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How could a social entrepreneurship initiative like Teach For America work in Japan, where poverty seems almost nonexistent? Or is it really nonexistent?

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The Challenges of Social Entrepreneurship: Teach For America & Teach For All

Teach For America CEO Wendy Kopp shares some of her key lessons learned, from team management to business strategy.

Transcript:

Poverty in Japan: Why the Silence?

Yusuke Matsuda:

People think, “There’s no poverty, there’s no issue in education, we’re fine.” But what I found out is that’s not true. Through my experience, for example: I was a middle school student who really suffered from the education system. I know of other students or other classrooms—there’s a number of students who are suffering from the system.

One example might be the poverty issue. People think that Japan doesn’t have poverty, but if you look at the data, that’s not true. If you look at the OECD relative poverty rate, Japan is the fourth highest in the OECD countries. It’s very close to what the numbers are the United States. So why is it that we feel it’s this different? I think one thing is because in the United States, it’s very concentrated. If you go to these areas, you can really see it. You can feel it when the poverty rate is over 90% or the crime rate is very high.

But in Japan, it’s very dispersed. So in every region, every community, you have 10–20% of students who are receiving government welfare in order to study. Of course, there are districts—for example, that Teach For Japan is supporting—where the poverty rate is close to 50%. And if you go to those communities, you can feel it. But it’s very rare, for example, for government leaders or business leaders to step into those communities. There’s no one who’s advocating for the issue.

So what’s happening in Japan is it’s like a zombie. For a long time, the poverty rate is increasing and increasing gradually. Seven, eight years ago, no one, nobody was talking about this. But now, suddenly, it’s in the media. It’s because of one or two cases where there was a student died from poverty. There was a consequence, and then the media was there.

But the point is, the issue is there. For me, I sensed it because—I saw the data, but not only just the data. I asked my friends, the teachers, my colleagues, and I also reminded myself of how I was suffering within the system. So, it was my personal journey to make people realize how important this issue is and how severe the situation is.

Finding a Way to Pay it Forward

Matsuda:

I had a great teacher who transformed my life. He saved my life. That’s one of the biggest reasons that I have [for getting involved with education]: I had a person who saved my life. I need to pay it forward. I need to give back.

I still remember—I was bullied when I was in middle school and I had Mr. Matsuno, my physical education teacher who helped me out. And I went to him, when I was back in high school, to say thank you to him. And I said, “Thank you. You saved my life, and I wanna give back.” But the comment that he made was, “Don’t give it back to me. Pay it forward to the students that are in a similar situation.” And I thought, “Oh, this adult is very cool. I wanna be like that!”

So I’d never thought about becoming a physical education teacher. But because of Mr. Matsuno and his inspiration, I decided to become physical education teacher. So I think it’s like a calling for me. I need to continue paying forward.

But the other point is—I think this is what Wendy mentioned—once you’re out there and you’re shouting out your vision, there are actually a lot of people who say, “No, it’s not gonna work.” It’s not gonna work in Japan. It worked in the US, but not in Japan. Or, there’s no poverty in Japan, or the education system is fine, or you’re too young, or whatever.

But out of those people, there are one or two who contact you and say, “You know, I really believe in this. This is something that I was already thinking of. And thank you for starting it. I want to join.” Or there are people who say that, “Education is crucial, and teacher development is crucial, and having diverse young potential leaders coming into the classroom is something meaningful. So I would like to invest in you, donate some money.”

Or there’s the board of education. Out of whatever is said, or whatever’s believed in the system, there are teachers or a board of education, teacher recruiters, who are saying, “We’re really lacking the talent. We need more teachers.” We need teachers who are talented and passionate about education. We receive a lot of requests.

So, as you gain this force of allies, I think that’s really when it becomes a movement. And that becomes one reason or one responsibility that we need to deliver to really answer to these expectations or hopes that we receive.

3 Important Questions for Social Entrepreneurs

Matsuda:

I think there are three questions I would like to ask the young professionals or the new graduates who are thinking of their own career.

  1. How much leadership are you actually gaining through your own experience?
  2. How much direct impact are you seeing through your job or your life?
  3. How fulfilling is your life?

How much leadership are you actually gaining through your own experience?

And for the first one, about the leadership—I was a consultant before, and I also worked in various organizations. But I would say my first career, my two years of experience working as a teacher, was the most challenging. But I [found] my leadership capacity there.

As a teacher, you really need to set the vision. You need to have a common shared student vision. And you also need to communicate with each individual, all different personalities, different personal dreams and visions, as well. You also need to communicate them to build trust with them. And you also need to have the goal, build the trust, and have the plan to achieve the goal.

What you’ll realize is you cannot achieve that vision or goal by yourself. You need to engage colleagues and teachers. You also need to engage the parents. You also need to engage the community so that you can support or create an environment so that the kids will actually achieve that vision. So I think that during the two years that I was working as a teacher, every day I learned something about leadership. And I think because of those two years, because of that, I am standing here today.

The first question: think about how much leadership you’re gaining through your career. And I think leadership is gonna be the key, and it’s gonna be the key driver to make change, and make your life happy.

How much direct impact are you seeing through your job or your life?

The second [question] is how much impact do you have? I talk to a lot of business leaders, talking about impact, but there are not that many people or jobs that create direct impact to change someone’s life or make it a better world. But I think teaching is definitely the one position that enables that. Every day, you face thirty students. And these thirty students might be the changemakers for the future.

So think about that: How many changemakers we are lacking in society now? You can change that. You could change that by stepping into the classroom.

How fulfilling is your life?

The third [question] is about how fulfilling your job is. Again, in Japan, there are a lot of business people on the commuter train. You could really realize how people, by their faces looking down, how daunting [their lives] are. It’s very dark, right? I don’t really see that much fulfillment, seeing those commuters.

But step into the classroom and look at the teacher’s face. It’s a very different face. They seem happy. It’s of course challenging, but through these expressions or faces that you see, you can really see how they’re very feeling. The job is fulfilling. [All the] feedback you receive from the kids, the children—it also makes you happy. I would say my two years of teaching were the happiest moment in my life. And I’m always thinking about when I’m going to go back as a teacher.

These three questions, I think, are very important. And if any of you can, consider teaching or a Teach For program as a part of your career.

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