Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp Stresses Leadership at Inaugural Loeschner Lecture

Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp Stresses Leadership at Inaugural Loeschner Lecture

Wendy Kopp

“I have come to believe that leadership is at the heart of every problem we face,” declared Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. She delivered the inaugural Ray and Nancy Loeschner Lecture on Leadership on April 17 to Northwestern students, faculty and staff. 

Troubled by the fact that birthplace predicts education and life outcomes, in 1989 Kopp wrote her Princeton thesis on a plan for a national teacher corps. Within four months 2,500 people had responded to her grassroots campaign, and she received the backing of Texas businessman Ross Perot. She described her persistence and her “many learning curves,” conceding that it was challenging to find and train recent graduates “ready to excel.”

Today Teach for America has a corps of 10,000 teachers in underserved US urban and rural schools. “The most important learning curve has been around the nature of the problem we’re addressing and the solutions,” she said. She emphasized that problems in education can be solved, and that leadership is fundamental to the solution.

Three important lessons she says she has learned are the power of inexperience, the power of time and the journey of leadership in pursuing a goal and learning relentlessly. “It’s about being open to the journey. It’s about trying things, listening and trying again,” she says.

Kopp told the students in the audience, “I hope you’ll dive into what you feel most passionate about.” She advised learning firsthand about problems and what it will take to overcome them. “We need your leadership.”

Discussing Teach for America, Kopp highlighted how excellent teachers invest in getting kids on a mission to reach their goals. “They provide extra supports and put them on a trajectory to excellence,” she says. It’s exciting to see the way these teachers reinvent schools, according to Kopp.

Kopp also described her vision for a global network of people investing in their countries’ future leaders in education. She is now CEO of Teach for All, a “global platform to channel the world’s talent toward the problem of education opportunity.” She says, “I feel incredibly privileged that the work I’m engaged with really matters in the world.” She remains chair of the board of Teach for America.

Wendy Kopp and Ray Loeschner

The Ray and Nancy Loeschner Lecture on Leadership has the goal of inspiring students to become leaders in their chosen fields of endeavor. The lecture series was established with a gift from SESP alumnus Ray Loeschner (MA57) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the former president of Olivet University and a leader in higher education who also received his PhD from Northwestern in 1962.

Kopp was chosen to launch the lecture series because of her leadership in addressing inequities in education. Speakers are selected for possessing qualities of integrity, imagination and vision and demonstrating outstanding character and leadership in their professional and community lives. SESP sponsored Kopp’s lecture as part of the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series at Northwestern University to provide broad outreach to the campus community.

The Ray and Nancy Loeschner Lecture on Leadership grew out of a desire by Loeschner and his late wife to leave a legacy at Northwestern in recognition of the opportunities the University provided him to grow his knowledge and skills. The Loeschner Lecture on Leadership is intended to inspire students throughout the Northwestern community to higher levels of leadership. “Developing leadership in all walks of life is what Northwestern does best,” says Loeschner.

Kopp was an especially appropriate choice for the initial lecture because of Northwestern’s track record with Teach for America. Northwestern was the top contributor of Teach For America teachers among medium-sized schools in 2012. Sixty-three members of the Class of 2012 joined the Teach for America corps, and throughout the organization’s history 479 Northwestern alumni have taught as corps members.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 4/23/13