Teach for All: Revolutionising education globally, Wendy likes to play the good Kopp

The woman behind the successful initiative shares her thoughts.

Taha Anis August 06, 2014

KARACHI: What started 25 years ago in the mind of a Princeton undergrad within the university’s vast halls has now transformed into a global revolution and when Teach for All CEO Wendy Kopp arrived in Pakistan to see how her brainchild was helping the country, she was not disappointed.

The hall at Teach for Pakistan’s annual reception, at Avari Towers on Tuesday, was primarily filled with suited middle-aged men - most prominent among them being education secretary Fazlullah Pechuho. Many of them were gathered to hear the words of the woman that started it all.

However, before they could do so, others wanted to share a few thoughts of their own. The first two speakers were members of Teach for Pakistan who spoke at length about their experiences with the non-profit organisation; a little too at-length for the comfort of the audience.

They were followed by Aman Foundation CEO Ahsan Jamil. “This is the start of a lifelong journey and its power should not be underestimated,” he said.

Jamil felt that by exposing the conditions of the underprivileged to the leaders of tomorrow, the initiative ensures that when they do assume important roles, they will not forget their social responsibilities. He ended his speech by expressing his optimism for the future. He was applauded off and the event now reached its climax as Kopp took centre stage.

Blonde and wearing a prim grey suit, she started off by speaking of where it all began. “At Princeton, I saw many of my peers go to investment banks and consulting firms after graduating,” she said. “I realised that they were not doing so out of passion but because they had few other options. Many of us wanted to bring about change but didn’t know how to do so. So I came up with the idea of fresh graduates teaching for two years in schools of underprivileged areas.”

The idea became a personal obsession for Kopp and the initiative gathered momentum with every passing year, until it finally crossed the Atlantic and became Teach First in the United Kingdom. Soon, other ‘social entrepreneurs’ wanted the initiative implemented in their countries - the idea spread to Asia and South America, morphing into the global phenomenon that it is today.

Kopp firmly believes that the initiative has a much more lasting effect than its two-year contract. “As many as 50 to 80 per cent of our fellows worldwide stay in education,” she claimed, the satisfaction derived from improving lives motivating them to continue on with the work.

In her 25-year journey, Kopp claims to have learned three major lessons. The first of them is that education inequality rages all over the globe but that it is a problem that can be solved; her initiative has proven as much.

The second, she said, was that even though the problem can be solved, it will not be easy. “People often try to find a quick fix but it is not that simple,” she said. “Once you wade in, you realise that the problem is too complex to be solved by a single solution.”

Her next lesson meant that the task ahead may yet be made easy through collective effort. “The problems faced in education are pretty similar all over the world, and therefore, so are the solutions,” she said. “Hence, we can share solutions and in turn pave way for a better world.”

Kopp then discussed her visit to a school in the morning. She talked of how the students were so invested in learning that they completely ignored her and the rest of the touring party, too busy in what was being taught to pay them any attention.

The initiative inspires such kids to learn and it tends to consume the teachers, who often enter as wide-eyed fresh graduates on a two-year contract but never leave. The question that burns though, is can this desire to learn - spreading like wildfire across the country and the globe thanks to Kopp - consume the country? Is this a light at the end of the tunnel or just a flicker of hope that will eventually burn out?

Teach for Pakistan CEO talks of her journey

When Teach for Pakistan CEO Noor Masood took to the podium to wrap up the event, she like Kopp started off by talking of her journey to the organisation; of how she left a settled life in Boston to come back to Karachi with little more than a desire to bring about change.

When Teach for Pakistan came calling, she found herself in the midst of people who, like her, were consumed with the desire to improve matters. “I was surrounded by individuals that were motivated by something much more intangible, something deeper,” she said. “These individuals spent countless hours at the office; long sweat-soaked hours in the sweltering heat, even when the lights go out.”

However, it was not those working along her that inspired her more; it was the fellows, the fresh-graduates that teach in the schools. She admired their perseverance, their defiance in the face of failure and once asked a fellow how he managed to keep himself motivated even when confronted so often by defeat. “He looked at me simply and said ‘because so do my students’.”

Thus continues the cycle of the initiative; the senior members are motivated by the fellows, the fellows are motivated by the students. Hence, Masood answered the question that Kopp had left unanswered. Till the students remain defiant, till they yearn for education, till their desire to learn burns within them, Teach for Pakistan will go on, either finally bringing about the tangible change that Kopp hopes for or continuing the struggle to do so.

Masood wants to increase the number of fellows by almost ten-folds in just five years; from the current 55 to 500. “This will take the total number of Teach for Pakistan alumni to 1,000,” she said. “Imagine 1,000 revolutionaries, imagine them fighting the same problem as one united force, imagine a Pakistan with that.”

It was with those words that the event ended, and the future looked all the brighter. Truly, an initiative of hope as Masood had called it.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th,2014.


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