Wendy Kopp, CEO, Teach For All, US

Published 16/09/2020

Teach For All is a network of independent, locally-led organisations in 56 countries (and growing) who have all come together to pursue a common purpose – to develop collective leadership to ensure all children fulfil their potential. The PIE spoke with CEO and co-founder Wendy Kopp about expanding the network during Covid-19 and the impact that access to technology can have on marginalised kids’ learning.

The PIE: Can you tell me how the idea for Teach For All came about?

Wendy Kopp: I started Teach For America more than 30 years ago and really had my head down fully focussed on addressing the inequities in the United States. That was until about 15 years ago, when I started hearing from people all over the world – from India to Chile to China to the next place – who were determined to do something similar in their countries.

“Our global organisation is all about helping everyone across the network learn from each other”

That led to the launch of Teach For All as a network of independent, locally-led organisations in now 56 countries – and growing – in every region of the world.

The PIE: What is the mission behind Teach For All?

WK: We believe that the fact that the circumstances of kids’ birth predict their educational and life outcomes is a big systemic problem that requires systemic change, which requires leadership at every level of the education system of policy and really around the whole ecosystem around kids.

So we share a common approach for developing that leadership by enlisting promising leaders in committing at least two years to teach in under-resourced communities and investing in their development in pursuit of really important immediate outcomes for kids.

We also know that these two years will be foundational for a lifetime of leadership for the participants who really never leave the work: more than 70% of them stay full time, long term in education, and many others go into other sectors with a commitment to effecting the systemic change that they’ve come to see is necessary.

The PIE: To have a network in 56 countries and growing is an amazing achievement…

WK: Yes, there’s tremendous momentum really in every region of the world. What happens is an individual – a social entrepreneur – will decide that they’re really interested in pursuing this approach in their countries and Teach For All will come behind them, helping them learn from the other network partners that have already launched.

These local entrepreneurs develop a plan for contextualising and adapting the approach in their countries in partnership with their governments and build private sector support and the organisational capacity to launch. In the way Teach For All is structured there is a common purpose and there are a set of unifying principles that we are all committing to.

The PIE: Do they stick rigidly to these principles or can they be adapted for different cultures and different parts of the world?

WK: We believe so much in the importance of local ownership, entrepreneurship, adaptation, and how each of these network partners live into the principles is really fully up to them. Our global organisation is all about helping everyone across the network learn from each other so that they can make the best and most informed decisions possible.

The PIE: Has Covid-19 impacted the development of new partnerships?

WK: Already, three new network partners have launched amidst this pandemic. These have been Teach For Sierra Leone, Teach For Kenya and Teach For Zimbabwe. There are another 20 potential network partners in the pipeline in Africa alone. So we’re really excited about just the incredible momentum across the continent – and in other parts of the world too.

“There are another 20 potential network partners in the pipeline in Africa alone”

The PIE: Was it difficult to get those off the ground in the middle of this global crisis?

WK: I think it’s a testament to the fact that in this situation, with schools shut down, all any community or school or class had to rely on was innovative creative teachers and leaders who were willing to do whatever it took to keep help keep kids safe and help them keep learning.

So, I think if anything, our governmental partnerships in our existing network partner countries, and also in new prospective countries, have only strengthened during this era.

The PIE: The pandemic has had a huge impact on the education of children around the globe. What sort of lessons do you think are being learnt about how educators and governments are responding to the crisis?

WK: I think this is a moment that has raised our collective awareness about the importance of fostering student development towards a broad set of outcomes. We’ve been talking about the need to focus on not only academic skills but non-academic skills and social-emotional development for many, many years.

I think the collective consciousness amongst teachers, parents and schools about the importance of that has only grown during this era because we’ve all seen that students who were able to keep learning, no matter their conditions, were those who have a sense of ownership for their education, and a sense of social-emotional well-being.

As we think about coming back to school in a better way, I hope we’ll come together in a still more unified way in our decision to orient towards a broad set of outcomes for kids, which clearly is important for kids today in terms of the quality of their education and also will be vital to prepare them to navigate a very uncertain world.

The PIE: What’s your view on the role that technology, and access to technology, is having on this?

WK: Clearly, kids’ level of access to technology has had a lot to do with their ability to keep learning.

“We’ve seen such extraordinary examples of teacher leadership, of parent leadership”

We’ve seen is that it’s possible to keep kids learning in a really strong way, even with low bandwidth technology – such as just having access to a phone and an app like WhatsApp or Messenger. So I think there’s good and bad news in that. I mean, we have a long way to go to get all of our kids up to that level of access and connectivity. More than half the world’s kids do not have access to even these basics.

But we’ve also seen that when we can get to that level, it’s very possible to keep kids learning, even without the laptops and high-speed internet that the debate around remote learning often centres around.

In fact, we’ve seen teachers, many teachers, who feel that their kids are learning at least as much now through those means because the technology has enabled a totally different level of differentiation and student engagement and even parent engagement and student ownership.

The PIE: Besides technology, in your view what other areas need more attention?

WK: The one thing I would highlight is that probably the greatest divide that we’ve seen in this era has not been a technology divide, but rather a divide between the students who have access to people around them – teachers, school leaders, their own parents– who will do whatever it takes to keep them learning.

So, even as there’s so much discussion about technology, from our observation this situation should lead us all to prioritise recruiting and developing a really strong teacher and educational leader force.

The PIE: You spoke at the recent WISE online conference where the focus was on the importance of school leadership. Would you say that having strong leaders in education has never been so important?

WK: Yes – it really has never been so important.

We have seen countless examples of teachers and alumni across our own network stepping up in all sorts of ways – such as asking governments to take over the radio station because that’s the only means of reaching kids in some communities, or others who have created paper packs of work for the students, bicycling to communities and distributing them and picking them up every day.

The PIE: What other examples of leadership can you share with us?

WK: We’ve seen such extraordinary examples of teacher leadership, of parent leadership. There’s a community in Morocco where a teacher was able to rally working with the grocery store owner and some of the religious leaders to inspire a whole community of moms to keep their young kids learning via WhatsApp.

Even student leadership – there are students who of their own volition recruited kids to keep learning by forming learning circles. I think, if anything, we’ve all seen the importance of everyone in the ecosystem around kids stepping up and exerting real innovative leadership.

The PIE: Looking forward, what are your thoughts on the direction that educational systems need to be heading in the future?

WK: We’ve stepped out of the educational box as we know it for a few months. And, as challenging as that has been for many students and particularly for the most marginalised students in the world, it has also presented new opportunities. I hope that we will maximise those opportunities.

“As different as communities and contexts are, we’re facing very similar challenges”

Given the uncertainty in the world and given our aspirations for how we want the world to be, what do we want to be true for our young people? And what does that mean for the outcomes we need to be working towards at school?

I think if we can orient with real clarity around a purpose in education, that will take us some distance. Equity needs to be at the heart of every consideration as we work to ensure that all kids gain the kind of education necessary to navigate an uncertain world and shape a better future.

The PIE: What is Teach For All working towards?

WK: We’ve learnt across Teach For All – during this era in particular – that as different as communities and contexts are, we’re facing very similar challenges and the solutions are much more shareable than I think we commonly assume.

So, we’re working to ensure that we don’t miss this moment in terms of building still more communities amongst people concerned about kids all over the world so that we can all learn from each other and accelerate progress.

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