where does your great passion meet the world’s great hunger? And that’s a slightly different answer for each person. One, because we have different great passions, and each person is wired differently to have skills in different ways, but we also see the world’s great hunger differently as well. And that has to do with our values, the way we’ve learned to see the world, the role models in our lives who have taught us to see things in certain ways. But living a life of service – it’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about who you’re being while doing it, as I first learned from Mr. Heed. It’s become a mantra of mine, in that that’s how you can go into a field like banking and still serve the world. You can go into medicine or law or any other conventional field, where it’s easy to make money, it’s easy to be respected, and to have power, but answering that question about your great passion and the world’s great hunger, and where they intersect, it’s a different way of thinking about doing well. It’s how you can do good and do well simultaneously.
Alex Lipoff ’07 was a Lifer at Haverford. He is the founder of GiftEd Philly, which offers high-quality and student-centered academic and emotional support services. Learn more at https://giftedphilly.com or on Instagram @giftedphilly.
Photos courtesy of Alex Lipoff '07: pictured on right with 2007 classmates DJ Kurz, Thomas Lindberg, and Dominic Origlio.