This interview is with Rachel Wasser, co-founder and former co-CEO of Teach For China, the two-year teaching fellowship program modeled after Teach for America and advised by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. The interview was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I’m 29, I went to Yale University, and I graduated with a degree in environmental studies.
At Yale, I basically studied rural development. After Yale, I moved to Hong Kong to take a teaching fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Then I moved to Beijing and began working in the non-profit sphere, specifically in rural development and environmental non-profit work.
In 2008, I met my future co-founders of Teach For China, and we began working together to create Teach For China.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to where you are today, and what were the key thought processes you went through at critical decision moments along the way?
A. When I was a junior in college at Yale, I did a semester abroad in Botswana. I was working on ecology and conversation and looking at rural development issues. My decision to go to Botswana, and the time I spent abroad there, six months, was what compelled me to decide that, after college, I wanted to live abroad. I wanted to work in international development. And it’s actually when I was in Botswana that I decided I wanted to move to China after I graduated.
So when I returned to Yale for my senior year, it was with the goal to travel to China after college graduation. Prior to that decision, I hadn’t focused on China in college. I had some interest in it, but academically I hadn’t spent much time studying China.
So when I returned to Yale, I started taking Chinese, I started taking classes about China and about Asia in general, and then I moved to Hong Kong afterward.
After Hong Kong, there was another decision point when I moved to Beijing. When I first moved to Beijing, I spent the first year there working as a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow working at an environmental conservation non-profit called the World Conservation Union, which works closely with governments and the UN on policy issues.
But I hadn’t spent much time at the ground level in China seeing what we were working on at a policy level. And after about a year of doing that, it was interesting work, but I felt very disconnected from the impact of that work. I also felt, to be perfectly honest, like a little bit of a fraud. I was working on policy issues and writing research briefs, but I hadn’t spent time actually in the communities and areas where we were working to influence government policy.
I had an opportunity to take a couple months to serve as a research assistant in a very remote part of China, in Qinghai, working with someone who was doing ecology and conservation research, and just being a field assistant.
This opportunity came my way, but I also had a full-time job in Beijing, and I remember being extremely nervous and anxious about talking to my boss to see if I could take this opportunity. But I felt I needed a different kind of exposure, so I decided to go to my boss to ask for a leave-of-absence to take this research position on.
And at the time, I was feeling not very inspired by my work, and not very clear about what to do next. But those two months in Qinghai, in western China, working as a field assistant, completely changed what happened next for me, because it renewed my commitment to China, it got me very excited about staying in the country, and it showed me just how diverse and interesting the place was, and how much I could actually do there.
So after those two months, I returned to Beijing and actually began studying Chinese really intensively, and I renewed my commitment to being in China. That was another turning point for me.
When I think back on it, asking my boss for that two-month leave-of-absence probably seems very simple and easy, but I remember that I was incredibly nervous about it, and taking that step was huge for me. But if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have gotten to do what I did next.
So while I was studying Chinese, I met the other co-founders of Teach For China. In particular, I met the person who conceived of Teach For China, Andrea Pasinetti.
We began talking about Teach For China and discussing the idea, and it was actually very similar to an idea I had when I was graduating from college. I had really wanted to do a program like Teach For China; I had wanted to work in a rural community in China; I had wanted to be a teacher; I had wanted to work side-by-side with Chinese peers.
So I got really excited about this idea. I’d had that experience as a Yale-China Fellow, and again as a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow, and I had some experience writing grants and working in the non-profit sphere. So it was a good fit and we started working together on Teach For China, in particular working on a grant to the Ford Foundation.
At that time, in the summer of 2008, there were also many other different directions I was interested in exploring. I’d been working in the environmental field previously, and I was really interested in environmental consulting; I had actually found a position consulting for a green tech company, and I ended up taking a part-time job with them while I was simultaneously working with Teach For China.
If you then flash-forward 6-9 months, I was working half-time with this green tech consulting startup and half-time for Teach For China. There was a period where I realized I wouldn’t be able to continue to do both going forward, and staying with the green tech company was the much less-risky decision.
It was a relatively small team, and I was in a position of some responsibility, but it wasn’t a very high-level position. Somebody else was taking all the risk, was putting in the money, and it was an exciting organization and I liked the work.
But on the other hand, Teach For China was at its very beginning stages, and I was one of four people working on it at the time. I knew that if I left the green tech company and went to work for Teach For China, it would be uncharted waters and I would have tons of responsibility. We didn’t know what was going to happen, it was extremely exciting, and we saw a huge opportunity to make a difference. We were getting some traction, and we were incredibly excited about it, and so I decided to take the plunge.
I quit the green tech job and began working full-time at Teach For China. Four years later, it’s an organization with 250 teachers in the field, working in two provinces, and it’s one of the most prominent non-profits in China. And I got to have the experience of growing and building that, and I just feel tremendously lucky.
Q. In the first year of Teach For China’s operations, when you were just getting things off the ground, what are some of the stories you can tell about the challenges you faced and the hustling and coordination involved in making it all happen?
A. I think the greatest challenge in the first year of Teach For China was maintaining a sense of possibility that what we wanted to do was possible. It was maintaining an unwavering conviction that we would be able to create Teach For China, and that Teach For China would be able to have the kind of impact we envisioned.
I actually think this was the greatest challenge of the second year, and the third year, and it may have retreated a little bit into the background now but continues to be a huge challenge.
People often don’t tell you just how much the world is slanted toward “no.” And the number of times we heard “no,” or that this was impossible, when we were at the very early stages of Teach For China, was huge.
We were told it would not be possible to recruit outstanding recent graduates in China to teach for two years. That there was no way top students in China would be motivated by that. That it was too important for them to get a job, a house, a spouse, a car. So that was not possible.
We were told it would be impossible to prepare recent graduates who didn’t have a teacher training background to go into classrooms and have a huge impact on their students.
We were told it would be impossible to find government partners who would be willing to work with us and willing to take that risk.
We were told it would be impossible to find really talented people to work on the team, because the Chinese non-profit sphere was so nascent, because it was risky to join a non-profit.
We were told it would be impossible to get our non-profit registered.
We were told it would be impossible to get funded.
So there was this pile of “no’s” just stacked up, and the hardest thing was to hear those no’s and to hear people say it would be impossible, and still wake up every single morning and have the conviction that we could move this forward.
From the outside, that kind of conviction often looks like arrogance. I think it can also be confused with naïveté. And there is naïveté to it — I think if we had known how difficult it would be to start Teach For China, we might not have moved forward. But I think naïveté can be extremely helpful. Because really it’s a sense of possibility. It’s believing that you can do this. And that, I think, was the greatest challenge.
I actually see this with our teachers, too. We take really outstanding recent graduates, terrific young leaders, and we put them into classrooms. And they get into these communities, and they have the very best intentions, and they are ready to try to change the lives of each and every one of their students. And as soon as they get there, the no’s are stacked up against them.
They’re told, “This student is not capable of learning.” “This student does not belong in school.” “You cannot possibly reach every single kid.”
They are just told again and again that this mission is not possible. And they have to wake up every single day and walk into the classroom and believe that it is possible, and convince their students that every single student is capable of achieving at high levels.
That sense of possibility, keeping that alive, is very challenging. But what I’ve seen is that possibility is also contagious. Now people who said to us in the first year that Teach For China was impossible sit on Teach For China’s board — and are among Teach For China’s greatest supporters.
Now, we have government officials working with us that are seeing that this kind of change is possible. They are seeing students in Teach For China fellow’s classrooms be put onto different life paths. That can be done. And you see that sense of possibility with government officials, you see it with local principals, you see it with donors, you see it with incoming fellows.
I mean, the questions we get from people we’re recruiting now are so different from the questions we used to get. The questions we used to get were: “Is this possible at all? I don’t think it is.” And now the questions are: “How?”
So the sense of possibility is my greatest lesson from the first couple years of Teach For China, and I think the contagion of that is really powerful.
You know, in the very early days of Teach For China, no one tells you you’ll wake up with your heart beating really fast because you’re not sure if you can make payroll. No one tells you just how hard it is every single day, and why it’s that much more important to have that conviction every single day, and to have people who share that conviction with you.
For me, working with my co-founders, the way we were able to bolster each other up when one of us was down, being able to hear — when things really looked impossible — that it is possible, and being able to do that for each other, was really powerful for me as well.
Q. How did you inspire that sense of possibility and sense of change in the beginning when there was no track record or anything to point to showing clear momentum?
A. I think almost everyone we met with when we were first starting Teach For China thought it was a really good idea. People loved the idea. It was the right time for this idea in China.
China has tremendous problems with educational inequality, there is a real need for leadership that can work to solve that problem, and the country is at a place where it’s a perfect moment to create a movement of leaders who can work for education equality.
And so I think people got very excited about the idea. I also think our conviction and enthusiasm and energy was a huge part of what initially got people excited, before we had results, before we had fellows in the field.
I think, too, that there was a lot of reaching out to people and trying to find people who were like-minded, and trying to find people who would invest in us and who would get excited about the idea.
But a couple things were very striking to me initially. One was the degree to which people in the beginning of a non-profit, before you have a track record, are attracted to the entrepreneurs themselves and the people.
That was actually something of a challenge. Because there comes a point where your supporters and donors are very invested in the entrepreneurs, but you as the entrepreneur want to take that support and institutionalize it — you want them to be invested in the model and the organization itself.
But I think that often comes a year or two down the line. So initially people tend to invest in the entrepreneur — they invest in you. And that is a lot of pressure, but it’s about going out and meeting people and really believing in what you’re doing, being able to talk to them about it, and forming those relationships.
And it was very important to us in the early days to form relationships with people who could mentor us or point us in the right direction in certain ways. I talked about the world being slanted toward “no,” and one of the things I learned was how important it is to have people who will say “yes.”
For ten people who say it’s not possible, there will be one person who says, “I don’t think it’s possible but I will try and I’ll take a chance on you.” And that’s so important. And I hope in my life to be somebody who says yes when people come to me with ideas.
We talk at Teach For China about the “presumptive yes.” When somebody comes to you with a new idea, you’re first reaction should be “yes,” not “no.” Yes, how can we do it? And then you think about it more. That’s very powerful to have the initial reaction be yes.
So there were people who said yes to us — that was one thing. The second thing is that what was most surprising to me in starting Teach For China, and also perhaps the most difficult, was the degree to which starting an organization requires putting the cart in front of the horse.
You’re never where you think you should be, and you’re never quite where others might want you to be. Even though we were making a lot of progress and moving very quickly, it always felt we were a bit behind.
When you realize there are certain things you need to have, and you don’t have them yet, you commit to having them. And you commit to having them not only internally but externally.
One example of this is when we first went to find placement schools for our teaching fellows, we had never recruited before. We needed to have places to put our teachers and we needed to have teachers — but we didn’t have either yet. And there was no way around that. You can’t possibly recruit teachers and ask them to wait a year. And you can’t get commitments from schools a year in advance.
And especially in China, things tend to happen very late, very last-minute. So getting schools to commit a year in advance is impossible. Getting schools to commit a month in advance, or getting schools to commit in the spring — that was very challenging, especially when doing it for the first time.
So we went out to recruit on campuses not yet having placements. And we went to get placements not yet having teachers. And we knew when we went to get placements that we could get really outstanding teachers. And we knew when we went to get the teachers that we could get the placements. But at the same time, we didn’t have either yet.
It’s a bit like trying to build a raft while you’re shooting the rapids. But that’s what it is to start an organization.
Q. So how did you solve that chicken-egg problem to get the “loop” started?
A. You have to do both at once. You have to go out and get the placements as you’re going out and finding the teachers, and you have to believe you’re going to have both.
If I go to you and you’re a college student, and it’s the first year we’re recruiting, I need to be honest with you and tell you that we haven’t finalized placements yet. But I also need to sell you on the fact that we will have placements and they’ll be great and they’ll be places where you can have a tremendous impact.
And when I go talk to the schools, I don’t have teachers yet, and I need to be honest with you about that, but I also need to sell you on the fact that we’re going to have amazing teachers, knowing that we will.
So you can’t have one before the other. You have to have them at the same time. And it requires having a lot of conviction, and sometimes requires making commitments before you have the staff or funding to follow through on those commitments.
For me, that was probably the hardest thing about starting an organization. Taking that risk and believing you’re going to have it there. And you need to, because otherwise you’ll never be able to build anything, and you won’t have momentum.
Q. How did Teach For China approach Wendy Kopp and what was the story behind her agreement to join your board?
A. When it comes to being someone who says yes, I think Wendy Kopp is one of the greatest embodiments of that that I’ve ever met.
She started Teach for America immediately out of college. People thought it was a very unlikely idea and she was a very unlikely candidate to push it forward. And so I think when she meets a social entrepreneur who wants to start something like Teach For China, she has an openness, and she remembers that she herself was very unlikely and that Teach for America was very unlikely.
I think she remembers that, and that really informs her interactions with people. So what happened is, when we started Teach For China, it was very much inspired by the model for Teach for America. But in the beginning, we didn’t have any formal connection to Teach for America.
Then, in 2008, Teach for America and Teach First, which is a similar program in the UK that was independently launched ten years ago and has been very successful, together launched under the Clinton Global Initiative an organization called Teach for All.
Teach for All is a non-profit that is a network of organizations around the world that are independent social ventures implementing teaching models similar to the Teach for America model.
So after we launched Teach For China, we began working with Teach for All, and we had the opportunity to come to New York and sit down with Wendy Kopp and learn from her.
Wendy also came to China — she’s been to China three times now — and we just got to know her, and finally we asked her to be on the board. We felt she has tremendous experience and could be hugely helpful in terms of helping us to push forward Teach For China and helping us to make the right decisions.
She’s just very generous with her time and she’s someone who does say “yes.”
Q. What did you do day-to-day when you were working full-time with Teach For China? What would a given week or month in your schedule look like?
A. When we started in 2008, I was one of the leaders of Teach For China, and for the last year and a half I was co-CEO. I stepped away from my full-time staff role at the end of March to move back to the US for family reasons. I serve as an advisor to the organization now.
But over four years, my role changed dramatically, because the organization changed dramatically. We went from being a team of friends working out of coffee shops, without any regular office hours and no compensation, to being currently a 60-person organization with operations in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces, an office in Beijing, recruiters in the US, and we are opening a US office as well. So it’s a very different operation than it was four years ago.
But in the beginning, it was very much all hands on deck, where everyone was doing everything. And one of the biggest things that changed over time with my job was shifting away from being simply the executor — the person doing things, writing grants, meeting donors, training fellows.
In the first summer, I was very involved in the training of fellows. And in the first year, I visited teachers at their schools when there were challenges in the field. I often would fly down and talk with the fellows directly, and even talk with the school principals directly.
Whereas now we have a whole training and support team, and every single teacher has someone who is responsible for their professional development, their leadership, and for working with them to maximize their impact in the classroom.
So the role really shifted from being someone who is hands-on doing everything to being someone who is thinking more about how to manage people to do this and how to find the right people and grow the team.
Recruiting the right people to your team is hugely important. It’s something I started to spend more time on in the later years, and when I look back I wish I had spent even more time on it.
Finally, working with board members and external stakeholders is something I also spend a lot of time doing.
Q. Where do you see yourself ideally going in the future, and how do you think what you’ve done over the past few years will help you toward that goal?
A. Great question. I see myself for the next few years in the US. I see myself continuing to work on a mission I’m extremely passionate and excited about.
I’ve always felt it’s really important to feel passionate about your work and passionate about your mission. Spending these past four years with Teach For China has only made me feel that even more deeply now. I want to do something where I feel like I am having an impact and I’m excited about what that impact is.
One of the things I also loved about doing a startup, although it was extremely challenging, was just how steep of a learning curve there is. I love learning about new things and getting to do a lot of different things in the context of my job.
So I think you’ll see me continue to work at something I’m passionate about in an environment that’s dynamic, hopefully with people who are equally passionate.
What I’m doing now is I’m trying to figure out what’s happening here in the US, after spending eight years away, that is really interesting and that I can get really excited about.
In terms of how the past few years of my experience has informed that, I’ve learned just how important it is to seize opportunities — and that they can come in very unexpected ways. It requires putting yourself out there and being proactive.
For example, that field research job I talked about in western China came from a completely random encounter with an acquaintance. We started talking about the fact that he had done this job two summers before, and that it had been exciting and interesting.
It was a friend of a friend of a friend whom I happened to meet one night, and that took me a totally different direction from what might have otherwise happened. So I think it’s really important to put yourself out there to meet a lot of people.
I’ve realized just how important it is to listen with a capital “L” to what’s going on and to meet people and seize opportunities when they come up, even if it seems a bit risky and it’s not necessarily what you expected.
In a way, I’ve become less risk-averse. I’ve become more inclined to take risks. When I think back on what I did that might have appeared risky to an outsider, those choices in the beginning were often very structured.
For example, studying abroad at Yale was something that was very uncommon when I was there. Maybe ten percent of students did it. It’s just not a school where that many people do it.
But I knew I wanted to do that. It was a risk I wanted to take. But at that time, I didn’t feel like I could just leave school and find something to do for six months. Or go to Africa by myself for six months. I didn’t feel like I could just do it without any kind of structure. So I did a structured semester abroad program.
Moving to China probably seemed like a big risk to outsiders, too. It might have seemed like a step off the track I was on. And at the time, when I was 21, I didn’t feel ready to just pick up and move.
So I found a very, very structured fellowship. I looked for opportunities in China that were structured opportunities. That was very important for me.
One thing to keep in mind for people who are thinking about their own next steps is that different people have different levels of comfort with risk and structure, or lack of structure.
I needed a structured opportunity in the beginning. But today, I’ve become less risk-averse and I don’t feel as much need for structure. I’m perfectly happy meeting a lot of people and waiting for an interesting opportunity to come along.
When I decided it was time to move back from China to the US, and to step away from my full-time staff role at Teach For China, I didn’t want to spend time at Teach For China looking for my next thing. I wanted to be fully invested in Teach For China until the day I stepped out of that role.
I also felt I probably needed to be on the ground in the US and meeting a lot of people. And I didn’t really want to have a structured next opportunity. So that’s something that has changed for me over time because I think I’m more confident now that exciting things happen when you’re open to opportunity.
Q. What advice would you have for people who might be interested in transitioning to the social sector, or potentially even starting an organization in the future that may be as unlikely and also potentially as impactful one day as Teach For China has been?
A. One thing I would say is that being proactive and reaching out to people is hugely important.
I see a lot of people who come to China, or who are thinking about coming to China, with an interest in working in the social sector. And if someone asks me to meet, or asks me to put them in touch with other people, or asks what kind of opportunities might be available, I would be likely to try to help them out.
And I found that a lot of people have been willing to help me out. I’ll ask people, “Who should I meet?” Or “Would you spend half an hour talking to me about what you’ve been doing?” And a lot of people will say yes. People really like to be asked about their own experience — if it’s done in a tactful, nice way.
So being proactive and putting out feelers to ask people to share with you what they’ve been doing or what they’ve learned, or to share their experience about their work, is really important if you want to get into the social sector in China — and I imagine if you want to do anything anywhere.
There’s actually a funny saying we used to say about fundraising when we were doing Teach For China, which is when you ask people for funding they give you advice, and when you ask people for advice they often give you funding.
I think the same principle is true in a job search situation. When you ask people to give you their advice and expertise, and they see that you value it, they tend to be willing to help you. People want to be valued for their experience.
Finally, in terms of starting something, it’s definitely very challenging to start something but it’s also extremely rewarding as well. And if there is something you want to start, my best advice is to maintain conviction and that sense of possibility, even when it seems like the odds are against you.
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