Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, spoke at the Kennedy School last Friday in an event sponsored by the Office for Career Advancement and the Center for Public Leadership. She described how she turned the topic of her senior thesis into an organization that trains thousands of teachers each year and places them in struggling schools.
Kopp had the idea for Teach for America during her final year at Princeton. “I was just searching for something that would enable me to make a real difference in the world. And yet the only recruiters who were banging down the doors of liberal arts graduates like myself were corporations.”
“[I thought], why aren’t we being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teaching?” Kopp said.
In her thesis, she proposed an organization modeled on the Peace Corps that would send college graduates to teach in low-income communities. After some false starts—“I wrote a letter to the president” with the idea, she said. “I got a rejection letter back”—she launched Teach for America as a non-profit.
In the 25 years since then, Teach for America has trained 32,000 teachers. More recently, social entrepreneurs have begun chapters in other countries. Recently, Kopp stepped down as CEO in order to head Teach for All, which is a network of similar teaching programs in 32 countries.
“I really wasn’t thinking of international matters seven or eight years ago, because there’s really so much more to be done in the US. But these folks exposed me to the realities of their countries,” Kopp said. “I also started to see how similar in nature the issue is from place to place, which really means the solutions are shareable.”
Kopp spoke about the challenges of starting an organization from scratch. “I’ve been doing this now for 25 years. This was a long journey, and I wasn’t feeling terribly recognized for many years,” she said.
She also offered advice to social entrepreneurs in the audience, some of whom have been involved in starting chapters of Teach for All in their home countries. Picking the first group of teachers is “crucial,” Kopp said.
“Who you get in the first cohort influences who you get in the second cohort” and the reputation of your organization thereafter, she said. And while it was difficult to find and maintain support in the early days of the program, Kopp said, “It’s different now because so many of the people we’re working with [in government] are Teach for America alumni.”
Lucila Arboleya, a first-year master in public administration and international development student, recently started “Teach for Uruguay” with some friends and said she found Kopp’s advice helpful.
“She stressed the importance of highlighting the role of teachers and working to improve the prestige of the profession, and this is one of the main reasons why I wanted to be part of the founding group and one we are especially focused on,” Arboleya said.
Kopp also addressed some criticisms that have been levied at Teach for America over the years. Some critics have pointed to the low retention rates for teachers recruited through the program. Kopp said, “We don’t consider it leaving if [alumni] go into public policy or medicine” and said that part of the purpose of the organization is to provide future leaders a chance to experience the education system.
However, Kopp acknowledged that Teach for America is only part of the solution to problems in the education system. “We cannot solve it through heroic teaching,” she said. “Systemic problems require a systemic solution.”
In the end, she said her advice to those facing criticism is to “put your head down and do the work.”
“School principals aren’t reading these articles, they’re just looking for good teachers,” Kopp said.
Still, she acknowledged that, “We haven’t been investing in communicating—it’s something we need to do better.”
Angie McPhaul, a first-year master of public policy program and a Teach for America alum, said, “It’s always exciting to sit down with someone who is a visionary.”
She also said that Kopp’s description of the need for better communication reflected her experiences with Teach for America.
“The organization is actually one of the most reflective that I have been part of,” McPhaul said. “It is an organization that surveys and learns and changes because of it…At least that’s my experience of it. And so, that should be the message that’s out there, and it’s not right now.”