An Interview with Wendy Kopp
Wendy Kopp is the CEO and Co-Founder of Teach For All and was a former President of Business Today.
Business Today (Amanda Morrison): How did you come to your thesis topic, and did you expect your research to become the basis for Teach for America?
Wendy Kopp: I actually thought of the idea of Teach For America during a Business Tomorrow conference! It was a conference I helped organize on improving education, and speakers were discussing the inequities and challenges facing urban and rural public schools in our country. There were student leaders from across the country at the conference who were saying, “We would love to teach in urban and rural areas.” At that moment, I wondered: why isn’t there a national corps that recruits our country’s most promising future leaders to commit two years to teach in low-income communities as aggressively as investment banks recruit them to commit two years to work on Wall Street? I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea, decided to propose it in my undergraduate thesis, and through my research it became all the more clear that this was an idea whose time had come!
BT: You were prolific starting early in your undergraduate years, writing for Business Today and University Press Club. Did these experiences contribute at all to your post-grad and entrepreneurial endeavors?
WK: When I started at Princeton, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and now I’m so grateful for my experience as a writer and editor. Communication and writing skills are just so important in making things happen! Also, I worked for Business Today in the summers because I needed to make money – and it was an incredible experience. I cold-called business people all over the country to sell ads and conference sponsorships and learned so very much – about how much money there is in the world, about how to access it, about the power of perseverance!
BT: Members of the TFA corps dedicate two years to teaching in underprivileged schools. With such a quick turnover, how does TFA maintain a sense of stability in these schools?
WK: Teach For America develops lasting relationships with schools and many teachers remain in their schools beyond the two-year commitment, so most partnering schools have a strong group of corps members and alumni. We’re working in the hardest-to-staff schools in the country and principals choose to partner with Teach For America because of corps members’ commitment and determination to make a difference.
BT: Do you think anyone can be a teacher?
WK: The best teachers I’ve seen are the most inspiring leaders I’ve ever known, which is one reason why Teach For America focuses on selecting individuals who have already demonstrated the kind of leadership necessary to make a real difference in the lives of children. The other reason we’re so selective is that we’re seeking out the people we believe will work throughout their lives to effect the policy changes, launch the innovations, and lead the changes—from within and outside the education system—that are necessary to enable all of our nation’s children to gain the education, support and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and all of us.
BT: What is your view on corporate philanthropy? Do you think business leaders have a responsibility to give back?
WK: I believe corporations have a huge role to play. We need governments, the non-governmental sector, and the private sector bringing their resources and energy to the table – and most importantly, we need students themselves and their parents demanding and leading the charge.
BT: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
WK: Seeing that the opportunities for children in urban and rural areas – not only in the United States but all around the world – are so much greater today than they were when I got started in this 30 years ago. Children are still facing extreme, urgent inequities and challenges, but collectively, along with our many, many allies, Teach For America and all the 48 organizations that make up the global Teach For All network are making progress and it’s very motivating to see that.
BT: Amidst a rush of recruitment and internships, undergraduates often express a sense of confusion about how to enter different fields in the workforce. Do you have any advice for college students who wish to pursue a less traditional job path? What is the role of TFA in that process?
WK: We need you to tackle society’s biggest problems now, to ask very important questions and pioneer the innovations that the rest of us are too “experienced” to think of. Choosing to immerse yourselves in communities to tackle our country’s deep inequities through the transformative power of education, alongside a generation of peers in the U.S. and around the world who share your values and convictions and will be lifelong partners in changing things for the better—this is the path of no regrets.