A Network Approach to Fostering Locally Rooted, Globally Informed Development
By Wendy Kopp, Erica Butow and Folawe Omikunle
In our experience, sustainable development happens when the people closest to the developing context drive and own the process. We’ve also seen that progress happens fastest when the people in these local communities are exposed to what’s working and what’s been learned in other similar contexts. This has never been more evident than it is right now: as the whole world faces the immediate challenge of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities have relied more than ever on local leadership and rapidly sharing innovations.
These convictions inform our work at Teach For All — a global network of organizations working to develop collective leadership to ensure all children fulfill their potential. The national organizations within Teach For All’s network share an approach to developing locally rooted, globally informed leaders who will work at every level of education systems, policy, and across sectors to effect the systemic changes necessary to ensure that all children fulfill their potential.
These same convictions led to the design of Teach For All itself as a network of independent, locally led organizations with a global organization dedicated to helping them each learn from one another.
As we’ve progressed in this work, we’ve realized that our network approach is not commonly understood in international development circles. We’ve also generated evidence that this approach could hold promise as a new approach to fostering development.
The purpose of this piece is to describe our approach in order to inform other efforts to foster locally led development. It is told through the experiences of Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach For All, Folawe Omikunle, CEO of Teach For Nigeria, and Erica Butow, CEO of Ensina Brasil.
GENESIS OF THE TEACH FOR ALL NETWORK
Thirty years ago, Wendy started Teach For America from her dorm room at Princeton University. For more than two decades, she worked together with many others to build a thriving institution that recruits and develops promising leaders to commit at least two years to teach in the United States’ urban and rural public schools, and become lifelong leaders working for equity and educational excellence for marginalized children.
Wendy was fully focused on tackling the enormous challenges in the U.S. until she began meeting people from all over the world who wanted to see something similar to Teach For America happen in their countries.
While there are indeed differences, there are also remarkable similarities from place to place in the roots of the inequities that face children.
Shaheen Mistri, who would go on to found Teach For India, invited Wendy to Mumbai to share advice about starting something similar to Teach For America. Thinking about the vast differences between their countries, Wendy wasn’t sure what of relevance she would have to share. But on that first visit to India, she began to see that while there are indeed differences, there are also remarkable similarities from place to place in the roots of the inequities that face children. Poverty, discrimination, poor nutrition and health care services, inequitable distribution of resources, low expectations, schools that aren’t equipped to meet extra needs — these are just a few of the systemic injustices that hold millions of children back from fulfilling their potential all around the world. Given the similarities in the roots of these challenges, Wendy began to wonder if the solutions might be far more shareable than she’d previously assumed.
Wendy knew what it had taken to build Teach For America and realized there was no way to lead and manage something similar for the whole world. There were innumerable local decisions, nuances and stakeholders at work in Teach For America’s growth and ongoing development which could not possibly have been managed or led from afar by a global organization. So, to be responsive to the interest from people around the world, she and Brett Wigdortz, the CEO of the first adaptation of the approach in the U.K., called Teach First, worked together to create a plan for a network comprised of independent national organizations with a global organization that would work to increase and accelerate the progress of the network.
PIONEERING PROGRESS IN NIGERIA
Folawe Omikunle is the CEO of Teach For Nigeria. In 2014, a group of Nigerians committed to tackling the nation’s massive educational needs came together to lay the foundations for the organization, and in 2016 entrusted her with the responsibility of bringing it to life.
Folawe was confronted by a very negative narrative about the Nigerian education crisis: poverty, the largest number of out-of-school kids in the world, 60 percent of primary six pupils at kindergarten level. In her first few donor meetings, people told her she wouldn’t be able to find young, educated Nigerians who would want to teach in under-served communities for two years. But, convinced that there was huge potential in Nigerians and their communities, she was certain that the narrative could change.
Folawe sees education as a jigsaw puzzle: it needs leadership and agency to address the many interlocking issues. All the pieces need to be taken on with deliberative and collaborative collective effort. She was energized to build a movement of people working both inside and outside of education, knowing that as many leaders as possible are needed across the system, and to build trust among students and other community stakeholders.
A visit to Teach For India in 2015 increased her resolve. She was inspired by the work of its teaching participants, alumni and staff members and, given the similarities between Nigeria and India, she grew in her conviction that building Teach For Nigeria was possible.
A particular obstacle Folawe overcame was that in Nigeria, only state governments have the power to hire teachers. For Teach For Nigeria to place even a single fellow into any school, they would have to work with multiple layers of government. Folawe’s deep understanding of local context and culture and the trusting relationships she developed were vital to navigating this extraordinary complexity. At the same time, a crucial learning came from the CEO of Teach For Armenia, who advised Folawe to ask the government to contribute financially from the start. That way the government would be more invested, and more likely to contribute in subsequent years, giving Teach For Nigeria a stable basis of support necessary to scale. Thanks to this network partner’s advice, Teach For Nigeria has a productive and ongoing financial relationship with several state governments.
Teach For All offered not a franchise or template, but coaching and support from global team members and peers throughout the network to support her developing entrepreneurship.
When Folawe was introduced to Teach For All’s global team, she assumed the network would operate like a loose association of similar partners, but over time, she came to understand the depth and breadth of engagement across the network. Folawe was able to access flexible, on-demand advice from both the global organization and other partner organizations.
Early in Teach For Nigeria’s development, she was invited to shadow other network partners’ training programs, and had a senior staff member from Teach First in the U.K., who was of Nigerian descent, spend two weeks in Lagos to help with its first pre-service training institute. Folawe says that one of her most impactful connections came from a visit to Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach For Haiti in Creole). She learned that they weren’t only recruiting college graduates as fellows but also current teachers from the schools where they would work. Recruiting mixed cohorts that included existing teachers was Anseye Pou Ayiti’s innovation on the traditional approach of recruiting people who’ve demonstrated leadership potential but weren’t otherwise intending to go into teaching.
Odedeji Gbeminiyi Abisola, a senior teacher who joined Teach For Nigeria, reported that she’d never been exposed to such a level of pedagogy, and the changed practices she learned have spread to other classrooms across her school. Other teachers saw how much students loved Odedeji, how much more energized her students were, how colorful the classroom was, and how much students were learning. These other teachers started to incorporate the practices Odedeji had learned through Teach For Nigeria into their classrooms, including using teaching games and digital resources, learning outdoors, and building trust and closer relationships with students.
Folawe built momentum and connections within Nigeria’s communities, while continuing to seek advice from other network partners. Teach For All’s global team was also providing her insights — gleaned from experience across multiple countries and many years — about management, teacher recruitment and development, staff hiring, organizational strategy, communications and marketing, fundraising, day-to-day operations, working with government, securing teacher placements, board recruitment and management, and more. In addition, the global organization brought her access to global platforms and funding from global sources.
During the pandemic lockdown, Teach For Nigeria’s fellows showed extraordinary leadership to ensure students kept learning, even without access to technology, internet or electricity.
Upon hearing that schools would close, Teach For Nigeria fellows approached the state government about utilizing their radio station to deliver lesson plans. This approach inspired alumni of Enseña Chile to initiate a similar program, which now reaches students in thousands of schools in the most remote rural communities in their country.
2018 Teach For Nigeria fellow, Bright Kemasuode, collaborated with pastors and imams using the public address systems of their local religious houses to broadcast lessons to students ensuring that learning continued. Fellow Gideon Ogunfeyimi kept teaching by distributing worksheets and texts to students in the morning, along with personalized instructions and expectation setting. In the afternoon, he picked up the worksheets and answered any questions the students had, and in the evening graded the worksheets and planned for the next day. Fellows like Rejoyce Samuel even ‘adopted’ other communities, showing other teachers best practices for teaching during a pandemic. In the midst of the shutdown, Teach For Nigeria also launched a partnership with ProFuturo to train 12,000 Nigerian public school teachers, helping them gain the competencies and knowledge needed to bridge the learning gaps caused by months of missing classes, and to deliver quality education while navigating the new normal.
For those with digital access, fellow Precious Adegunle started a project to digitize the Nigerian curriculum, creating a video database of her lessons, starting with the core subjects English, mathematics and basic science. She created a makeshift studio in her sitting room where she recorded these lessons, which will live in the database alongside other educational content like movies, games, workbooks, and apps that will be pre-installed on tablets to be distributed to pupils in her classroom and eventually across schools in Nigeria.
In 2019 Teach For Nigeria had 206 teaching fellows and 44 alumni — 75 percent of whom have stayed in education, in classrooms, non-profits, and policy — and had reached over 13,000 students. In 2018 almost 30,000 people expressed interest and 6,907 applied, proving that many young Nigerians were tired of the negative narrative and were ready to do something to work for change. In partnership with three states, Teach For Nigeria is growing its incoming cohort this year to 400.
THE JOURNEY IN BRAZIL
Erica Butow is the CEO of Ensina Brasil. From a very early age, Erica understood that many children’s educational opportunities are limited by the circumstances of their birth. Her own mother was born into poverty, never got to sit in a classroom, grew up illiterate, and worked as a maid for most of her life. But together with Erica’s dad, they provided Erica with a good education such that she managed to study in top universities in Brazil and later in the U.S. Erica studied business and education because she wanted to empower people who — like her mother — had lots of potential but few opportunities.
During her time abroad, Erica noticed a pattern among the amazing education leaders she met. When asked how they got into this work, the answer was often “Teach For America.” Erica was amazed by the collective power of the Teach For America alumni, and was in full agreement with their theory that solving the complex issue of educational inequity requires great people working together at all levels. She was convinced that significant efforts to intervene should begin where students are — in the classrooms of underserved public schools — and involve teachers who become lifelong leaders in ensuring students fulfill their potential.
This said, she wasn’t sure this approach would work in Brazil, where only two percent of high school students say they want to become teachers (compared to around 20 percent who state they want to become engineers) — but she wanted to try!
Erica didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur and hoped that Teach For All would hire her to run a local program. Instead, the global team asked her, “What is your plan for Brazil?” and got behind her with advice and support as she built the plan, the governmental relationships, and the funding for what would become Ensina Brasil. Teach For All offered not a franchise or template, but coaching and support from global team members and peers throughout the network to support her developing entrepreneurship.
Because education is so complex and context-driven, it needs solutions to be driven by those who deeply understand local conditions. The Teach For All network offers the right combination of local control and shareable solutions.
Erica appreciates how Teach For All connects entrepreneurs who share the same vision and mission towards tackling educational equity. She credits seeing others succeed for making her initial plans seem viable, and feels that the association with Teach For All was helpful in demonstrating that the approach both works and can scale in diverse contexts. Moreover, being part of a global network with history, data and results has made a huge difference in building the credibility needed to inspire applicants, board members, investors and donors. Teach For All’s global experience shows that it’s real, has been done in a huge range of different countries and contexts — and shows Erica she’s not crazy to have big ambitions.
At the same time, she reflects, entrepreneurs are driven by creating, discovering problems and solutions, and learning from doing — not by being told what to do. Rote, step by step instructions wouldn’t work for entrepreneurial leaders. And because education is so complex and context-driven, it needs solutions to be driven by those who deeply understand local conditions. The Teach For All network offers the right combination of local control and shareable solutions.
The network approach counts on partners using their locally rooted knowledge to develop innovations. For example, each network partner has typically selected applicants through intensive admissions processes involving in-person selection days that consist of interviews, group discussions, sample teaching lessons, and so forth. But Brazil is a huge country and travel to these selection days is not financially viable for many applicants. To address this, Ensina Brasil created an admissions process that is completely online, utilizing video conferencing instead of in-person interviews. When the pandemic prevented most of the global network from executing in-person admissions processes, Ensina Brasil shared its approach, supporting and inspiring the rest of the network to make their processes virtual.
At the same time that Ensina Brasil was making necessary innovations that would ultimately influence the rest of the network, they were also learning from other network partners, who helped them overcome challenges more quickly. What she learned from Teach First Israel about partnering with universities informed her approach to achieving teaching certification for their participants, and Enseña Chile’s approach to teacher training informed the redesign of Ensina Brasil’s training process. And when they had to create a marketing program to excite recent graduates to apply, they didn’t need to create an entire strategy from scratch. Instead, Ensina Brasil turned to network peers at Enseña Perú and Teach First in the U.K. who had been through this process in different but similar environments. Erica and her team learned what college graduates are looking for: work that will give them purpose, challenge, and the ability to develop themselves. Utilizing this knowledge, she’s been able to attract outstanding future leaders from a diverse and representative pool of candidates, without having to spend funds, resources and time to reinvent the wheel. In 2019, Ensina Brasil had 18,000 applicants for 150 spots.
Moreover, thanks to the combined experiences of other partners in the network, Erica changed her views about one of the most difficult aspects of entrepreneurship: fundraising. She’s learned to conceptualize it as building a partnership with others in the same space, not as a “please give me money” appeal. Erica says the network totally changed her vision about how to fundraise, and now she’s thrilled to help others across the network make the same mindshift.
After their schools closed earlier this year, Ensina Brasil teachers developed an initiative called Ligação do Bem (Good Calling), the goal of which was to enable students and teachers to maintain a connection while schools were closed. They developed a structured call protocol to check in with each student, direct them to support services where necessary, and ensure they feel acknowledged, heard, and valued. The pilot was so successful that Ensina Brasil has plans to expand it beyond the organization’s own teachers and students. Given that 92% of Brazilian households have at least one cell phone, and four out of five children 10 years old or older have a phone of their own, the team believes Ligação do Bem has the potential to reach millions of educators and children across the country.
In 2019, four years after its launch, the organization had 200 teaching fellows, and 106 alumni — 75 percent of whom have stayed in education in non-profits, government, classrooms and startups. Furthermore, in a country where attracting new talent to the teaching profession is a challenge, Ensina Brasil received over 40,000 applications in 2019 and selected fewer than one percent — a rate similar to that of the most competitive medical school admission entrance rates in the country.
EARLY THEORY & LEARNINGS
When Teach For All launched, we had a deceptively simple theory that maximizing global impact would require both strong local leadership, entrepreneurship and ownership on the one hand, and a global organization that would foster learning and sharing on the other. We have rooted all our choices in this theory and have learned a lot about how to live into it.
One choice is that we don’t hire, search for, select, or manage the CEOs of our network partners. Rather, we respond to the initiative of local people who want to launch and lead organizations that align to our unifying purpose and principles. We may proactively seed the idea of Teach For All’s approach, but then we step back and wait for a prospective CEO to approach us.
We get behind these prospective CEOs, helping entrepreneurs like Folawe and Erica understand the network’s approach by having them talk with global team members and visit other network partners. They gain access to the principles that undergird success across the network programmatically, organizationally and financially; help in accessing global resources; and opportunities to develop their leadership through coaching, peer learning groups, leadership retreats and the like. Our global team works with network partners in different areas like board development or teacher recruitment or fundraising — and connects them with network peers grappling with similar challenges — as they develop their plans and build the capacity to launch. But our global team will never get out in front of them and push more aggressively than the CEO wants to move.
A second choice is that we’re very clear about the Unifying Principles that must unite us, but we don’t prescribe the path for living into them. When (and if) the local leader builds a plan with the staffing and financial capacity to launch an organization that lives into the shared principles that define our programmatic and organizational approach, we bring them into the network. We’ve seen that, perhaps because there are very few principles, there is real allegiance to them, and a deep rooting in the “why” as network partners make their strategic choices.
The Unifying Principles cover ten ideas that must unite everyone in the network, related to:
- Pursuing our global network’s shared purpose
- Recruiting and selecting leaders
- Partnering with schools and communities
- Supporting and developing teaching participants
- Cultivating lifelong leadership among alumni
- Pursuing measurable impact in classrooms and communities
- Operating an autonomous organization
- Partnering with the public and private sectors
- Building a diverse coalition of leaders
While about 30 individuals are generally at some stage of pursuing network partnership, we’ve typically partnered with three to five new organizations in any given year. At the stage of “partnership,” the partner and global organization each commit to certain responsibilities. The network partner commits to living into the Unifying Principles and meeting international standards for governance, and fiscal and ethical propriety. The global organization commits to building an interconnected global community, supporting the network partner’s efforts to maximize impact, and surfacing the diverse voices of the network to influence the global education discussion.
A third choice is that we orient our efforts to foster network learning around questions rather than answers. Each network partner seeks answers that make sense in their local context, and the global team helps them make the best choices by offering access to insights — principles we’ve seen to undergird success across contexts.
We never could have imagined the innovations that staff members, teachers, alumni, students, community partners and others across our network have pioneered in a single decade, and the ways in which network partners inspire and enable each other to meet higher and higher bars.
This was an early shift. At first, our global team shared tools and resources from Teach For America and the U.K.’s Teach First. But quickly we saw the need to resist requests for cookie-cutter approaches, because we saw they didn’t allow for sufficient contextualization and led local staff members to lose ownership and an understanding of the “why” behind the approaches they take.
Wendy still recalls the moment she embraced this learning. She was talking with a network partner’s head of admissions, asking what he was thinking about. He shared that he was implementing a particular aspect of Teach For America’s admissions model, which Wendy knew Teach For America had already changed, given subsequent lessons learned. At that moment, she realized the key was to ensure network partners are reflecting on the big questions they face. For example, what are the characteristics differentiating our most effective teachers and alumni? What are the most effective ways of identifying these characteristics in applicants? Our global team would in turn seek and spread patterns in how the network partners that are most successful in a given area are answering these questions. Over time, network partners would seek continuously better answers as they learned more from their experience and other partners’ experiences.
We’ve seen that differences in culture, experience, and circumstance generate new ideas and novel approaches. We never could have imagined the innovations that staff members, teachers, alumni, students, community partners and others across our network have pioneered in a single decade, and the ways in which network partners inspire and enable each other to meet higher and higher bars.
Network partners report that being part of the global network accelerates their impact. In Teach For All’s 2019 partner survey, 88 percent of network partners reported frequently or sometimes adopting another partner’s innovation, and 89 percent reported frequently or sometimes applying or adapting a strategy based on a global insight or data trend.
Folawe believes that Teach For Nigeria could not have achieved what they have on their own: it would have been like hiring dozens of consultants which Teach For Nigeria could not have afforded. And they haven’t had to make dramatic pivots since launching the organization because they got off on the right foot from the beginning.
Erica says Teach For All was critical to her finding her inner entrepreneur. She imagines that if all entrepreneurs had this level of leadership development and organizational support, many more would be able to think big, not just imagining the possibilities, but believing in and acting on them too.
While we are not aware of existing research on non-profit global success rates, studies show that only about half of new businesses last five years. A study of Mexican social entrepreneurs showed that 38 percent of their new enterprises did not last through the first year. But at Teach For All, all of our organizations have made it successfully through their first year, and over 95 percent of the organizations founded continue to thrive and be part of the network.
Over the 12 years since Teach For All’s inception, the network partners outside of those in the U.S. and U.K., which had launched previously, have brought in 15,000 new teachers and leaders. More than 70 percent of them continue working full-time after their two-year teaching commitments to expand opportunities for marginalized children and families, through teaching, leading schools, working in government ministries, serving as social entrepreneurs, and other pursuits. Independent studies show network teachers are effective and have a positive impact on student results, and that the experience of teaching reshapes participants’ mindsets, beliefs and career trajectories in ways that are foundational for long-term leadership in expanding opportunity for children.
Even in these early years, the signs of leadership and entrepreneurship that emerged from Teach For America are becoming visible across the Teach For All network in 56 countries around the world. For example, the work of Teach For India is bringing new hope and innovation to the seven cities in which it has been focusing its efforts. Teach For India alumni are already launching new social enterprises, leading teacher and principal professional development initiatives, designing and launching new schools, and collaborating to foster plans for community-level change. The first partners in Latin America — Enseña Chile and Enseña Perú — are already a source of leadership working deeply within and outside of their nations’ ministries of education to effect policy change and bolster implementation.
We’re just getting started, but there seems to be promise in the network approach to fostering locally led, globally informed development. It’s an approach to continue exploring as the development community considers how to ensure that people closest to developing contexts are pioneering contextualized, sustainable solutions to address immediate crises while also building the capacity to tackle unknown challenges that lie ahead.