Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
TEACH FOR AMERICA FOUNDER
The summer after my freshman year at Princeton University I got a job working for the foundation for student communication, a student-run organization designed to bring students and business leaders together to discuss pressing social issues. My job was to go out with a partner and ask corporate executives to sponsor our conferences and advertise in a little magazine we put out.
Our very first meeting was with the CEO of a company in St. Louis. We went to his office and gave him our presentation. When we were done, he swiveled around in his chair, pointed out his window, and said, “See that neighborhood down there?” He proceeded to go into a description of the unfortunate circumstances of the kids growing up in St. Louis’s inner city then asked, “Why would I ever support your organization when there are so many more pressing needs?” I was stunned. I thought, I can’t continue with this job. I can’t ask another person to give money to this organization because that man is totally right. I ultimately decided to follow through on my summer commitment because I didn’t want to leave the organization in the lurch, but that CEO’s words never left me. I knew from then on that I wanted to find a way to address the most important needs.
Throughout my years at school, I was a very driven, involved, and overachieving student—the kind of person who always thought things through and had a plan. But when my senior year rolled around, I realized that, aside from my desire to make a difference in the world, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Lost and frustrated, I descended into a major funk and was unable to move ahead with anything—for months. The issue of my future weighed on me all my waking hours.
It was 1989 and I was a member of what people were calling the Me Generation. All we supposedly cared about was making money and leading luxurious lives. Investment banks, management-consulting firms, and brand-management firms were coming to campus recruiting seniors to sign up for their two-year corporate training programs. Those were the only kinds of opportunities banging on our doors and it seemed like just about everyone was applying. I halfheartedly applied to one firm in each sector.
As I continued to soul-search about my future, I found myself simultaneously becoming increasingly engrossed in another issue: the inequity in educational outcomes based on the circumstances of birth. Growing up, I attended public schools in a homogenous upper-middle-class community in Dallas. The expectation was that everyone would go to college. And there was money to spare: $100,000 scoreboard hung above our $3 million football stadium. Because of the high quality of my schools and the support provided by my family, I graduated with a very solid education and was able to do well in college without locking myself into solitary confinement at the library.
While Princeton University might not seem like the most likely place to become concerned about what’s wrong in education, it was there that I first got to know students who had attended public schools in lower-income areas. They were smart, driven people, but they initially struggled to meet the university’s academic demands. I realized that although our country aspires to be a place of equal opportunity, where you’re born really determines your educational prospects. During my senior year, I helped organize a conference to discuss this issue through the Foundation for Student Communication. It was during that conference that everything came together. I thought, Why aren’t we being recruited as aggressively to commit two years to teach in low-income communities as we are to work on Wall Street? I decided that America should have a national teacher corps of top recent college graduates who would do just that. I knew that I wasn’t the only person in my generation searching for something meaningful to do with my life. I was sure that many of my peers would jump at this kind of chance.
As a senior at Princeton, I was required to write a thesis but, thanks to my funk, I had been unable to decide on a subject. I now had my answer: I would write about my teacher corps idea. I must have been the last person in my department to declare a topic, and as a result, I was striking out right and left finding anyone to be my advisor. Someone pointed me in the direction of Professor Marvin Bressler, the chair of the sociology department, who was a big advocate of mandatory national service. He met with me, read my proposal, and said, “This is not an academic thesis. It’s more of a national advertising campaign for teachers—but if you recommend mandatory national service, I’ll be your advisor.” I accepted the condition with absolutely no intention of following through, and I was off.
I became increasingly excited about my idea—about both the immediate impact that talented recent graduates could have on students and the long-term importance of shaping the priorities of the graduates themselves, who would ultimately shape our nation’s consciousness, policies, and practices. At the same time, my job search wasn’t going so well. It didn’t yield a single offer! I remember standing at a pay phone hearing the Morgan Stanley recruiter—my last remaining corporate possibility—tell me that I was not the right fit for the firm. The moment I hung up I made my decision; I would start the teacher corps. If I wasn’t going to do it, then who was?
My thesis quickly morphed into an extremely ambitious plan for creating this corps. I wrote that we would inspire thousands of people to apply the first year through a grassroots recruitment campaign led by student leaders, select five hundred of them, enlist the help of experienced teachers and teacher educators to train them, and convince school districts to hire them as teachers in communities across the country. I developed a budget showing this would cost $2.5 million in the first year.
Fearing what Professor Bressler might say if he knew what I was actually writing, I avoided seeing him until I turned my thesis in. I was called into his office two days later. I was worried when I entered the room, but it turned out he liked it! He said, “Do you know how hard it is to raise $2,500 let alone $2.5 million?” That was his big focus. I told him that although I didn’t know or have any connection to Ross Perot, I was positive he would help. Having grown up in Dallas when Mr. Perot led a campaign to improve Texas schools, I was certain he would love my idea. Professor Bressler set me up with the head of development at Princeton to explain the challenges in store for me. But their concerns went in one ear and out the other. Blessed with the advantage of naïveté and inexperience, I didn’t know enough to realize how lofty my vision was, and I went forth in an effort to raise seed money. Without a grant, I would have to get a real job to support myself upon graduation and there would be no teacher corps.
I began by sending my thesis to Mr. Perot and thirty other corporate executives (some of whom I targeted because they were quoted in an article Fortune magazine had done about corporate America stating they needed to commit themselves to education reform). Others were randomly selected. Amazingly enough, some of those letters landed in the right hands and I got a few responses and meetings. So, while my classmates spent April and May unwinding from our thesis ordeal and celebrating our imminent graduation, I dressed up in a suit and took the six-thirty a.m. train into Manhattan for one appointment after another. It was completely worth it. Although I never heard back from Mr. Perot, Mobil Oil Corporation (now ExxonMobil) ended up making a seed grant of $26,000 and Union Carbide said I could work out of their offices in Manhattan.
Many people think that success is about coming up with a big idea, inventing something new, or finding the perfect job. Those are definitely great starting points, but I believe that success is really dependent on how you handle everything that happens thereafter. I named my venture Teach For America and spent the whole summer after graduation trying to build support for it while living off of the seed grant. (The original name was simply Teach America, but I added the “For” when I found out that another company had already laid claim to that title.) I reached out to hundreds of people—among them educators, funding sources, business leaders, and wealthy individuals. Gaining access was the hardest part. For every one hundred letters I wrote (there was no e-mail at the time), I would get just a couple of meetings. Some folks thought my idea was good, and others didn’t. Some thought it ran counter to what needed to be done to improve teaching. They felt that teachers needed to be trained in campus-based graduate programs as doctors and lawyers were. Others thought I was too young and inexperienced to lead this effort. Almost everyone advised me to start smaller (with, say, fifty teachers instead of five hundred). It was very stressful because I believed strongly that my vision had to happen, and it’s very hard when others don’t share your views.
I remember a particularly disconcerting meeting with a highly regarded school superintendent. He was incensed by the notion that privileged recent college graduates could actually make an impact on the hardest-to-staff schools and was very vocal about it. He told me I was wasting his time and that he didn’t need more do-gooders teaching in his district. I found myself exhausted and crying in my rental car afterward. I had a similar encounter with a longtime advocate for children in low-income communities. He tried his best to counsel me out of my enterprise because he was concerned that having a teacher spend only two years in the classroom would add to the unpredictability of the students’ lives and leave them feeling abandoned. These were real and understandable concerns, and I would end up spending years grappling with them and designing a program that would address them through recruiting a diverse corps and investing a great deal not only in preservice training but also, more important, in ongoing professional development.
I could encounter ninety-nine unresponsive or critical people and feel discouraged, but just a little positive reinforcement from another person would pick me up and keep me going for a long time. A senior executive at Young & Rubicam once called me up and said, “I designed the advertising campaign for the Peace Corps. I just read your proposal and think that what you are trying to do is incredible. Let’s meet tomorrow.” Those phone calls were few and far between, but they energized me. I also got very enthusiastic responses from most school districts.
The most prevalent concern I encountered was that people didn’t believe college students would want to sign up. Certain I could prove them wrong, I assembled a small team to launch a grassroots recruitment campaign and put fliers under doors at many different campuses. Twenty-five hundred people responded in four months! This resulted in media coverage and one thing led to another.
My search for the funding we needed for the first year got the boost it needed when none other than Ross Perot finally responded to one of my letters. One day I received a call from someone claiming to be him. At first, I assumed the caller was a friend playing a joke on me, but it really was Ross Perot! I could hardly breathe, let alone speak. I told him I would be in Dallas the following week and asked if we could meet. He agreed and I got off the phone and scheduled my trip.
I have never been so determined in a meeting in my life. I knew that I had no option but to leave Mr. Perot’s office with the funding necessary to train and place our future corps members. As I saw it, Teach For America’s fate rested on this meeting. At first, Mr. Perot suggested I contact some other philanthropists for this venture, but finally, after two hours of back and forth, he offered us a challenge grant of $500,000. We would have to match his money three to one in order to get it. This grant proved to be the catalyst we needed and it gave others the confidence to come through with the remaining funds we needed.
One year after I graduated, I was looking out on an auditorium full of Teach For America’s 489 charter corps members. They were beginning their training and getting ready to begin teaching in six urban and rural communities across the country.
I tell everyone who is charting new territory or pursuing big ideas that the best way to think about getting support is to view it as a search for allies. You don’t need everyone; you only need a few people who really believe in you and your ideas. So don’t worry about all the nos. Stay positive and keep up the pursuit for those few yeses.
After more than fifteen years of running Teach For America, I began meeting social entrepreneurs from all over the world who were determined to launch the same model in their countries and were looking for help. Working together with the founder of a similar program in the UK, Teach First, I began envisioning a global network called Teach For All, which would seek to accelerate the impact of the model around the world. I can’t tell you the number of people who advised me against this idea. They were worried that it would be a distraction and also that it wouldn’t be feasible for me to lead an international network and be a good mom (by this point I had four kids). Enough people were questioning the sanity of this pursuit that I started to question it myself. One evening I had dinner with Fazle Abed, who runs BRAC, one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the world, to seek his opinion. When I explained the doubts and asked, “Do you think I can do this?” he instantaneously said, “Of course you can! You must!” He explained that the value I would bring to Teach For All was my experience and that I didn’t need to constantly be on an airplane to impart it. Fazle’s definitive advice is what solidified my decision to move forward with Teach For All.
I have come to realize how much more efficient and effective it is to unleash the leadership in others as opposed to doing everything myself. Teach For America began as a one-person show. We quickly became a group, then a very small team, then a much larger one. Nothing has been easy. We continue to face challenges, skeptics, and learning curves on every front, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by a crew of people who are dedicated and deeply grounded. We keep one another going.
It’s essential to strike the right balance between confidence and humility. If you don’t have enough confidence in the rightness of your pursuit, you’ll give up too easily. But you must also have enough humility to recognize your own limitations and be receptive to learning from others. When I started Teach For America, I knew I didn’t have any experience in what I was setting out to accomplish so I had a very open mind and looked for help and advice from all quarters. You have to have an ethic of continuous improvement. It’s almost impossible to get anything perfect right out of the gate.
Be prepared for naysayers at every turn. Just look in the blogosphere and you will see many critiques of Teach For America. I try to keep myself centered on the magnitude and consequences of the problem we’re addressing and in the pursuit of getting better and better at tackling it. We need more people “in the arena” working to develop creative and constructive solutions, and I feel privileged to be working alongside many others to make a meaningful impact.