Speaking about the way real change happens in education, Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach for America, said, “We need leadership that will bring us all together. People who understand this do not play the blame game.” This attitude is so refreshing. What?! We should all work together if we want to accomplish something amazing?! What?! We should stop shouting across the internet and start listening to each other?!
She was in Seattle last week to speak at an event hosted by the League of Education Voters, promoting her new book A Chance to Make History and talking about her thoughts on education reform and the expansion of Teach for America into the Seattle area for the first time this fall.
In 1989 she proposed TFA as her senior thesis, a national teaching corps similar to the Peace Corps that recruits motivated leaders to teach for a minimum of 2 years in schools. Many of these schools are located in high-crime, low-income areas. Her goal is to eliminate inequality in education.
One word that came up over and over again during her speech and the following question and answer period was “Transformational,” “Transformational Leadership,” “Transformational Schools.” She said that we need more than incremental change to close the achievement gap in this country. We need transformational leaders who set high trajectories for their students and then allow no obstacles to get in their way. We need to let kids know that we expect great things from them and then work to do everything in our power to support those expectations.
She did admit that in recruiting Teach For America teachers, known for their sometimes unconventional and exhaustingly intense tactics, they look for people whose highest pursuit is not balance in life at that point. So if they stay in the teaching profession, they need to find ways to make their energy scalable and sustainable.
There are several things I like about Wendy Kopp. She is diplomatic but bold. She has big goals but wants to meet the challenges that face education in a way that brings people together. Rather than point fingers at any one person or group as being a roadblock to quality education, she emphasizes the importance of everyone involved in this issue becoming engaged.
She said that we used to blame families and communities, believing that a child would always be held back by her upbringing and socioeconomic background. Then, when a few transformational educational leaders showed that education could change life trajectories for not just a few special students but for whole classes of low-income children, people started blaming teachers for the times that teaching didn’t act as the magic bullet to change education. The problem does not have one simple answer.
According to Wendy Kopp, this challenge will take more than a silver bullet. It will take great leaders and hard work. It will take you.