Kevin: A recent study by Miami University of Ohio found that nearly two-thirds of teachers reported increased concerns over anxiety and emotional exhaustion. In fact, with teacher shortages and student learning loss, 84% of teachers are working more than 40 hours per week. What more can we do to support our teachers? How has the profession changed as a result of the pandemic, and how can we get more young people excited about the prospect of a teaching career in this era of burnout and shortages? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Elisa Beard to find out. Elisa Beard is the CEO of Teach for America, the national nonprofit dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income students across the country. Elisa began her education career as a TFA corps member, teaching first and second-grade bilingual education to students in Phoenix, Arizona. Now she leads an organization that helps 66,000 leaders work to ensure that all children have the access and opportunity to reach their full potential. Elisa is one of our nation's strongest advocates for teachers and the teaching profession. And she is with us today to discuss what more we can do to support our teachers at this critical moment in time. Elisa, welcome to the show.
Elisa: Thank you, Kevin. I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me into the conversation.
Kevin: How did a Latina from South Texas get to DePaul University?
Elisa: Yeah. God works in mysterious ways, Kevin. So I, as you say, grew up in South Texas, right on the Texas-Mexico border. And my mom is from Mexico. My dad's family is from Mexico. And I was that kid that was told, "You will get an education. You will go to college." It was, you know, up there with faith and family as the three most important values in my home. I was the kid that did absolutely everything right. I was an A-plus student. I was student body president. I was an all-star basketball player. And I met a gentleman, Mr. Joe Disk, who was the husband of my Biology 2 teacher in my junior year of high school. And he just sort of became obsessed with my trajectory and started to get to know me and my family, he would come into my basketball games. And when it was time to apply for colleges, he said, "What do you think about DePaul University?" And I was like, "Why would I consider DePaul University? I don't even know where that is." And, you know, I had never been on a plane, Kevin. I'd never left the state of Texas. I'd never been north of Houston. And I, you know, became interested.
He, Joe, Mr. Disk, is from Indiana or was from Indiana. He passed away about a decade ago. He grew up in, you know, Sandborn, Indiana, went to IU, went to Purdue as well. And so he just thought that somehow he had this wisdom of getting me outside of my comfort zone would serve me well and help me really come into my own. And so that is why I ended up there. And I thought I was gonna be a lawyer, but the more I started to unpack what I had been through and started to understand where kids from my community end up in school, why or why not, I got turned onto this question about educational inequity. And I learned about Teach for America. And the way I learned about it is...and it swept me off my feet because I learned about a group of people who just rejected that where you happen to be born quite literally is the biggest determinant of your life outcomes and were determined to do something about it, were solutions-oriented, had this deep unrelenting belief in children, and I remember thinking, "I want to be part of that team."
Kevin: It's amazing. We had similar stories. I mean, one thing about DePaul and Wabash, they are highly academic schools, very rigorous. And if you didn't have the right foundation in high school, you know, you had a lot of work to do to catch up. I mean, similar to you, I grew up in Indianapolis, so I knew about it. I didn't expect to go there, but when I did, like you, I also dealt with some of the challenges of, you know, being one of the only African Americans on campus. But, boy, I tell you, it did change my life in terms of understanding how you set a goal, how you work toward a goal, how you get confidence in yourself by extending beyond where many think you can go and even sometimes where you think you can go. But it is fascinating.
And, to me, you latched on to the educational equity issue before it was cool. You really were one of the ones who decided, "What's happening in our communities for all children is unacceptable." And I actually shared that sentiment during my public service here in D.C. Now that you're CEO, we know that TFA, Teach for America, has almost 70,000 of its alum in schools across America. Talk to me about the vision of TFA today under your leadership.
Elisa: Yeah. You know, as you say, we have this incredible network of just exceptional leaders who are working inside of education, outside of education across 300 communities in rural and urban America with, you know, our most marginalized communities and with kids who are clear on what they want, parents are clear on what they want, and we certainly know they deserve it, and we certainly know that things can be different. And so 32 years into this work, what we're up to at Teach for America is we are just activating the full set of strengths and, you know, impact and scale that we've developed over the years.
And so we have a big 2030 impact goal that we are rooted in that essentially is rooted in pathways to economic mobility. And we are focused in education, obviously, and we know that to get economic mobility, a lot of interventions are needed, but when you look at education, there are clear milestones, educational milestones that really matter in a kid's lives that we're all familiar with that are in this work like third-grade reading, fourth-grade math, you know, eighth-grade math, the college and career readiness indicators.
And we know that if kids are not proficient and doing well at those moments, they just get locked out. They just get locked out. You get on a different trajectory. And so we're focused on that as well as social and emotional learning indicators, which is more emergent, and we're doing a lot of work partnering with places like University of Chicago to test how do you measure that so that it's rigorous and really able to figure out, what are the conditions needed for kids to fully grow as humans? Also, the conditions needed to grow academically and be able to find their confidence.
Kevin: Now, I love the direction, and I've always loved the energy, and the focus, and the commitment, and the belief system behind the TFA corps members, and that belief system centers around the fact that all kids can learn, but they need to be given the opportunities. This sort of bifurcated view of what's possible in education is almost like blasphemy. And I remember when I was a public official in D.C. and Wendy Kopp, your founder, and we got TFA in D.C. public schools. But part of TFA's birth, if you will, was the feeling that America's ed schools were kind of stuck in a time warp in terms of how they developed a lot of teachers historically. At what point in time do you think we can bring all of this together? Because I do think that some ed schools have come a long way in their changing approaches to training our teachers. But this idea of teachers being trained in the traditional "Stand and Deliver" approach to educational service delivery is not part of the future, as many of us see it, problem-solving, project-based learning, collaboration, working in teams, kids having more ownership of their education. And I've seen a lot of TFA corps members sort of embrace this a lot quicker. How do you see the future of teaching in the midst of all that you have experienced and based on the fact that there are some ed schools that haven't really changed a lot?
Elisa: Yeah. So here's what I would say about it. I mean, Teach for America came to be because we understood that the problem to ensure every kid gets a chance to lead and thrive and, you know, have all the choices in the world that we believe every child should have is a systemic issue. Like, truly, there is a system, different layers of a system that's very interconnected with healthcare and the justice system, right? Our kids don't live in vacuums. They're living in this world. They bring it all into education. And we had a belief, and we know education is just such a huge lever to opportunity and access, and so the reason Teach for America came to be born is we thought, "A lot of interventions are needed and we need to make sure that we are just recruiting incredible talent." And there's lots of ways to do that. And TFA is one way where, you know, we have focused on bringing exceptional equity-oriented leadership. And what we've watched over time happen is...you know. I had said my story. I was on my way to be a lawyer. That is literally the path that I thought I was gonna take, and then I met my kids.
And even though I grew up in a school that places corps members, you know, a school that qualifies to place corps members in, it was so different being the teacher, having the power to make choices about the expectations, the level of curriculum, the supports that I needed to provide my kids because they were coming to school with so many unmet needs and you realize, "Oh, my gosh, there's so much I have to deliver here." And then what we have been able to show over 30 years is that your life changes once you see this, like your heart changes.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.
Elisa: Your mind changes and you sort of can't go back and just say, "Well, I'm gonna now go back to the thing I was doing." You find your passion and you still might apply to law school, but you're then working to serve our kids and realize, "Gosh, kids need to... This has to get unlocked here. We need to find equity in the justice system on this dimension that's really impacting our kids," whatever it is. And, at the end of the day, 67% of our alumni have remained in education, and the next 15% after that have a career serving low-income community. So it is pretty remarkable what we've been able to achieve and the kind of the talent that we've attracted. And we believe we do really need many interventions, and the solution we provide is leadership.
And to go to your question about what has to change, I mean, you started to allude to this, Kevin. COVID showed us, I don't know, the best case for change that we could ever imagine. A lot of us were very attuned to the inequities of the system. A lot of us have been working on that for, you know, generations. And that was clear. That became clearer to most Americans that were able to see like, "Oh, wait a minute, people need food." I mean, like, schools provide food to kids. Like, all the things that schools do, they're just such major institutions to hold a community together, and when that went away, that infrastructure went away, it revealed so much. So that became clear.
What I also think became clear that we have been talking less about, which you've been alluding to here is how outmoded our system is. We live in a 21st-century digital society. Our education system was not created for this society to be responsive to the jobs, the realities, the fact that everyone is so connected, you know? We are all hyper-connected. There's so much information getting thrown at us, and so you have to ask the question that we didn't ask over 100 years ago. The answer was different over 100 years ago, which is, like, what's the purpose of education? And given all the tools and everything we have now, what does the implication of that on how we educate our children? What's the role of a teacher in this context? You know, and right now, what we keep doing is piling on on the teacher role.
Kevin: One thing I wanted to ask you when you talk about teachers in the future and COVID is the teacher shortages and the burnout, because a lot of teachers and a lot of your teachers who have...many have even stayed in education, it's a grind because so much is layered on top of teachers. What can we be doing to help with the mental health and stability of our teachers who are expected to do so much for our young?
Elisa: I, by and large, believe that the people work in the system doesn't, like we don't incentivize the right things. Even, you know, in the middle of COVID where we could have really had a breakthrough, open the door to a new way of, you know, creating a learning culture, a new way of supporting teachers, etc., focusing on the broader outcomes that matter for kids, you know, we've got to just rethink it. But to the point of just all that our teachers are carrying, you know, from having to be in the middle of the divisive political debates and culture wars to all the demands that, you know, continue to get layered onto teachers, and then the mental crisis that is happening with children and with adults. And, you know, I'm glad you brought it up so pointly, Kevin, because I think people think this is like a secondary thing, like let's focus on the academics and let's focus... And, of course, you and I... I mean, kids need to learn how to read and do math, 100% need to know computational thinking, etc., and there's no path to it if people are not well and people...
Kevin: No. State of mind matters.
Elisa: ...are not well. And the brain science tells us this. So it's not even an instinct. It's not even a preference. There is no way to unlock learning without taking care of people. And I think what we can do most to support our educators in this moment is to stop with the binaries. Like folks wanna...let's talk about the kids, not the adults. Well, you sort of can't talk about the kids and taking care of our kids if we're not taking care of the adults who are responsible for those children. And so on the mental wellness, you know, I think we just got to figure out, how do we invest to ensure that our teachers have the resources, the supports, and the access to take care of themselves?
At Teach for America, we made a choice to partner with BetterHelp, which provides free resources to therapy, texting, phone calls, groups. Our teachers had full access to that. It was something like a third of them had accessed it within just a few weeks of having the ability to use this. So the need is so clear, and we've got to figure out how do we stop pitting people against each other and having these polarizing conversations and be more solutions-oriented, center equity, center humanity of all of our people to start to generate solutions that are within our community?
Kevin: Yeah. That's well said. And one thing you alluded to which we have to be mindful of, balance is important. We're in a society where either/or sort of reigns. And as you and I both know, most of the solutions are not on the extremes or the extremities. And I think the great teachers are able to relate to their students in a way to allow students to feel empowered to make their own decisions about these important issues of the day without trying to insist that they think a certain way or feel a certain way about something. So, Elisa, I so enjoy talking with you. Now, I have one more question. This is what I really want to know. Are you hopeful about the state of American public education? And if so, why?
Elisa: Gosh, Kevin. So what I would say is I'm clear-eyed. I'm clear-eyed that we are in the middle of a historic moment for this country and for our education system for this generation of young people. I am clear-eyed that we are at risk of leaving an entire generation behind. That is what is at stake. And there's lots of reasons to go down the rabbit hole of saying, "Look at all the politics, all the distractions." And I will call them distractions because they're not focusing on the essence of what's most important and we continue to, you know, walk right into the hand that's trying to feed us something that isn't going to actually move us forward. And so that is very hard. And we look at the gun violence. There's lots of reasons for us to put the flag down and shut our computers down and just call it a day. We cannot do that.
Our kids... I have four sons, and in my toughest days, and there have been lots of tough days in the last two years, I have to show up with my kids and model for them that there is a reason to fight, that there has to be. We cannot be so arrogant as to know what the future holds. Nobody knows what the future holds. And when I think about all the change agents that we talk about today and learn from from the past, you know, the incredible leaders, they rejected that there was a foregone conclusion about what's gonna happen in our country. And instead, they stood with clarity of conviction and centered in values on what matters most and where we cannot give.
For me, I will not ever give in to anybody saying that there is no hope on how we pursue educating every child. That is unacceptable for any American, in my view, to say and accept. And it is a privilege for anyone to be able to say that because that means you feel comfortable and your family is taken care of, but until we get to a day where we see all of our children in this country as all of our children and feel deeply responsible will we have a different outcome. And so that is what gives me hope, is this generation of young people, what gives me hope is that I know the solutions exist within our communities. They don't need anyone. No one needs anyone from the outside. They need us all to get proximate, to be really good listeners, and really believe in the human potential of our young people who are clear on what they want and need to lead, learn, and thrive.
Kevin: I love that answer, and I love your phraseology, clear-eyed. We need to be clear-eyed and we can still be hopeful. Elisa Villanueva Beard, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Elisa: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also, I encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Elisa Villanueva Beard is the CEO of Teach for America, the national nonprofit dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income students across the country.
Elisa began her education career as a TFA corps member, teaching first and second grade bilingual education to students in Phoenix, Arizona.
Now she leads an organization that helps 66,000 leaders work to ensure that all children have the access and opportunity to reach their full potential.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.