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If you like Wendy Kopp's story, you might also like:
Benjamin Carson,
Johnnetta Cole,
Paul Farmer,
Millard Fuller,
Greg Mortenson,
Ralph Nader,
Anthony Romero,
John Sexton and
Antonio Villaraigosa

Wendy Kopp can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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Teach for America
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Wendy Kopp
Wendy Kopp
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Wendy Kopp Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Founder, Teach for America

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  Wendy Kopp

Here in L.A., they have the success story of Jaime Escalante, who taught calculus in the inner city. Like Tammi Sutton, his story is all about high expectations.

Wendy Kopp: When I was graduating from college, Stand and Deliver was a big hit. It's such a marker for me, because I remember, it's not like we all watched Stand and Deliver and thought, "Oh, let's learn from Jaime Escalante and spread the practices throughout..." People just thought he was such an outlier, they didn't really believe that that was replicable. And today, we live in a different world, where we really know that this can be done and we can replicate success. There are dozens of schools in Los Angeles that are -- not just in one classroom but whole school buildings -- that are putting kids on a totally different path, and we see that in communities across the country. So now that we see that, this morning I was in a network of schools called Camino Nuevo, and they work with almost exclusively English language learners. I was in a school that's right down the block from a failing high school which graduates between 50 and 60 percent of its kids. And this school is graduating 90 to 95 percent of its kids, and giving them the option to go to college. Many, many of them are going to college, and then coming back in their communities to strengthen those communities. So the Camino Nuevos of the world are showing us what's possible.

You have said that your own personality may not have been ideal for instilling morale and cooperation. You wrote that when things went wrong at the first summer institute, you tended to hide and crawl into your shell. You obviously had to learn to become more extroverted to build morale. How challenging was that?

Wendy Kopp: It still doesn't come naturally to me. I'm an introvert, there's no doubt about it. I guess I need to figure out what are my strengths and what are not my strengths. And therefore, what do I need to surround myself with? There's a certain amount of responsibility that you've just got to live with to do this kind of work. Hopefully, I've gotten better over time, but it's still not my natural instinct.

That seems incredible, considering the doors you have knocked on over the years.

Wendy Kopp: When I have a goal, and I know that I've got to do this for the cause, then I can make it happen. But in terms of big public appearances, that's not my forte.

We like to talk to our honorees about their early years, too. What was your childhood like, back in Dallas?

Wendy Kopp: My parents ran their own very small business. I had one brother. Actually, I was born in Austin. We moved to San Antonio, we moved to Dallas. There was a community in Dallas known as the Park Cities which had a highly regarded school system, and my parents made a real effort to make sure that they bought a house -- initially on sort of the outskirts of that community -- so that we could go to that school. I have often thought, and even then was very conscious of the fact, as I moved into college and stuff, the fact that I had the chance to go to that very strong public school was hugely instrumental for me, in helping me feel like the whole world was open to me, and giving me the kind of education that would enable me to ultimately do whatever I wanted to do.

Was there a strong emphasis in your house on academic achievement?

Wendy Kopp: I was one of these kids who just had some internal drive that led me to pursue that. I'm not sure it was imposed from the outside. No.

Do you remember any books that you particularly liked when you were growing up, or that had a real impact on you?

Wendy Kopp: Oh gosh, this is so not the thing to say, but I wasn't an obsessive reader or anything. I was probably turned on by other things. I can't even think way back. I think about some books. The Fountainhead, I think, pretty much saved me in the initial years of Teach For America. I loved that book, but I'm not sure books were the seminal thing that guided my path.

Why The Fountainhead? How did you connect to it?

Wendy Kopp: I think it was sort of about "the creator against the world," and I was probably feeling at that point that I was up against lots of boulders, to pull off the big idea of Teach For America.

Was there a teacher who particularly inspired you growing up?

Wendy Kopp: There were definitely teachers who made a huge impact. I think about a woman whose name was Mrs. Fish who was my seventh grade English Language Arts teacher. What I remember about her was just how hard she pushed. I thought I was a perfectly strong student at this point, but she just pushed everyone to their limits. That was very instrumental for me. In fact, all the teachers I remember had that same thing: they just had such high expectations and wouldn't stop pushing. I think she just conveyed the idea that good wasn't good enough, and I think the skill development and critical thinking skills that that year developed were also instrumental. But I also think, I don't know, there's something about that year that probably instilled within me that ethic that you just have to keep pushing to get better and better, and that if you work hard enough it will pay off.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

In your first book, perhaps three quarters of the way through, you recall realizing how important it was that your staff communicate well. Not only to communicate effectively, but to write well. Does that go back to Mrs. Fish in a way?

Wendy Kopp Interview Photo
Wendy Kopp: Mrs. Fish, and another legendary teacher in my life who was our journalism teacher. I wanted to be a journalist. I was the school newspaper editor. Actually, I think it was the journalism teacher, more than anyone else, who taught me to write. I did leave high school with writing skills which I'm afraid are too few and far between among our student population at this point.

Twitter and Facebook don't really encourage a great essay.

Wendy Kopp: This isn't the most extraordinary thought, but the fact that I had strong skills, without those I couldn't have done what I did.

Strong communication skills?

Wendy Kopp: Strong basic writing skills and thinking skills. Everything traces back to the strength of an education.

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This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 17:30 EST
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