Non-Profit Organization - Fund For Teacher

Interview with Karen Kovach-Webb
Executive Director, Fund for Teachers

How did Fund for Teachers get started, and approximately how long ago did it expand to a nationwide focus?
We started as a private initiative of our founder, Raymond Plank, back in the late 90's. But as a public non-profit, we're going into our tenth year of funding. Every year, with the addition of partnerships, we broaden our reach and availability across the nation. I have to say that Jones Apparel Group was one of our earlier partnerships that enabled us to go into certain cities where we hadn't operated before—because that's what Jones' marketing approach was looking at. That's why we're in Chicago now, that's why we're in Atlanta now, that's why we're in Los Angeles now, because Jones said to us those were important cities to them. So we were like, okay! Let's go find local partners, and let's go into those cities. Jones partnered with us early in that process. Since then, we have continued to add states and partnerships every year.

At some point over the past ten years when Fund for Teachers has been active, Jones Apparel Group came into your awareness, or the Fund came into Jones'. Do you recall how the relationship came about?
As I understand it, some years back Jones had looked into what were some of the priorities that were important to its employees and to its customers. Through that process, Jones determined that education was very important to all the employees, and it also seemed to fit their marketing mix because they market primarily to women—and education is primarily a women's field. Which it shouldn't be, but it is.

Then Jones interviewed lots and lots of different nonprofits that would address various aspects of teachers and education. We happened to get through that process. Fund for Teachers works directly with teachers and makes sure they have the intellectual tools they need to address the challenges in the classroom. It serves no purpose, for example, to have a Smart Board if you have no context for what your students are going through as they're trying to learn.

I would imagine it's got to be very satisfying, as the executive director of a not-for-profit devoted to education, to learn there's a large company—actually a number of large companies—out there who research their own employees and research their own customers to discover that yours is an organization that fits their interests, and that they'd like to go forward in supporting Fund for Teachers' work and amplifying it.
The relationship with Jones Apparel Group has been an incredible catalyst for us. While, yes, other sponsors have joined us, Jones was the first. The exposure that we got meant more people have had the opportunity to join with us, and that has propelled us. If Jones had not signed on, Rupert Murdoch would not have been aware of us. Staples would not have been aware of us. Some of the other groups that we've been able to attract are because of Jones' initial support. We will forever be thankful to the partnership and to the employees of Jones Apparel Group. Some of the models for the way that Jones is supporting teachers and their schools are not necessarily things that are reflective of our mission per se, but more of our intent that local communities, at the individual and the corporate level, have got to support local schools—or else we're all in bad shape, as far as the country and the economy. Jones is doing all that.

On your Web site are a number of reports that some of the participating teachers have published. They document some really innovative programs, opportunities and excursions that these teachers have gone forward with.
Teachers are amazing people! Besides the fact that they can make dollars squeak like nobody else can, we have sent them to work and study in more than 113 or 114 countries, on all seven continents, on self-designed scholarship opportunities. They choose what they know they need. Of course, what any teacher needs changes as the population in his or her classroom changes. So for them to have that opportunity as professionals—to say, "This is what I need now and I'm going to go and find it"—and to have this opportunity is just transformative for their teaching practice. But it's transformative for their students who benefit as well. So, while yes, our teachers benefit, the reason we give money to teachers is because if you impact one teacher you touch more than 3,000 students over the course of that teacher's lifespan as a professional. Jones Apparel Group has helped us reach millions of children, with a different level and a different type of teacher than they would have had without the partnership.

You have had a unique opportunity to work with some especially caring and impassioned teachers. If there's one thing that you'd like people to know about the teachers whom Fund for Teachers supports, what would it be? What are some things that surprised or motivated you in your interactions with these grant winners?
I think that whether you have children or not, all of us are taxpayers. But also, we're all participants in the economy. To have people in the pipeline who are learning what they're going to need to know in order to run the politics or business or world commerce—I think that's vital to all of our success because whether I have a child or not, I don't want to be somebody who's eventually on Social Security looking to some young people who have no context of the world that they're operating in and have a small, little colloquial view. They won't be able to keep this country safe, and they won't be able to help us prosper. And so I think that's particularly important. So when we send a teacher who is right now working with students in all these various areas that we're in, some of them have as many as 63 different home languages spoken in their students' homes. To have a teacher go and spend six weeks in Laos or six weeks in a part of the Middle East, or four weeks, whatever they choose—to have a better understanding of where these children are coming from culturally and where their parents are coming from—the essential conversations that they're able to have with those parents, and the appreciation they have for how that child learns is amped up.

We have a teacher in Boston who we sent, and she did an immersion in the Middle East. The Boston public schools actually have Arabic as a language choice now, along with the Spanish and the French and the German that have always been there. She is one of Boston's first Arabic language teachers. She actually transformed her entire classroom into like you're walking into the Middle East, in such a way that helps the students who are coming through, have an awareness, to think about where the pilots from 9/11 came. And this has all happened during Fund for teachers' ten years of growth. And so we've seen a lot of teachers do this Middle East kind of thing. She's given a whole appreciation for people from that part of the world—and a context that has nothing to do with the person that I see out on the street who might be dressed differently than you or I. But also, it's not just the food and it's not just the dress, it's the rich history, the culture, and whether you agree with what they do or not, people have a different understanding. I think that is powerful.

Are there ways that individual employees at Jones Apparel Group, upon learning more about Fund for Teachers, can get involved and support the organization, apart from Jones' support at the corporate level?
We need more and more teachers to know about the opportunity to apply. We need partnerships with more local education foundations that are actively working with specific groups of schools, that they'll know about us and actually publicize to their teachers the opportunity to apply. Then we get more applications. That's an easy thing to do. It's not a monetary obligation. I will tell you that Jones Apparel Group employees, in every city were there are Jones employees, actually participate on selection committees.

What would you say is the greatest reward you've taken from being involved with Fund for Teachers that, perhaps ten years ago at the outset, you may not have even anticipated?
I have a renewed faith, and it gets renewed every time I meet teachers in different parts of the country, in the possibilities for the future of this country. I have found it's very easy to get bogged down by reading the papers and watching the news reports that are negative. But I have a renewed faith that there are very many incredible individuals dedicated to making sure that young people in this country have a much broader world. It's incredible. Plus, I've gotten to meet children whose lives have been changed by particular teachers. I have to say, if we weren't in Los Angeles thanks to Jones, I would never have gotten to meet this incredible film teacher who—actually, he got his grant, he did a film study for himself, but then he went back and he taught his kids how to do their own short films. Children are so much more adept at technology than most adults are! These kids did such fabulous work. Each one did their own film festival kind of a piece. And Fox Entertainment threw a red carpet event for them this year, and we were so very proud. And it's all because this teacher got a $5,000 grant to go do a study! Then Fox chose two or three of the students and gave them $1,000 toward their college education to study film. Those are the things that have been inspired by giving one teacher $5,000.

You plant a little seed, and there's no telling how big it's going to grow.
Yes, because the one thing about our program and that makes it unique in the country is that we have nothing to do with unions. This is education reform from the bottom up. We put the money directly in the hands of a teacher. It's incredible. We're not making good teachers out of lousy teachers, we're keeping good teachers tooled up with what they need...