Teach For America's Rea Foster on Building Culture in a Non-Profit Environment
1. What about the culture of Teach For America originally attracted you?
I came to the organization in a less traditional way; I’ve never done the Teach For America program myself. I started my career as a private attorney and made a deliberate career switch to work for Teach For America. Teach For America attracted me for two reasons: its mission and its people. In terms of its mission, being part of an organization that is committed to ensuring that one day every single child in this world has an opportunity to get a great education is awe-inspiring. To think that I could work for an organization full time whose mission could literally change the world and that that could actually be accomplished in my lifetime was something that was so personally motivating that I had to be a part of it.
The second reason I made a deliberate change was Teach For America’s people. Teach For America connects some of the highest caliber of people in our country. We, quite frankly, recruit people that could do anything in this world. They could be highly-successful business leaders, elected officials, doctors, professors, or anything between. Yet, we convince them that instead of doing those very significant, influential things, to first change the world through education. And they do it! So, it was very easy for me to quit my job as an attorney and come work for an organization that was made up of that caliber of people all working towards a remarkable charge for our country.
2. What were the take-aways from the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship that you knew would make a difference in your mission at Teach For America? Did you change anything about your personal leadership as a result of UCF 2018?
The Fellowship was perfect timing for me because it was approximately one year after I had assumed my COO role for Teach For America Dallas/Fort Worth. Part of that role was being the guardian of our staff culture which is made up of about 50 people. At that moment in time we had a good culture, but we were definitely interested in making it a great culture. After attending the Fellowship, I would say two or three big learnings stuck with me. The first one being a refresher and re-anchoring on the power of remarkable moments and how to create those in a more organic, fluid, and ongoing manner. We had done some good work on having some remarkable moments here and there in the very predictable places. Coming out of the Fellowship, I was much more intentional about creating them. For example, creating random surprise and delight moments in our office or finding ways to include significant others more often and more strategically. And just finding ways, big and small, to include people and show our staff how much they matter.
The second lesson was around how much of your culture is built or not through deliberate storytelling—the circulation of positive stories that reinforce the culture you desire. Since the Fellowship, I’ve been more intentional about sharing good news. I’ve noticed that the more myself and senior leaders share positive stories, the more I see others do the same about our teachers, alumni, and about how we operate as a staff. Storytelling is an underutilized tool to building organizational culture that I look forward to continuing to leverage.
Finally, in terms of my own personal leadership, I really appreciated SEAL Commander Rorke Denver’s charge to be the guardian of the culture, and that as COO my only job is, simply put, to lead. I came back more personally convicted about the flame that I carry in this seat. While no one person can own our culture, I have a responsibility to our staff to ensure that our culture is phenomenal and to constantly be looking at how we operate through that lens.
3. “Achieve Impact” is one of the values of Teach For America. How do you feel that you are moving the needle for educational change?
In my mind, Teach For America is not only just moving the needle for educational change, we are leading the way for educational change, especially in the city of Dallas. Teach For America has been in Dallas for 10 years now, and in that time, Dallas Independent School District has become the fastest-improving urban school district in the state of Texas. It’s about the Teach For America teachers and students who are excelling at the highest levels and defying the odds. It is Teach For America leaders that are paving the way for policy changes and innovation in the district. Years ago, there were 43 Dallas schools that were considered failing and today there are just four. Teach For America has definitely been a force behind so much of the transformation in education that is happening in Dallas in just the last 10 years.
4. We cannot imagine how anyone could question the mission to “end educational inequity.” If you ever have to explain the mission, what are your key points?
We start with the fact that opportunity is not equally distributed in our country right now. Potential is, but opportunity is not. Where you grow up, your zip code, largely predicts what opportunities, for better or for worse, you are likely to get in life. Because of that, kids of color and kids growing up in low income communities are disproportionately impacted by that reality. Teach For America exists to change that and to make it true that opportunity can be equally distributed to every single child in the country. Our approach to doing that is all about people. It is about finding remarkable people, that could do anything in this world with their life and their career, and telling them to channel those strengths and those talents into public education. We then train them and develop their leadership so that they firstget fantastic results with their kids in the classroom. We then go on to support them for a lifetime of impact. When people join Teach For America, it is not just about a few years but it is about a lifetime of impact for change in education.
Beyond what we do, I also think it is important for people to know that this problem is solvable.. The education system is massive, and like so many of our societal challenges, oftentimes the general public can think “this is hopeless, so why should I pay attention?” My aim is to inform people that this problem is actually quite solvable and it’s solvable in our lifetime. How cool would it be for us to tell our children that we took up this issue and made it one less societal challenge that they had to deal with?
5. As you alluded to, storytelling can open understanding to our organization’s mission. What is your favorite Teach For America success story?
Even when I think about Teach For America at a national level, my favorite success story right now is Teach For America’s impact in Dallas simply because it illustrates the power of many. Ten years ago, before Teach For America was in Dallas/Fort Worth, principals will tell you that the schools were operating in a vacuum. They felt like they were the only ones that cared about the issue. Community leaders will tell you that education in Dallas was an unhappy place at the time and that some students and families felt that way because they knew they weren’t getting a fair shot in life. So, you had a committed group of leaders made up of all facets of life – parents, teachers, community leaders, elected officials – that came together and said they were fed up with that being the case and they wanted to do something about it. They brought Teach For America to Dallas and it all started with a small group of 90 people.
Fast forward 10 years now, and we have a network of 1,300 Teach For America leaders in this city, and Dallas has become one of the fastest improving school districts in the state of Texas. To think about what is possible on a major scale, not just in a classroom, not just in a school building, but what is possible for an entire city in terms of being a place that educates all children is hugely inspiring. There’s no doubt that Dallas is leading the way right now and the whole state of Texas is paying attention.
About Rea J. Foster
As someone who alphabetized her VHS movie collection as a child and carried a leather bound Franklin Covey planner in the 6th grade, Rea was born for efficiency, effectiveness, and simply put, getting things done.
As Chief Operating Officer, Rea is responsible for ensuring that Teach For America-Dallas-Fort Worth has the right people, processes, and systems to fulfill its mission of ending educational inequity in our community. She oversees all business functions of the organization, including development, marketing, human resources, finance, and operations.
Prior to her work at Teach For America, Rea was a litigation attorney in Washington, D.C. with a pro bono practice addressing civil rights and education issues. She graduated from the University Of Iowa College Of Law where she also served as the Managing Editor of The Journal of Gender, Race, & Justice. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics.
Rea, a Texas native, lives in East Dallas with her husband and bilingual preschooler. When not with family, Rea can be found advocating for children as a Dallas CASA, on the Peloton leaderboard, or binge watching Hallmark movies.
Together, we truly can build Unstoppable Cultures!