During the Aspen Challenge: Miami 2022 Coach Orientation, we learned that one of our coaching pairs has a unique history: one of the coaches was the other’s high school chemistry teacher. In the nine years of the Aspen Challenge, we have had yet to run into this incredibly fun dynamic, one where an educator and their student are now embarking on the Aspen Challenge as equals and co-coaches. We caught up with Mr. Manuel Cox and Mr. Usman Khan of American Senior High School to see how they plan to approach guiding a team through the Aspen Challenge and how they feel their long history of knowing and learning together will work in their favor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you teach and how long have you been teaching?
Mr. Cox: I teach all chemistry courses from Intro to Chemistry to Honors and AP Chemistry. This is my twenty-first year as an educator.
Mr. Khan: This is my seventh-year teaching and I primarily teach physics and engineering courses.
Mr. Khan, what made you decide to become a teacher?
Mr. Khan: I actually ended up going to medical school after I did my undergrad and some of my professors were telling me that I might make a good teacher. In my third year of med school, I started doing my rotations and let’s just say I don’t really have the bedside manner to be a doctor; I’m a little bit too sarcastic.
Mr. Cox, when did you teach Mr. Khan?
Mr. Cox: I had Mr. Khan in my chemistry class in 2009.
Did you have any idea that Mr. Khan would come back to be a teacher?
Mr. Cox: You know, as a teacher, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re getting through to students. But when you see some of the students come back and become teachers themselves and actually apply the subjects you taught, you realize you are having an impact and you are making a difference. It definitely motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing. Sometimes you may just have to wait to see the fruits of your labor: you planted the seeds, and now you get to watch them grow.
Have you ever worked on a project like the Aspen Challenge together before?
Mr. Cox: Not together, not before this opportunity. We have been competitors before though, with Mr. Khan leading a team in [engineering] competitions and me leading another.
What excites you about working together as co-coaches now, as opposed to competitors?
Mr. Khan: I would say, first off, that even though the Aspen Challenge is going to be a new experience, it’s still exactly the same Mr. Cox that I remember. He is the definition of “if there’s a will there’s a way,” because when it comes to getting stuff done, there’s nobody you’d rather have on your team.
Mr. Cox: The biggest thing I’m looking forward to from working together on the Challenge is witnessing how some of our students’ minds are going to work. They all have interesting approaches to life and have been put through their own unique experiences and seeing how they respond and thrive in those circumstances is always incredible to see.
With you two working together, what’s the dynamic going to be? Is there a good cop and bad cop?
Mr. Cox: Since the Aspen Challenge is a new program for our school, it is exciting to be able to create the process and approach for how our team will navigate the competition together. Mr. Khan is far savvier with things like Google Classroom and technology so I can lean on his expertise there. I am the type who just drops by—say—the math classroom to get an answer from a teacher or student when I need to get something done. Combining these strategies to get the job done will be very helpful. Trust the process but focus on the goal. As long as we know the goal, we will create the process to get the work done.
Mr. Khan: As soon as we started working together, I noticed that Mr. Cox is much better at addressing the crowd. Mr. Cox has that inspirational voice, you know, so the kids respond to him very well. I usually hang out in the background, and try to get to “okay, how are we going to get this done?” If Mr. Cox is going to be the who and the what, then I’ll figure out the how and the when. I’ll figure out the deadlines and helping to keep the students on task. But when it comes to the big picture, Mr. Cox will always be the person the students respond best to. He’s the one who can lay out the big vision, because in the end of the day, the students may look up to me because I am closer to them in age, but I look up to Mr. Cox.
What do you hope to learn from working on Aspen Challenge?
Mr. Cox: I am most excited to see what skills we both are able to bring to this program, since neither one of us have done it before. We might approach problems in different ways, and I think ultimately that will be a good thing. Yes, I may be a teacher, but I am also open and ready to learn. Mr. Khan may have another approach that works better than how I would tackle something, and it might work better. If that’s the case, I want to learn from him. You’re never too old to learn something new, and that’s what you are reminded of every day as you teach. When you are inflexible, you won’t learn. And working together will force us to be flexible and will force us to keep learning. It’s important as an educator to not have an ego.
Mr. Khan: Yes, definitely. It reminds me of a famous saying that one teaches, two learn. Mr. Cox has had a ton of experiences in his life. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work with him not only on this program but in our school in general. And with the Aspen Challenge, whether our team chooses a challenge on homelessness, or gun violence, or hunger in the community, all the experiences that we have had as a whole, that you can bring in from the outside, it’ll help us all guide each other. I am really looking forward to learning from Mr. Cox’s life experiences and the life experiences of the students on our team. It’s a really exciting and enriching opportunity.
In this conversation, one thing was incredibly evident: Mr. Cox and Mr. Khan have the utmost respect for each other. When asked who would win in the programs they would run as competitors, Mr. Cox deflected the question. Mr. Khan jumped right in and said, “He’s being overly humble. This might be the best bottle rocket teacher in the nation.”
Update: Mr. Cox and Mr. Khan’s Aspen Challenge team at American Senior High School went on to win Aspen Challenge: Miami 2022. The coaching pair brought the 8 students to Aspen where they presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival.