Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix ’98) delivered the closing keynote at this year’s Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference, where the theme was “Never Standing Still: Leading Through Uncertainty.” The post below is adapted from her remarks.
We do indeed live in uncertain times—politically, socially, and economically. And how we exercise leadership in times like these—not only how we respond in this moment, but how we keep moving forward to shape the future—matters so much to the lives of millions of students, their communities, and our country.
There is no one singular solution to all the challenges we face. They are complex and multidimensional. But we do know this: We know education transforms lives.
And we also know that not all students have an equal opportunity to attain an excellent and equitable education. We cannot accept that where you happen to be born is a key driver of your opportunities in life—and too often that’s still the case in America.
Teach For America has always rejected that reality. It is fundamentally unfair. And we know for certain it does not have to be that way.
We talk a lot in education about how things aren’t changing fast enough—but the truth is, things have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. When I joined Teach For America in 1998, teaching in a public elementary school in Phoenix, the national conversation was still a debate about whether students from low-income communities, who are disproportionately students of color, could achieve at the same levels as their wealthier white peers.
Today, we have hundreds of schools across the country showing what’s possible when we have unwavering belief in our students and the courage to do what it takes to deliver on our promise to them. I recently had the opportunity to visit D.C., Chicago, and my hometown in the Rio Grande Valley, communities where the progress is undeniable. There are teachers, schools, and communities committed to creating a different reality for children; they know that when we have high standards for what our children can accomplish—and properly support their unmet needs—children will always rise to expectations we set for them.
“When we have high standards for what our children can accomplish—and properly support their unmet needs—children will always rise to expectations we set for them.”
This is why, despite all the uncertainty and the challenges of our time, I remain incredibly optimistic about what’s possible.
Let me share three ideas that have been important to our work at Teach For America and that guide me as I think about what it will take to keep making progress in the future.
The first is to stand firm in the courage of your convictions. For me, it’s an unshakable belief in what’s possible for all students.
This can be so hard to do right now. The amount of cynicism that exists today is so strong. The inclination for many is to say, “No, it’s not possible to change—the challenge is just too big and systemic, and forces toward inertia are too strong.” We cannot allow that cynicism to win.
Part of how you get that courage of conviction is through seeing, feeling, and being on the hook for delivering unlikely outcomes, which leads me to the second idea: Proximity ignites a lifelong commitment and passion to be part of the solution.
When we bring corps members into classrooms as teachers focused on educational equity and excellence, something powerful happens. They build authentic relationships with their students and families, deeply understanding their hopes and dreams. And that is step one of having a transformational impact. It is that trust and love that fuels outrage, a belief in what is possible, and a commitment to act to help solve the problem.
“It is that trust and love that fuels outrage, a belief in what is possible, and a commitment to act to help solve the problem.”
My last observation is around how sustainable systemic change happens. The bottom line is that change only happens when there is courageous and extraordinary leadership, and when solutions are co-owned and co-created alongside the biggest experts we have: our students and their families.
Though there is no singular solution to this problem, leadership inside and outside the classroom is the most important lever to drive change. That is why leadership has been a central part of the Teach For America model since its inception.
And that leadership needs to orient toward collective impact and understand that the community has to own and be part of the solution. Understanding the hopes and aspirations the community has for themselves and engaging them as co-creators is critical for success. Other experts—educators, policy makers, civic leaders, philanthropic partners—are essential. We also need the very latest in research and science that allows us to dream big and be data-driven in our work.
The problems we’re trying to solve are incredibly complex. But when you build authentic relationships with students and their families, when you work across lines of difference to develop a broad coalition to fight for excellence and equity for all our kids, and when you stand in the courage of your convictions—there is no challenge too great, no problem we can’t solve.
We all know the work is unfinished. We know that there are still so many opportunity gaps. It is what we choose to do with this knowledge that matters—do we demonstrate the courageous leadership needed? Do we summon the political will to act? Do we fulfill the promises we have made? Those choices will shape the future for our children.