May 26, 2023

NGPF Podcast: Zachary Baquet of Wayfinder on Empowering Teens

Zachary Baquet, Partner Success Manager at Wayfinder, shares his insights on empowering teens with essential life skills and fostering resilience, empathy, and self-awareness through Social Emotional Learning (SEL).


Ren Makino: Hi, this is Ren from Next Gen Personal Finance and you're listening to the NGPF podcast. Today on the show, Tim speaks to the Partner Success Manager at Wayfinder, Zachary Baquet. Wayfinder is a tech company that develops socioemotional learning, commonly referred to as SEL, and human development tools for educational settings from middle school to college and beyond. Zach shares with us his pathway from studying street performances in Ecuador, becoming a high school teacher in his home city of New Orleans, and joining Wayfinder. You'll hear about his passion for the concept of belonging and I'm sure you'll find some tricks to use in your classroom to encourage students to feel that they belong. Enjoy. 

Tim Ranzetta: Really excited to have Zach here. Welcome Zach. 

Zachary Baquet: Thanks for having me, Tim. I appreciate it. 

[00:00:44] Career Path to Getting to Wayfinder

Tim Ranzetta: You have an incredible background. I mean, you talk about varied experiences, you've done a lot in your short career. I always find it helpful for folks to understand, you know, the background, where people are coming from, cause I really think that definitely gives us a certain worldview or insights into education. You've had a lot of different roles. 

Zachary Baquet: My first role I guess as an educator. I found myself in a PhD program studying street performance on the streets of Lima, Peru. And I thought I was gonna do that for the rest of my life. I was having a blast. I thought it was gonna be my life's work. I found myself working in a lot of nonprofits during that time, actually trying to visit street performers and meet with them in their spaces and learn the trade. And I found myself, for a summer, being a music teacher slash PE coach, believe it or not, in Quito, Ecuador. 

And it was after teaching and researching in Latin America that I made the transition. I found myself, you know, fast forward to teaching students on the weekends and Upward Bound in Indiana. And then eventually made the transition to teach Spanish full-time and moved back to New Orleans. That's where I'm born and raised in New Orleans. In fact, my first teaching job was at my alma mater. Started off as teaching Spanish, eventually moved into doing math as well given my college training and then worked my way into some admin positions, eventually into Dean of Students and Assistant Principal was my last post for like five years.

Tim Ranzetta: We got a lot to unpack there. Okay, so you go into education, progressed in the classroom, teach several different subjects, move on to an administrative role as Dean of Students. And I wonder how that informs, and we're gonna go deeper into social emotional learning, but kind of the work you're doing today.

Zachary Baquet: Well, it's all about relationships. I think there's so much of me trying to form relationships and trying to be curious, just naturally curious as educate about people's stories and then acknowledging the fact that stories matter. But like all stories matter. So as educators, we have to spend a lot of time talking with people, meeting parents. What I became very passionate about was collaborating with people. And building what I like to call capital. So, as a dean of students that was my day in and day out job servant leadership, showing people that, Hey, I'm here to do anything. Whether a teacher, whether it's parents, the smallest things in the world, because when that's always just those entry points into those stories, into those conversations. I prided myself on being the guy who opened the door for everybody in the morning. Cause that's often when I would get the stories.

[00:03:22] Servant Leadership

Tim Ranzetta: So you used the term servant leadership. I'd love to know where you came across that concept. You know, who introduced that to you? And like, who did you model yourself after? What's behind that? 

Zachary Baquet: Oh man, Tim, you asking these amazing questions I feel like it's gonna open a door. So my grandfather, his dad started a restaurant in 1947 in New Orleans, and it's still open today. It's called Lil Dizzy's Cafe. It's not a plug. Go check it out. My parents run it today, but he's the guy who really, really introduced me to servant leadership. He was the guy at the door every single morning at the restaurant. He was the one that picked up his employees and dropped them off and always made sure that that, they were taken care of. And it wasn't just about them being a cook or, or anything like that. I got a chance to witness as a kid growing up there and then like seeing him put that on full display in his, in the way he ran that restaurant. And that impacted my dad and the way he runs his company. It's a really great model and it's a way in which I think educators can continue to fill their cup while getting the context they need to be able to do the important work, like monitor and respond to what students actually need. 

[00:04:30] State of Mental Health

Tim Ranzetta: Let's shift gears now. We're gonna talk a little bit more about Wayfinder. But before we do that, you've got a perspective given your work into this, this state of mental health. I kind of wonder, you know, what are you seeing in your work? There's a lot of media out there, a lot of reporting, but I always like the on the ground kind of here's what we're seeing. 

Zachary Baquet: I feel like right now educators are looking for ways to know what's going on with kids because there's this huge push in education to, like data, data, data. We need data points. However, I think what's occurring is folks, even in small schools who feel like they should know all the kids, every kid, the dad, the mom, the grandmother, they went to the school, they, they live around a corner, et cetera. What they're noticing is that kids are walking through the hallways one way and they're also walking through like these virtual hallways in their pocket, and it's the social media and it's the cyber bullying and it's the pressures. And it's like you're dealing with almost two kids that you have to be mindful of. I feel like folks are really looking for proactive tools to be talking about what kids are going through. Because responding to it, it's harder sometimes to know what the root cause is. Because there's so much context that's kind of hidden. It's like this tacit confrontation that's going on that's not very tangible. 

[00:05:51] Story Behind Wayfinder 

Tim Ranzetta: Yeah. That seems like a great segue into your organization, Wayfinder. Maybe let's kind of start at a high level in terms of what your organization's trying to do to help, I won't say solve the problem cuz there are a lot of variables involved, but try and improve the mental health of teens and then we'll get into more depth about the products that you offer. 

Zachary Baquet: The purpose of it is to try and give schools the extra piece that is just not inherently built into the tool belt. I did a ton of research as instructional coach and a assistant principal on explicit math curriculum and making sure we had formative assessment tools and do nows and how we establishing prior knowledge before we do two step equations like. To nausea. Like we spend a lot of time in those meetings making sure that our curriculum is robust and that we're constantly improving it. And there's a lot of research around why we do what we do to make sure we can move the needle where we need to move it. And I feel like a lot of folks have either have experienced doing that or even have received explicit training in their teaching to be equipped to have those conversations.

But Wayfinders feeling a void, I feel like with what schools have in their tool belt, which is, I don't have anything on this. Like constantly moving target on social media or unpacking influencers. That's something we need be talking about. Digital literacy or like what does it mean to belong in the cafeteria? It goes beyond awareness though. And that's the other, the big thing that Wayfinder is doing. We're not trying to create awareness around these things. There's tons of documentaries and videos or something we could put on for students to understand bullying. What I think has been missing is that when you've learned about one step equations, there's like 90 problems for you to practice, so you make sure you know how to do it. That's we're providing in our activities. It's like, okay, we all know what bullying is, but can we practice how to create a culture where we don't bully or what we can create a culture that is driven by these community agreements rooted in empathy or active listening. And I think that's what we've been doing with schools a ton. It's not cookie cutter stuff either. Empathy looks different. It has to be relative to their context.

[00:07:59] Financial Literacy and SEL 

Tim Ranzetta: So it sounds like you've got activities kind of really quick and easy to implement. But I know somebody out there is probably wondering, what do you got on financial literacy? 

Zachary Baquet: Yeah. So the biggest things that we have on financial literacy is we have these things called collections and one of them is on future ready skills. You can talk all you want about like loans or something like that. But if we don't really think about those, those underlying pieces, like choices and then having an intent and an impact, that could be troublesome.

 This particular activity is really quick. It's only 10 minutes and it works great all the way down to third grade, but all the way up to 12th, you can change these prompts to be whatever you like. I've had people change them to math prompts, to physics prompts, to financial literacy prompts, to digital literacy prompts, and students are moving back and forth across the room to say strongly agree or strongly disagree.

Now, if you got a bunch of 12th graders and you're like, I'm not getting up, I'm just gonna raise my hand. But I'm telling you, those, those sixth graders, those ninth graders, they're, you know, there's not a big difference between a ninth grader and an eighth grader and all. We like to think that they wake up when they go to freshman year and they're like, all right, but they love to move too. Read out those questions and then especially if there's anything that you guys have been going over in those personal finance or financial literacy classes, like help them move across the room to be able to answer those questions and reflect. So that's one.

And then this is a little bit more specific on budgets. Which again, is a little bit more granular, but learning about what a personal budget is, you know, asking them, like breaking them out into groups. Everything is experientially based at Wayfinder. So break them out to groups. Give them a task, give them that big sticky note. Tell the groups to make those lists, right? Get them really in the saddle of you're living at home and you're working full-time. What's the plan? Are you trying to get, you know, that sports car? Are you trying to save up? What's the plan? Are you investing that money? Are you saving it? So giving folks the prompts and the talking points to be able to guide a, a quick activity like that. 

And then also creating a space for these frames to be, this is what personal finance looks like, but also what's your story? Tell me about your story. Tell me about, your experience, why we need to celebrate difference in uniqueness. Because maybe your understanding and vision, going back to that capital piece, your view on this may be different because your story's different. And how do we celebrate that? Rather than being like, oh no, Zach's got a different perspective on this. 

Tim Ranzetta: Two things I love about that one is choices. I mean this idea of agency, like no, there's a predetermined path and this is what I'm gonna go down instead of like, no, actually there's, you know, there's different kind of opening people's eyes to those perspectives. I think is so important. And then talking things out, right? It's easy to put a number in a spreadsheet, but now we're gonna talk about it and you're gonna discover that you know what you love cars. And for me, a car has four wheels on it, and it gets me to where I need to go A and B, and I get a dent in the back of my car and I fix it four years later. I bet there's a story behind why you love cars, and there's a story why, for me, a car is utilitarian.

Zachary Baquet: I think that that's what gets sometimes lost in the explicit construction component of some of these topics. We do that in math too. I mean, that's, I like to think that social-emotional or SEL is the gateway to sound pedagogy. I wish I had a shirt that said that, because that is how we start. We start off a conversation around one step equations by saying, hey, what's everybody's comfort level with variables? How are we actually creating a space where we could say, can you tell me what your relationship with loans are, credit cards, et cetera. Where's your story? Because without your story, it's hard for you to build something new on top without understanding what was there previously.

[00:11:44] Creating Belonging 

Tim Ranzetta: Talk a little bit about how you infuse, I mean, I think this is kind of core to what you guys are talking is the psychology behind decision making, the psychology behind financial literacy or just kind of how that gets weaved into throughout your curriculum and your activities. 

Zachary Baquet: Going back to like Wayfinders origin story, it's all about helping students find their purpose. What does it mean to make a meaningful contribution to something? And so much of that is defined by what people care about. It's so much of that is defined by what is important for them. And again, going back to that root cause, what's their story? And so we acknowledge that future ready skills and purpose, same sandbox, can't start talking about making a meaningful contribution to something without acknowledging that there are some durable skills that need to be on the docket.

The lesson plan they get from the next door neighbor teacher who's a rockstar, who's been doing it for 30 years, in fact. That teacher may be further removed from the TikTok phenomenon that's happening. So like, how do we make sure that 30 year vet also feels empowered to do this work? And so that was, I think the big part around like the, the overarching psychology of this work is that belonging needs to be at the core tenant. We can't talk about making a meaningful contribution to something if you don't feel like you belong to that something. So that's how purpose shifted into not shifted purpose stayed in like really prominent in the 10th, 11, 12th space. But in ninth grade and eighth grade, and particularly in middle school, we started really talking about belonging because without it, you really can't talk about purpose.

So much of belonging is creating those conditions for it. And we, we we're working with schools to be able to expand what those indicators of belonging look like. And so much of it is creating these pockets and spaces where student stories can thrive. Um, and where you walk into a room, And, you know, you don't look crazy.

[00:13:39] PD Offered by Wayfinder

Tim Ranzetta: I wonder what kind of PD you all provide that folks might be interested in. 

Zachary Baquet: Yeah, so one that I love doing is is a Bridge to Student Success. So it's all about blended learning models. It's all about risk taking and creating a culture of failure in your classes. I think, historically the famous Shaquille O'Neill , shooting free throws and just being horrible at it. And there's this famous psychologist at UCLA, his name is Robert Bjork. He tells him, He goes like in a magazine saying, Shaq, you should shoot from different spots. Don't just shoot from the same spot and you'll get better. You'll miss more in the beginning, but in the end you'll be better, you'll make more. I think that it's creating this culture of like the root cause of it is that failure's really important in learning and often in schools. And that's why the activity library is so great because one, two minute, three minute, four minute activities are easy.

I think once they're able to see that on a one minute or a two minute activity, they can squeeze it in as a do now and it really rocks. And that could be just the difference maker from that kid asking the question or maybe even trying, getting up on the board in front of everybody and making a mistake. There's so much of SEL underneath that. 

I think about video gaming a lot, Tim, when the kids are playing, playing a game and doo doom doom, it's game over. And you know, you're sitting next to me, Tim, I look at you and I say, all right Tim, you went left. Don't go left this time you go right? Follow me before we press retry. But we're gonna press retry, like we're gonna try it again. But something within schools that wires get crossed where that fear, that culture of failing and getting back on the horse quickly to try again with a different strategy and talking about it, what we should do differently. I don't have those same talks when I pass out test papers.

Tim Ranzetta: I think particularly around this topic of personal finance, cause guess what folks? You can't know it all. And I think one of the most empowering phrases I stumbled upon was, I don't know, but let's find out together. Right? Because things change. I mean, this is a comprehensive topic. We're trying to fit it into one semester or less. And I think it's perfectly fine like that I don't have all the answers, but we're gonna learn together and, let's figure out where to go. So help me out. 

So there's always a risk, right? Coming from the classroom to join a company like Wayfinder. When did you have the moment where you, like you used the term earlier, when did you feel like you belonged? Like, in other words, you kind of, all of your life experiences kind of feed into the I can see the passion, I can see the energy. I can see the skills that you're bringing to this task and it may have happened during the interview process cause Patrick's a great salesperson. But yeah.

[00:16:21] Joining Wayfinder from the Classroom

Zachary Baquet: I went to a summit that Wayfinder hosted in the Bay Area. My school network sent me there to find some cool resources like you guys are getting right now. And I saw the people who were leading the professional development, Patrick's team, and they were just on fire about the same stuff that I'm on fire about, but often kind of was sent there to try and find solutions for. And they were just on fire because I think they had realized that they had something. Not that just they weren't just like pointing to schools and giving them solutions. I feel like that's not a relationship, that's not reciprocal. But when they kept telling me about the stories from the schools and they shared, you gotta meet Zach at this school and he's doing this, and they were able to talk about the partners off the top of their head and the stuff that they were doing. I was like, wow, these people are thought partners. When I can take something from a school that I partnered with and the conversation and then I email them and say, by the way, what you're doing helped the school in El Paso, Texas. They're like, wow, thank you so much for telling me that. Like, if I could be a bridge, I'd look back on my days as a vice principal and sometimes I miss them. But those moments I'm like, wow. I mean it's kind of hard to sometimes think about impact and then work that we're doing collectively. So that's a lot of my why now. 

Tim Ranzetta: Yeah. And it sounds like you've, the other word, the other word that comes to mind is community. You've created this community of folks, of like-minded folks. And so the ability to share great ideas across the relationships that you've built over time , it's a multiplicative power. 

I'm always curious what's next, Zach. I know, Patrick has very much a continuous improvement, constantly evolving, you know, to meet the needs of your teachers and schools and districts. What's next? 

[00:18:03] What's Next for Wayfinder

Zachary Baquet: I think what's next is that Wayfinders gonna curate more content for people around specific ideas. It's called collections. It has these themes around bullying, prevention, job prep, digital stress and anxiety, mindfulness, you know, social media, mental health, like the themes that folks really care about in schools. Wayfinder is putting together those items for middle school and talking about boundaries and consent in high school and really trying to meet the needs of folks. 

Tim Ranzetta: Awesome. Zach, I wanna really thank you for the work you do for making us smarter about street performers but also just the importance of belonging. I mean, that term kept coming up over and over again. How do we create a classroom where every student feels like they belong? So thank you for creating the tools and helping us understand that.

Zachary Baquet: Thank you so much for having me, Tim. I had an absolute blast. Thank y'all so much for the questions and, and really, really enjoy the library and reach out on multiple topics. If you need a place to eat in New Orleans, you're trying to take up street performance. It's never too late. And then if you need any help with the library or anything like that, or if you see any content that you think we should be doing for collection, this really is a thought partnership. So thank y'all for joining the Wayfinder family. 

Ren Makino: I hope you enjoyed this episode with Tim and Zach. I have a few final housekeeping items before we go. Resources. Zach mentioned, including a link to Wayfinder, will be available on the show notes, which you can find on Please be sure to subscribe to the NGPF podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Better yet, leave us a review. We love hearing from you and it will help us reach a broader audience. On behalf of Tim and Zach, thank you for tuning in to this NGPF podcast. 

About the Author

Ren Makino

Ren started interning at NGPF in 2014, and worked part-time through high school and college. With his knowledge growing alongside NGPF, he joined the team to work full-time after graduating from college in 2020. He is also the producer of the NGPF podcast. During his free time, he likes to try out coffees from different roasters across the world.

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