Wendy Kopp’s Lessons on Inspiration
Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of Teach For America in her undergraduate senior thesis in 1989 and has spent the last 19 years working to sustain and grow the organization. In the 2008-2009 school year, more than 6,200 corps members are teaching in our country's neediest communities, reaching approximately 400,000 students. They join more than 14,000 Teach For America alumni who—still in their 20s and 30s—are already assuming significant leadership roles in education and social reform. Under Kopp's leadership, Teach For America is in the midst of an effort to grow to scale while maximizing the impact of corps members and alumni as a force for short- and long-term change. Kopp also serves as the chief executive of Teach For All, which is supporting the development of Teach For America's model in other countries. She is the author of One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way, and holds a bachelor's degree from Princeton University, where she participated in the undergraduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Question: What do you do to inspire your teachers?
Kopp: You know, I mean, right now, we have 65 people who each taught successfully in our country’s most economically disadvantaged communities who are on a mission to recruit our future leaders to channel their energy in this direction based on what they learned as teachers, you know, and they each have three to ten college campuses. They source top prospects and they try to sit down with them one on one and they share their own personal experience, which is just hard evidence that this is an unbelievably unjust problem. I mean, it’s one thing to say these outrageous statistics and realize, wait a minute. Is this possible in America? But it is another to encounter a class of kids who are literally, like, seriously, you meet your fourth graders and you realize they’re reading at a first grade level. But, meeting them, you realize, these are really smart, talented, you know, hardworking kids, and I think they bring that to life, but what they also bring to life is what they saw about the potential of their kids, like they just see real evidence through their experience that, actually, we can solve this problem, and they’re so deeply convinced themselves that, first of all, we need every additional person, whether it’s two years or more years, but two years of, you know, someone with real commitment and real ability will make a huge and truly life changing difference in the lives of kids growing up today. They also know that, you know what? More teachers going above and beyond to compensate for all the problems of the system, as important as it is, it’s not sufficient, and so they’re on a mission to get the people who are one day going to be running the world and are going to be running for president and, you know, editing big newspapers and running big companies and ultimately running our school systems and in leadership in every sector and really at every level of policy, to do this first because of what you learned. I mean, you may conceptually think you know about this problem, but what you learned through this experience gives you just an unparalleled, deep appreciation of not only the complexities of the problem but the complexities of the solution. And so, I guess that’s how we do it. You know, we’re running around on these campuses spreading awareness about the problem, solvability of the problem, and our country’s future leaders are saying, you know what? We can be part of something to actually change history. I mean, truly, like, this is within our grasp, but it’s such a real question about whether we’re going to really solve the problem. I mean, we can, but the question is will we? And the answer to that lies on the hands of the choices. I mean it’s really the choices of this generation of leaders. We’re completely convinced of that. Like, will they decide that we’re going to take this on?
Question: What story from Teach For America most inspires you?
Kopp: I mean, actually, today I’m probably more passionate about what we do than I’ve ever been, and it’s really just… honestly, it’s just what I’ve learned from and have seen from our core members and alumni, and I continue to see more and more evidence of the possibility of making real progress, you know. So, you know, there are just growing numbers of our teachers who really just, you know, you see them literally changing the course of their kids’ lives. I think about a woman whose classroom I visited last year, named [Jolette Hughes] who started working with a class of fourth graders who are on a first grade level in reading, and she was talking about how shocked she was to realize that, really, they were reading on the first grade level, and she ended up, you know, moving them forward two years in a year’s time in her first year in the classroom, and then convinced the principal to let her teach the same kids the second year. So, in that second year, she moved them another two years of progress, and then realized, I mean, she had literally put them where they should be, in fifth grade, but then they were going to go to this nearby middle school, so she ended up working with the parents in getting them into some of the most selective middle schools in the city, in New York, and I just think, gosh, you know? I mean, this one woman, at age 22 or 23 literally changed the trajectory of her kids, and I could tell, you know, hundreds of examples like that. And then, you know, I mentioned earlier Chris Barbick who, you know… I mean, actually, if you look at the list of 100 top high schools in America, two of the schools on the list, and two of the 11 schools who reached primarily low income kids are run by and were started by Teach For America alumni. One is Chris Barbick’s high school in Houston, which is the only high school in Houston on the list, and the other is the school in a rural area in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and you just think, you know what? Those two guys and the many who work with them have literally turned educational inequity on its head. I mean, you’re actually on an absolute scale, not even factoring in the socio economics of the kids, you’re better off going to their high schools than going to almost any other high school in the city, in the State of Texas, actually, or in the country, for that matter. And I just think, wow! Like, those are the people who are showing us this can be done. It is simply a question of will. And now, seeing some of our alums say, you know what? We’re going to prove this can be done on a system level, and for Michelle and her colleagues who are taking on the reform effort in CD, to [Cammie] Anderson who runs the alternative school district in New York City, which serves 50,000 kids who have, from one reason or another, dropped out of the traditional system and some of the hardest to reach kids, and you see what she has done in terms of systemic change in a mere two years, I mean, it’s… So, I just think, wow, you know? Every year, I gain more and more evidence just from among our folks that this is possible, not only at classroom level or school level but at a whole system level, and I just think, that’s what keeps me, you know, going and gives me such optimism that we can actually truly realize this vision of educational opportunity for all.
Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp discusses the importance of Teach For America’s active alumni network.
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