Teach for America's quiet visionary

For someone who managed to turn her senior thesis into a 5,000 alumni-strong force of teachers, Wendy Kopp is surprisingly introverted.

When asked what she's learned about herself during a decade running Teach for America, she stalls: "This is why I thank heaven I'll never have to interview for a job," she says as she lets out a hybrid sigh-laugh during a recent phone interview.

But she can explain the apparent contradiction. "There may be a perception that leadership is about charisma," Ms. Kopp says, but "there are many different ways to move something from one place to another."

In her forthcoming book, "One Day, All Children" (PublicAffairs), Kopp reveals her own brand of leadership - a talent for management combined with an unwavering conviction about the value of TFA's mission to place top graduates in disadvantaged schools.

Unwittingly, perhaps, she also created a survival guide for the high-rolling, Darwinian world of ... nonprofits.

Kopp wrote the book because she needed time to reflect in order to really share her experiences with colleagues and other educators. "I felt as if I had seen so much and learned so much," she says.

In its first few years, TFA swung between an unlikely success and a floundering, hand-to-mouth organization. Kopp relentlessly pursued potential funders through letter writing and cold calling. She shuttled between cities and coasts, between meetings with principals and four-star dinners with philanthropists. She slept in more hotel rooms than a band on tour.

When financial stability finally arrived, Kopp was freed to deal with other festering issues: how best to train recruits, how to structure her staff, how to say no to side projects that almost lured her away from Teach for America.

Eventually, Kopp distilled the long hours down to a simple equation: Good leadership is good management. She realized that, ultimately, TFA was riding on her ability to set goals for her staff and delegate responsibility.

Kopp may shun the media, but she's not shy with a day-planner. When she was still an army of one, working out of a room in Manhattan donated by Union Carbide - her first supporter - Kopp wrote home to her parents: "I just love living like this. I love looking at a calendar and seeing that tomorrow is blank and just deciding what to do with it." This is a woman, after all, who always found an hour to run every morning, even during the so-called "Dark Years," when the next payroll was never a sure thing.

Kopp's diligence centered on her belief that a corps of teachers made up of top graduates would change the lives of disadvantaged students. Some would stay on to teach permanently at these schools, others would go on after two years to become bankers, lawyers, and executives, but would still use their influence to help young people. All would be committed to leveling the field for students.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - a certain naivete (she was just out of college and had never been a teacher herself), TFA was never just a bake-sale effort.

In Kopp's eyes, it's always been a downright movement.

She refused to start off with less than 500 recruits. She scoffed at suggestions of a pilot program in only one city. It was this same naivete that allowed her to plant herself in Ross Perot's office and refuse to leave without a donation. "I don't think Teach for America would exist today if we hadn't started out on that scale," she says.

It wasn't just youthful disregard that kept her going, but a sense of urgency, too. "I don't know how much people have internalized the fact that where you're born determines [your future]," she says.

This reality struck Kopp when she was a student at Princeton University. Her roommate, who had attended high school in the South Bronx, struggled with the academic pace of college even though she was "brilliant," Kopp says.

Kopp herself attended a top public high school in a comfortable Texas community. In college, she wondered if she could have succeeded had she and her roommate swapped backgrounds. Today, she still wonders if so many funders would have opened doors to her without the Princeton seal.

It's this sort of honesty that comes through in Kopp's book. One year after kicking off TFA, Kopp appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America." Shortly before going on air, the makeup artist examined her with disapproval: "Oh dear. We have to wake you up."

"I thought to myself that I was wide awake; it was just that I didn't know how to chitchat with this stranger," Kopp writes.

At times, Kopp describes herself with discomfiting candor, as when she recalls the first summer training institute, in 1990, to prepare the pioneer recruits for their new jobs: "While I worked behind the scenes to tackle all the issues that cropped up, I also withdrew into my shell.... I tried to be as invisible as possible.... It got to the point where I even feared going to the cafeteria."

But when it came down to it, Kopp was unshakable. "I might not be confident at every step," Kopp says, "but I believed so much in this idea."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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