In 1989, Wendy Kopp used the ideas of her Princeton thesis to found Teach for America, a non-profit organisation that aimed to recruit and train college graduates to teach at secondary schools for two years in needy communities in the US. 28 years later the organisation expanded into Teach for All, a global network of teachers that works on the same philosophy. Kopp was in Kathmandu earlier this week for the induction of Teach for Nepal’s second group of Fellows.
Excerpts from her conversation with Ashutosh Tiwari:
Ashutosh Tiwari: How do you aim to eliminate worldwide educational inequity?
Wendy Kopp: Children’s socio-economic backgrounds shape their educational outcomes, which in turn impact their life. It’s a deeply systemic problem for which there is no one single solution. One way to address this is by getting the most promising young leaders to commit to teach in the neediest communities. Ultimately, we are working to generate a group of leaders who will act with great conviction and urgency to address core issues in the field.
Young graduates in Asia are generally not interested in teaching, and those who do, don’t consider themselves leaders. What do you have in mind when you talk about teachers as leaders?
By leaders, we mean that people who share the understanding to work together must be in positions of responsibility in the educational sector. We need them all to understand that it is possible for kids to achieve this even if they face extreme poverty, lack resources and have low expectations.
How has the TFA model of training graduates to teach for two years worked in different countries?
It would not have made sense if we modeled the worldwide network on the American one. In India, Chile, and Lebanon, we met with local social entrepreneurs who had the vision but needed support on how to materialise this ambition. Despite obvious cultural differences, we learnt that the solutions are similar and shareable, and that there are more common grounds than differences.
What makes the most effective teachers?
Teachers who develop close relations with their students and families have deeper understanding of local contexts and this helps them be effective. Also, most successful teachers know where they see their students in 10 years and thus help the child create more options. When faced with problems, effective teachers do not blame children, parents or the school system but persevere. Despite this, each partner program has its own requirements, and we just help them build on others’ success.
In Nepal, parents are reluctant to allow their children to teach in high schools and would rather want them to get ‘real’ jobs. How do you convince them otherwise?
It is important to ensure that the initial groups of selected students have experience as well as parental backing. Testimonials from these provide ground for further conviction among those still unsure. Over time, with a build-up of examples, parents can be persuaded. Here, we also need to look at safety and remoteness issues.
Two years after college may look like forever for fresh graduates, but we know careers span decades. Teaching gives candidates experiences, understanding, exposure and opportunity. This short-term investment will pay off in the long term.
In the US, Teach for America has been criticised for being “an elitist program” which places “ill-trained young teachers” in difficult schools where “teachers who belong to unions are then replaced”. How will you respond if TFN faces similar criticism in five years?
Most criticism stems from misconceptions. We’re not saying our Fellows will change the world in two years or that our training is the best available. Also, we’re not replacing existing teachers because we can’t force our Fellows into schools that don’t want them.
What we must accept is children in low-income socio-economic brackets and remote locations are four-grade levels behind those from privileged backgrounds. And a good education is important for them to break out of poverty.
People say we need to eradicate poverty first, but we can also bring problems in education under control if we channel talent and leadership. Sixty per cent of our alumni stay in education, so we’re asking students to take their career’s first step with us.