Wendy Kopp's 2015 Personal Statement: The Choice to Be 'In the Arena'

Wendy Kopp's 2015 Personal Statement: The Choice to Be 'In the Arena'

Teach for All

Editor’s Note: ‘Tis the trendy season for trends, to reflect on 2014 and to make bold predictions about what next year may hold. This year, we asked thought leaders to share their outlooks on education, but with a twist. They have to frame their thoughts as a response to some of the finest college application essay prompts--yes, the very same ones that high school seniors are feverishly working on now!

Here’s what Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach For All and founder and chair of Teach for America, had to say.

Why are you “here” (doing what you’re doing) and not somewhere else?

The news this year has been overwhelmingly grave, as the world watched conflicts erupt, escalate, and persist in far too many places, affecting millions, including 15 million children. This month’s tragedy in Peshawar was heartbreaking, and is just the most visible and dramatic recent example of many devastating circumstances that undermine the progress our young people are making toward a better future.

There are also less visible struggles going on in classrooms, schools, and communities, where teachers, school leaders, social workers, policymakers and others are grappling with complex and deeply systemic challenges--from poor nutrition and healthcare, to the limitations of schools that are not set up to serve the most marginalized populations, to complex political battles--as they work to put children on a path to fulfilling their potential.

When the problem seems too vast, the challenges seem intractable, or the conversation seems too polarized, I often repeat to myself something President Teddy Roosevelt once said about the choice to be in the arena: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat...”

This is a challenging arena I have chosen to work in: the arena in which committed people are working to ensure that the world’s most marginalized children have the opportunity of a great education, the kind of education that will enable them to access meaningful employment and be the leaders our communities need.

There is no quick fix in this arena, no vaccine or technological gadget that can overcome the myriad challenges we face and unlock the potential of our children. Instead, this is a very long game, which will require us to do things differently inside and outside of education. It will require deep change, on a massive scale, and change that affects billions of people takes time.

But it is also hard to imagine a more important arena. Expanding opportunity for the world’s most marginalized is vital to the health and welfare of children, families and communities. And it is vital for our collective welfare--for prosperity, peace, and sustainability.

I feel so privileged to be working in this arena alongside millions of others, embracing the setbacks for what they teach us, celebrating the triumphs along the way and striving to accomplish something that could truly change the trajectory of the world. There’s no place I’d rather be.

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