Brent Modak: An ASSET to Education
ACE Teaching Fellows graduate Brent Modak (ACE 18 - Denver) is the first to remind someone that, while teachers teach subjects, they first and foremost teach students. While teaching social studies and religion both in and beyond his time in ACE, Brent discovered he often had answers to students’ content-specific questions. A question about the text? No problem. He would help the student engage in a reading strategy he had learned in his social studies methods courses. A question about a student’s literacy acquisition? He’d revisit his notes and come to a reasonable explanation. But when a student confronted him with a social or emotional concern like stress or anxiety, he would find himself at a total loss for answers.
Brent didn’t let the lack of answers stop him. What was initially a gap in his own repertoire of tools and answers became a passageway into an entrepreneurial endeavor that is now changing the lives of teachers and students.
In 2015, Brent crossed paths with Tessa Zimmerman, who was speaking publicly about her childhood experiences with severe stress and anxiety while attending a private school in Connecticut. Tessa’s testimony resonated with Brent and his experiences of wrestling with his own students’ socioemotional needs, and—together—Tessa and Brent began to imagine ASSET Education, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to teaching students how to mitigate stress in the present so they can build resilience for the future.”
While social and emotional wellness might seem the cornerstones of ASSET’s vision, so too is equity. As Modak noted in an interview about the origins of ASSET, “Schools that have money often have the resources to focus on social and emotional learning. Other schools, with more meager budgets, can’t do that. One of our goals at ASSET is to partner with schools and teachers at a far-reduced price, so that all students, regardless of background, have the tools for the best future possible.”
Brent serves as the director of operations for ASSET, overseeing a cadre of curriculum designers, negotiating school and district partnerships, and handling the marketing and branding of ASSET’s curricular offerings. To date, ASSET has partnered with schools in Denver and the Armour School District of South Dakota to deliver a 32-lesson curriculum grounded in mindfulness, positive psychology, and positive self-talk that teachers can implement in their everyday teaching.
Brent said he has approached the growth of ASSET with humility. “While there are only three people directly connected to the day-to-day operating of the organization, there have been hundreds of people involved in the development of the company,” he said. His students, first and foremost, are to thank, but so too are a number of entrepreneurial mentors. For example, Terry McGraw, former chief executive officer of McGraw-Hill Education publishing company, has offered advice on entering the social-emotional curricular space of schools and school districts. The McCloskey New Venture Competition, sponsored by the IDEA Center at the University of Notre Dame, also offered valuable marketing advice to Brent and Tessa in the initial stages of their company’s development.
Through a series of case studies and interviews with 15 teachers and three schools throughout the Denver Public School System, Brent and the ASSET Education team have been able to carefully assess ASSET’s strengths and weaknesses. Learning from the feedback of teachers, students, and school leaders, Brent and Tessa are working to develop program-level partnerships with national organizations and hoping to expand into two more states in 2019.