Some time ago, I attended a gathering of social entrepreneurs who went around and around debating whether attaining significant scale was important, or whether social entrepreneurs would be better off staying small and working instead for system-level change.
The answer really depends on your theory of change. For the social enterprises around the world that form the Teach For All education network, that strategy centers around cultivating and supporting future leaders who will enact systems change in their nation. The goal, borrowed from Teach For America, is to train a sufficiently large number of local, regional, and national leaders who possess the understanding and conviction needed to push for change. The change we seek is straightforward: to ensure that all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Hence, our theory of change at Teach For All is not to grow to the point where the partnering organizations provide all—or even a substantial portion—of a nation’s teachers or leaders. Rather, the goal is for each national organization to reach a scale at which it produces enough leaders to ultimately transform the system.
With that goal in mind, Teach For All network organizations are asking themselves several important questions: How do we compete with our nations’ top recruiters to attract talent; how do we improve and scale systems for training and supporting teachers so they succeed in their classrooms and learn lessons for a lifetime of leadership and advocacy; and how do we accelerate teachers’ development as leaders who work collectively to bring about fundamental change?
I started grappling with the question of how to enact change globally when I began meeting social entrepreneurs who were determined to adapt the Teach For America model to their home countries. Teach First had already launched in the United Kingdom in 2003, with participants committing two years to teach in primary and secondary schools in low-income communities across England and Wales, then becoming lifelong leaders for change working from inside and outside of education. Four years after the launch of Teach First, its CEO Brett Wigdortz and I started receiving requests for support from social entrepreneurs in countries around the world so we decided to launch Teach For All.
As we designed our strategy, the conviction that success would depend on local social entrepreneurs guided us. Their challenge would rely on their developing a vision for adapting the model to their countries while mustering the passion and commitment necessary to overcome multiple obstacles. At the same time, we knew that a global organization dedicated to sharing and learning across borders and contexts could play a significant role in accelerating international educational progress.
Since launching in 2007, Teach For All has grown to include 34 independent organizations, including its founding partners Teach For America and Teach First, in every region of the world. Teach For All forms partnerships with organizations that share the same theory of change and are committed to eight unifying principles, including placing participants for two years, measuring impact, partnering with public and private sectors, and remaining independent of government control. We then support their growth and development in four main ways:
- Direct support: We share knowledge and provide direct support around critical topics, including how to build public and private sector support, recruit and select participants, develop strong teachers and alumni, and create strong organizations. As one example, because recruiting the highest-potential candidates requires relationship building, Teach For All’s recruitment specialists help network organizations develop strategies to identify top talent and convince the candidates to apply and join.
- Facilitating connections: We invest in bringing together representatives of the international network—the CEOs, staff, teachers, and alumni—because they’re a powerful source of support and inspiration for each other. In April 2014, the Teach For All Global System Change Conference brought staff and alumni from 19 partner organizations to Santiago, Chile, for a three-day event on the topic of achieving systems change by empowering our alumni.
- Global resources: We use our position as a global organization to seek additional resources for our partners. For example: Deutsche-Post DHL provides financial support and fosters local employee engagement at nine network organizations; Credit Suisse, through financial support and via their Global Citizens Program, helps to build the capacity of Teach For All and network partner organizations; and Teach For All connects network organizations to Salesforce so that they can save time developing contact management systems.
- Leadership development: To develop staff, participants, and alumni across the network, we pull people out of their contexts to advance thinking and expose them to diversity of thought. For example, to support network CEOs, we host monthly CEO workshops on topics such as “building a leadership team with shared ownership” and “determining when and how much to grow.” We also organize an annual retreat for the CEOs to foster relationships and introduce them to new leadership paradigms.
We do all this while working to build a culture and the systems necessary to support an impact-driven network that is constantly learning.
When we first started Teach For All, I was worried about whether such a decentralized organization could be successful. While these are early days and there are many challenges across our network, I’ve been amazed to see tremendous momentum, which I believe comes from the combined power of visionary entrepreneurs and a global support system.
Our experience challenges notions that quality scaling requires top-down, centralized approaches. It reveals the power of entrusting committed people with full ownership, while investing in their development and enabling them to learn from and support each other. I’ve seen incredible growth and development among network members, as they shoulder the tremendous responsibility of fueling effective national movements for change. I’ve seen that with time and perseverance, they overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. I’ve seen their innovations influence the practice of our most-seasoned network organizations.
Now, as the organizations in the network grow their impact, I’m thinking about national strategies to capitalize on the power of local social entrepreneurs and to create platforms for learning and sharing. Would national education organizations achieve greater impact through embracing the decentralized strategy used by Teach For All? Would it be better to spend national resources on building a culture and an infrastructure to support local education leaders and enable learning among them, rather than through centralized accountability?
Given Teach For All’s approach and the innovation we see across the network, our partner organizations will no doubt discover the answers to these questions before long. And then we’ll be able to spread those answers to inform the choices of other network organizations.