Putting Community at the Center

Teach For All CEO and Co-Founder Wendy Kopp spoke in late October at the organization’s 2018 Global Conference in Kathmandu, Nepal. More than 400 educators and supporters from over 60 countries gathered at the annual conference to discuss how to further the network’s vision of whole communities enabling all their children to have the education, support and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and others.

An excerpt of Wendy’s remarks, lightly edited for brevity, is below.

I’m really excited to share with you more about our conference theme and how it fits into our learning journey as a network.

As you know, three years ago we stepped back to consider what we’re all working towards, together as a global community. Because entrenched inequities facing children take time to solve, we asked ourselves what we wanted to be true in 25 years — by the year 2040.

People all across the network — students, teachers, alumni, staff members, supporters and allies — came together to develop a vision that by 2040, we’d see whole communities, in every part of the world, enabling all their children to have the education, support and opportunity to shape a better future for themselves and all of us — with those communities inspiring and informing a worldwide movement to do this everywhere.

One of the most important decisions we made in articulating this vision was to focus on achieving progress for children across communities — meaning, across certain geographic regions. To have a common language and understanding across this diverse network, we’ve defined ‘community’ as a group of people in a particular area who may have diverse characteristics, but are united by policies, systems, or institutions, such as schools or local governments. For some a community is a city, for others it’s region, or a village, or a neighborhood.

We made this decision to focus on community-level progress for a couple of reasons. First, looking back over the last 25 years in some of our countries, we have seen tremendous growth in the number of schools having transformational results — results that open a new world of opportunity for their students — and once there were many schools accomplishing this, there was an even bigger impact because people realized what was possible and demanded these results throughout whole communities. So, we thought that for the next 25 years, it would be extremely ambitious but, with incredible effort, feasible to show transformational results throughout whole communities. If we could do this, we could inspire a movement to achieve these results throughout whole countries.

We also made this decision because we had seen through our work the complex nature of the issues facing children — we know we can’t ensure all children fulfill their potential by focusing within classrooms or schools alone. To make meaningful progress, we need to work within schools but also outside of them, to ensure that family support, health, nutrition, and social services, early education, policy, and even the engagement of businesses are helping children learn and thrive. We need to concentrate our efforts within certain communities rather than scatter them more broadly so that it is feasible to impact all the forces surrounding children — through our partnerships and through supporting the leadership of our alumni.

As we work to realize this vision of community level progress through living into our core purpose of developing collective leadership for children, and our core values, there are so many things to consider, and these global conferences have been important investments in advancing our thinking on the many dimensions of our pursuit. I’ve heard the feedback that there are so many big ideas and themes presented in these gatherings that it can be confusing and hard to know where to focus. I see these ideas as deeply interconnected and emerging from our purpose and vision and values and so thought I would spend a little time walking through some of them, how one has led to another, and how our learning journey has brought us here to the theme we’re pursuing in Nepal.

In the early years, most of our global conferences focused on teaching. This is because we believe so strongly that pursuing transformational impact through teaching is crucial — it is life-changing for children growing up today and it is also foundational for the kind of leadership we need to effect long-term progress impacting future generations. It is through teaching successfully that our participants gain such a deep understanding of the complexity of the challenges facing children and the nature of the solutions, it is where our participants build the relationships with students and families that fuel lifetime commitments, it is where they gain a deep sense of possibility about what their students and they themselves can accomplish. I know you each see these effects. About a year ago when I was in Denmark, one of the Teach First Danmark alumni noted that he’d seen that teaching had changed his DNA and that of his fellow alumni, and I’ve heard so many people in different countries use this same expression since then. The work to develop transformational teachers for children, and to ensure the network’s teachers and participants gain the foundations for lifetimes of leadership, is an ongoing journey. It is foundational for the impact we’re working to achieve in the short run and in the long run and we need to constantly bring ourselves back to this.

At the same time, many of you urged us to look beyond our classrooms to the ultimate impact we’re trying to achieve, in part to ensure that the work we do to prepare and support teachers and leaders is informed by our ultimate vision.

Three years ago, at the CEO retreat in Mexico, we grappled with what we’re trying to achieve for children and who should decide what we’re working towards. We discussed the importance of co-creating, with the people in the communities where we work, visions of what success looks like for the children in these communities. Visions of their lives, of their jobs, of the role they play in their families, communities and countries. We discussed that these visions need to be rooted in their specific context, what we now call “contextualized visions”. These visions need to be both locally rooted and globally informed — that is, rooted in a deep understanding of the local history and culture, the local challenges and pathways to opportunity facing children, local values and aspirations, and also informed by an understanding of global trends and global aspirations. Co-creating contextualized visions for student success continues, all across the network, and requires working in deep partnership with communities.

Two years ago, when we were at the global conference in Bulgaria, we considered how to enable our teachers and alumni to realize these student visions by reimagining education. Reaching today’s visions for student success requires growing students as leaders with the abilities to navigate changing economies and solve increasingly complex societal issues. It requires “un-learning” the educational approaches we’ve grown up with and designing new ones. These questions — about what student outcomes we should pursue and how to reach them, in order to ultimately realize contextualized student visions — are also persistent in our work. And answering them well also requires partnering with communities — perhaps most importantly, students themselves.

Last year in Bogota, we considered what it would take to see progress towards students growing as leaders who can shape a better future across whole communities. We believe it will take developing collective leadership — our core purpose — and we decided to unpack what we mean by this. We discussed that developing collective leadership will take fostering leadership around the whole ecosystem around children, ensuring this leadership is diverse and inclusive, and generating and holding the spaces that enable a collective approach.

The path to developing collective leadership requires an orientation towards enabling sustained, meaningful progress within certain communities, in deep partnership with the residents of these communities. Many of us left last year’s conference realizing that there’s more work we need to do to fully embody this orientation all across our network. This orientation towards putting communities at the center must influence all of our choices — around how we partner with communities and place our teachers and scale our efforts, how we determine the vision for student success we’re working towards, how we recruit, select, and develop our teachers and leaders, how we structure our organizations, and the work we do on ourselves.

I’m so excited to be here in Nepal to pursue this theme about making all of our choices rooted in our long-term aspiration to partner deeply with community members towards ensuring all their children have the education, support and opportunity they need to lead the future. Shisir and Swastika and the people of Teach For Nepal would be the first to say they haven’t figured this out. But their orientation from the start was around how to support communities in Nepal to achieve the ends they seek, and in these early years of their work, they have partnered so thoughtfully with the residents of the villages where they’ve placed teachers and leaders…

I’m so looking forward to diving in and learning with you and alongside you over these coming days, with an open heart and mind and future. THANK YOU, everyone, for being present here and embracing this learning journey together!