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Q&A with 2022 Baccalaureate speaker, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp ’89

<h5>Wendy Kopp ’89 speaks at the 2022 Baccalaureate ceremony.</h5>
<h6>Lia Opperman / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Wendy Kopp ’89 speaks at the 2022 Baccalaureate ceremony.
Lia Opperman / The Daily Princetonian

On May 22, The Daily Princetonian sat down with Wendy Kopp ’89, who spoke at Baccalaureate for the Class of 2022. She is the CEO and co-founder of Teach for All. Coverage of Kopp’s speech during the event can be found here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. You can listen to a more complete version below on Daybreak, the ‘Prince’s news podcast.

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The Daily Princetonian: What was the path that caused you to write a senior thesis about something that has become a really well-known nonprofit?

Wendy Kopp: I was in a funk my senior year — I found myself in this kind of deep sense of malaise because I was just searching and searching for something I wasn’t finding in terms of postgraduate opportunity that would enable me to do something that would be both a big responsibility and also make a real difference in the world. That search that ultimately led me to start thinking about education in particular, because I felt that it had given me such a sense of freedom. I had also become really aware of the inequities in education as a public policy major, and also just as a Princeton student because you see here how differently prepared kids are to thrive based on where they’re from. So all of that led me to explore teaching. 

I started exploring teaching in New York City, and I realized it was actually possible for a public policy major to teach because at the time there were such vacancies the school system would open up the teaching profession and relax the licensure requirements. So one day that led to this inspiration, you know, why weren’t we — all these graduating seniors — searching for a way to make a real difference against the inequities in our country? Being recruited as aggressively to teach as we were being recruited to work in banks? So that was the big idea that became the thesis topic. And it really defined my path every year since.

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DP: It’s clear that an emphasis of yours is the importance of leadership in education, and how that makes an impact on students and also the teachers. But I am wondering — because your critics, and I’m just going to quote what the Associated Press says — claim, “That Teach For America recruits underprepared or ineffective teachers who may see the two-year stint as a feel-good stepping stone rather than a career path.” So I’m wondering how you’re thinking about Teach for America, in the spirit of the long haul for people who may be thinking about joining.

WK: So what’s so interesting, right, is that I think most people go into consulting, or banking, or the next thing, thinking, ‘I’m going to do this for two years, and then I’ll figure out what I want my life to be about.’ So the idea was to say: how powerful would it be to have our country’s most equipped students teach for their first two years, knowing that those two years would be really important for the kids they teach, and also really formative for them. 

And what we’ve seen, not only across the US, but now all across the world is that those two years really are completely transformational. They lead people to rethink their career paths. More than 70 percent of them never leave education. They lead them to come to understand the nature of inequity in a different way. Even though we recruit a really diverse group of folks, including many people with lived experiences of the inequities we’re addressing, they come away understanding more deeply how systemic this challenge is. And also, they come away thinking we can solve this, recognizing so clearly how much potential kids have and how much potential they have to make a difference in the face of this.

So I guess I would say that the systems in our country and it turns out all over the world. The inequities in our systems are so entrenched and decade after decade, [and] we’ve made little progress addressing them. So I would say it’s actually imperative of us to figure out what are some new paradigm-shifting ways of developing the leadership we need to change those systems. And that’s what Teach for America and the Teach for All organizations have really proven to be.

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DP: Just as you’ve talked about leadership, another criticism that I’ve heard from some people is that the corps members come in and teach in a school when students know that they might be leaving after just a few years. What do you think about the relationship between students and teachers? How do you feel that there are some people who just want to come in for a few years and do their time as a corps member and not continue on [teaching]? 

WK: That is how the program is structured. But I’m wondering, how are you thinking about the relationship between the students? And if they’re only there for two years? Are there ways that you’re thinking about that within the organization? I think relationships are the most important piece of this puzzle.

We’ve actually done all these studies that look at what is it that differentiates the most successful teachers. And what’s interesting is, it’s exactly as you say, it’s the teachers who are very relational, who build deep relationships with students, with their families, with the other teachers in the schools who really thrive. We really put that at the heart of everything from how we recruit and select people to how we train and support and develop them.

I think this is all very contextual. I think it may be important to really understand all of this from the perspective of the schools that are choosing to hire these teachers, and that are saying, ‘we want these folks teaching in our schools,’ because of all that they will bring, the relationships they will bring for students, and that they’ll take with them, by the way for the rest of their lives. In the U.S., our teachers are more likely to complete two years than other new teachers in their schools, and only very, like a few percentage points less likely to teach three and four years in their schools. So it’s maybe not as it always seems from reading the media swirl.

DP: Can you talk a little bit about the broader organization Teach for All, and its relation with its more well-known counterpart Teach For America?

WK: Teach for All is a network of organizations similar to Teach for America in 61 countries around the world — from Teach for Afghanistan to Teach for Ukraine to Teach for India to Teach For Nigeria, all of which share a common approach of enlisting promising leaders asking them to commit at least two years in cultivating their ongoing leadership [and] their collective leadership as a force for changing the inequitable systems in their countries. And I think it came about because I mean, I wasn’t thinking about the rest of the world at all. I had my head down and was fully focused on making Teach For America bigger and better. But we started meeting people around the world — in one year, I met 13 people. [And it] was just like, there was something in the water — from 13 different countries, [people] who were just determined that something similar needed to happen in their countries. And so that’s what led to the launch of Teach for All as a network of these independent locally-led organizations that can all learn from each other, and now move much more quickly, because we are learning from each other across borders. 

DP: I want to bring something back a little bit more Princeton. So something that I find really interesting [is that] I know that during your time here at Princeton, you were a writer for the Princeton Tory, which is another publication on campus. 

So I was just wondering, the [Tory] archive online only goes back to 2001. As you mentioned, you were here a little bit before that. Do you want to talk a little bit about your time there? 

WK: I never worked for the Princeton Tory. 

DP: Okay, because there is an image of a masthead. And it shows you as a staff writer. 

WK: So you mean… I was in the Press Club? 

DP: Yes, University Press Club. But The Princeton Tory, The Princeton Tory — “Princeton’s leading publication for conservative thought.”

WK: Yeah, I never worked there. 

DP: You were in the University Press Club?

WK: Yes. I worked for the Princeton Packet, and a few others. But I never worked at the Tory — [but] I’ve heard that before. 

DP: Yeah, on their website, it says notable alumni, and you’re there. 

WK: So weird. Yeah. I mean, I’ve never even talked to anyone from the Tory. 

DP: Okay. Well, I just wanted to ask you because you’re on there, so I figured it was worth the ask. 

This is also sort of a little bit more of a fun one — you’re here at Baccalaureate, which feels like a very Princetonian tradition. And so I’m wondering, what’s the Princetonian tradition that you really love, or that speaks to you?

WK: I’d have to say the thesis, I guess. I mean, I would never have said that when I was here. But I really do think the thesis requirement because it forced me to take a big idea and really rigorously research it and develop the kind of plan that could enable it to actually come to life. So yeah, I’d have to say the thesis. 

DP: Are there any closing thoughts that you'd like to share?

WK: Maybe I’ll just say it was such an honor to have the chance to speak with this graduating class. I think that this generation of students has just a unique perspective in terms of being truly more aware of and more passionate about the challenges in the world and tackling the injustice in the world than any that came before.

So I do hope that people will keep thinking so intentionally about where to put their time and energy driven by those values. You know, I think sometimes when we're college students, we can be activists and, you know, do all sorts of things to address issues but then not put that same amount of critical thought into where we actually put our own time and energy. And that was my message today, and I just think that the choices of this generation about where they put their time and energy will do so much to determine the trajectory of our country and of our world.

Hope Perry is the Head Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince’ who has covered USG, U.S. politics, and student activism. She can be reached at hperry@princeton.edu or on Twitter @hopemperry.

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