Building Leadership Capacity for Systems-Level Change

Teacher standing and speaking

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in Teach for America’s final interview round. For those of you unfamiliar with Teach for America, it is a nonprofit service organization committed to eliminating educational inequity in the United States. It does this by recruiting recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in underserved and lower income school districts.

At least, that’s the way most people understand it (including myself until this interview). However, this two-year teaching commitment is only one component of Teach for America’s work. During the final interview round, one of the key points the recruiters wanted to get across to us is that Teach for America is about much more than just sending smart young people to low income schools.

Teach for America believes that education as a system is broken, and it is their mission to fix it. They recognize that sending smart young professionals to teach is a key element, but this comes nowhere close to addressing the need of the whole system. National, systems-level change has political, business, non-profit, and social components that all need to be pursued simultaneously. This requires a cross-sector group of leaders with a passion for education reform and a wide range of skill sets.

Ultimately, Teach for America hopes it will empower young leaders to become life-long advocates of education reform in whatever field or discipline they pursue. The real power of Teach for America, I think, is in the alumni network they are building. Many people see Teach for America as simply comprised of its current teachers, but these individuals are only the start of a growing force of leaders across all sectors positioned to engage education reform from every angle. This is part of the reason why they so willingly recruit individuals with no previous teaching experience and no plan to continue teaching afterwards.

UnSectored encourages us to question current systems and brainstorm positive change. Some of the most difficult and inconclusive discussions arise when these are national or international systems changes. The sheer complexity of the issue can often be overwhelming. I don’t believe that there is a right way to engage systems change, but I think Teach for America is an excellent example of how to build the capacity to do so.

It starts with attracting and empowering young leaders. Teach for America aims to invest in their teachers just as much as their teachers invest in their students. This transformative experience exposes young leaders to education reform advocacy early on, and once the two-year commitment has ended, Teach for America invests resources in keeping the alumni network engaged. Teach for America can now coordinate and leverage this alumni network and take on the various pieces involved in systems change at once. This model has far more potential for lasting impact than simply focusing on classroom instruction alone.

We can learn a lot from how Teach for America builds capacity for systems change. Can this model be applied to other systems-level issues like the environment, political reform, and poverty? It this the best way to build capacity for large-scale change at the national level?

photo credit: US Department of Education

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About the Author

Ryan Steinbach

Ryan Steinbach

Ryan is the Community Manager at UnSectored. He just finished undergrad at the University of Maryland-College Park, majoring in Marketing and Management. Formally, Ryan has worked as a social media intern for The Newberry group, Oikocredit USA, and Calvert Foundation. When … Continue reading

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