The Transformative Power of Education: An Interview with Elisa Villanueva Beard

What do you believe is the most important way through which the lives of children can be transformed? What is the role that education plays in this potential transformation?

I do not think that there is just one single way through which a child’s life can be transformed. I think it is a combination of many factors that allows a child to meet their full potential and contribute to the world. The question for us at Teach for America has always been how to utilize our students’ strengths and assets and unleash their full potential. In order to do this, we have realized that apart from our brilliant teachers, our students need affirmation, good health care, and proper nutrition. All of these things, combined, allow a child to fully develop and thrive.

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Eager to learn – Teach for America students enjoy a day at school – photo courtesy of Teach for America

At the same time, I do believe that education is a very important component to ensuring that a child is able to meet their full potential. I speak from my own personal experience that when one is educated fully, and has developed the knowledge, the confidence, and the capacity, one becomes simply unstoppable.

Holistically educating a child has the potential to be life-changing and trajectory-changing and this is especially true for kids growing up in low-income communities. At Teach for America, we know that a kid’s ability to read, write, and do math is just as important as having good speaking skills and communications skills; all of this put together allows a kid to fully contribute to their society and become leaders.

Teach for America has been empowering students since 1989. Could you tell us a little bit about where children growing up in poverty in America are today versus were they were about 25 years ago, in terms of high school/college graduation rates, students entering college, earning bachelors degrees, etc.?

Well, progress has certainly been made over the last two decades. If we look at the data, it shows that more kids in low-income communities are graduating at a higher rate from high school than before, more kids are getting into college and completing their degrees, and more kids are more proficient in subjects like reading, math, and science. So the data tells us that kids are doing much better, in school and in college. But what is most important to realize is that our work is still unfinished. The realities of kids growing up in low-income communities still remain mired in inequity and too many children still don’t have the opportunities they deserve.

Today in rural and urban America, you have hundreds of schools across the country, where you can see that children growing up in low-income communities, who are usually children of color, can do just as well as their more affluent peers. They are graduating from high school, college and career-ready. And this provides a powerful example of optimism, hope, and progress to all of us working to provide equal access to education to all students, because only fifteen years ago, the progress we see today was basically nonexistent. But now, all of our work and research has shown us what is possible. It has shown us that education is a powerful tool and it can truly transform the lives of all students. We know that it’s possible to bridge the gaps between students from low-income communities and their more affluent peers.

Twenty-five years ago or so, the question was how do we get students into the classroom? But the question now has become, what will we do to sustain the progress that has been made? Will we create the conditions, the policies, get the teachers, the principals, and the system-leaders, that are required in order to continue to produce results? And will we take it on scale, so as to ensure that we’re able to maintain this progress? There’s still so much left to do, but in places like Washington, D.C. and Tennessee, we have seen real change in entire systems over the last decade. I am left with a lot of urgency because inequity and lack of access remain front and center for our children, but I’m still optimistic because we know what is possible when it comes to using education to transform childrens’ lives.

You recently co-wrote a blog for the Huffington Post titled, “We Need More Great Teachers.” How difficult has it been to recruit truly passionate teachers and how important are teachers when it comes to unleashing a student’s potential?

First off, teachers are obviously just so important in a child’s life. I will say that my own trajectory was changed and was transformed because of a teacher. And most kids who grew up in low-income communities, they have a story that’s been impacted by a teacher as well. At the same time, what I will say is, from my perspective, the problem of educational inequity is not going to get solved with having just great teachers. We need great teachers, that’s for sure, but what we are facing is a systemic problem. My belief is that we have a system that was not and still is not designed for children to thrive and succeed; we have policies that hold our kids back. There is no one thing that’s going to solve this problem and there are a lot of things that need to come together to solve it.

Elisa Villanueva Beard

Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach for America – photo courtesy of Teach for America

And the other thing I will say is that one of the greatest acts of leadership that anyone can take on is to be a teacher. Most people join Teach for America early on in their career and this puts them front and center on the most important societal challenges facing our nation. So being a teacher does not just help you understand educational problems, but also understand the inequities in the justice system, in the health care system, the policy-making process, etc.

So what I say is: come be a teacher. Teach for America allows you to work with people who have decided to stand up to educational inequity and be a part of the solution. We are able to put you in the center of it all, where you have an immediate impact transforming children, but also go through a transformation yourself. You learn so much about yourself, as well as learn how to lead, all the while building real character. So we always try to emphasize that when you join Teach for America, you’re joining a cadre of leaders who are part of a movement that stands for solving inequity.

What are some of the goals that the organization plans to achieve in the next few years?

So there are three things. The first is that we’re working to build a community that is all about collective action. Over the last twenty-five years, we have recruited and enlisted incredible leaders to be a part of our community. But one of the biggest lessons has been that we have emphasized a sort of individual way of operating. Of course, there is strengths in that, but we are working really hard to now focus on collective action.

There have been lots of great individual efforts, but what our observation has been is that in order to grow further, faster, it’s all about collective action. We want to create a community that learns from each other and collaborates with all of the other people and other organizations that are working on this problem. So the first goal is really to create a thriving community that really centers on collective impact.

The second thing I would say is that we need to be on the vanguard of teaching, learning, and innovation. Teach for America has always been at the vanguard of teaching and learning so we want to make sure that we’re still doing that, that we are providing rigorous learning experiences and support that allow our folk to meet their potential as teachers and leaders in classrooms and beyond.

Students and Teach for America teachers enjoy a day at school

Diversity in the classroom – Teach for America teachers work hard to ensure students both enjoy to learn and gain from it – photo courtesy of Teach for America

And then thirdly, we want to enlist the next generation of leaders who are going to do this work. We need to get the folks who are unencumbered by the constraints of the system and are going to take us to the next level of impact. And that is why it is so important that we continue to grow our movement and these efforts by enlisting those of the next generation who are ready to connect and be part of the solution.

How important is diversity, as a value, for Teach for America?

So we start off with the fact that we need every future leader of this country to join Teach for America. We would like for every qualified person to join. We also believe that we need a very diverse group of people, which means that you have teachers from privileged backgrounds and teachers who share the backgrounds of our students. But what ultimately changes the country is when you have people who have the audacity to believe in what we believe – which is every single kid deserves equal access to good education, regardless of their skin color, or where they were born, or who their parents are.

We have 50,000 people in our network right now, who are touching dinner tables from Darien, Connecticut, to McAllen, Texas, to south-central Los Angeles. But we have learned over time that it actually doesn’t matter what your background is when it comes to education children. However, when you have a shared identity with you kids, you have additional potential to have a powerful transformational impact on the students. You cannot deny that. When you, yourself, have sat in the shoes of your kids, you become a role model, someone who kids look up to and relate to in a special way.

And in our country today, most kids actually are of color, and yet most of our teachers are white. This is also not good. Our kids need to have teachers from many diverse backgrounds because they can learn from so all the different kinds of people. And this is why diversity is very important for us.

About Author

Elisa Villanueva Beard

Elisa Villanueva Beard was appointed as the Chief Operating Officer for Teach for America in 2005. In 2013, she adopted the position of co-CEO of Teach for America and is currently the sole CEO of the organization. Ms. Beard has a B.A. in sociology from DePauw University.