Teach For America CEO on “De-Centering Me” and the Future of Education

Elisa Villanueva Beard says artificial intelligence in the classroom brings opportunities and risks

April 14, 2023
Innovation, Leadership


Perhaps it’s ironic that the CEO of Teach For America learned resilience when she almost gave up on college. Elisa Villanueva Beard said her mother told her she was not welcome home until she earned her undergraduate degree from Depauw University.

“It took a lot in me to ask for help,” Villanueva Beard said in a Distinguished Speakers Series interview with Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “I learned how to ask for help at the age of 18, I learned how to say ‘I don't know how to do it, I need help.’”

Now the CEO of Teach For America, Villanueva Beard reflects on that moment of resilience often.

The experience inspired her to keep showing up, setting her on a new trajectory and leading to a breakthrough. She said it was a lesson in leadership.

“I started to realize I always had the capability to do it,” she said.

Villanueva Beard said she first learned about the organization through a Teach For America corps member.

“This woman just lit up about what she was up to, and the belief she had in her kids. And she started to tell me about all of the challenges that her kids have,” she said. The conversation left Villanueva Beard wanting to join the organization because she saw it as a group of people determined to work with kids, families and other educators to ensure that children received the education they deserved.

“I remember thinking, ‘I want to be part of that team of people, who cares that fiercely, will literally not give an inch for what is possible, and are all in,’” she said.

“De-centering Me” and Purpose-Driven Leadership

A self-described impact-driven person, Villanueva Beard rose from a Teach For America corps member, teaching first and second grade, in 1998, to co-CEO in 15 years. In 2015, she become the organization’s sole CEO.

The recipe to her success and getting noticed in the workplace: "decentering” herself.

“The style that I have is being clear on what I want to accomplish, but it not being about me in the process,” she said.

She encouraged others looking to be recognized for their work to be collaborators, servant leaders, and willing to learn.

“Stick with things long enough to learn,” Villanueva Beard said, because it allows for time to have instructive lessons about your own leadership, how you manage through things you do not understand, and your own failures.

“You really figure out what you're made of, and what your organization is made of, when you're going through the hard stuff,” she said.

While becoming CEO of Teach For America was never her ambition, Villanueva Beard credits the team she built around her with helping her get there.

Sticking to Mission

Villanueva Beard said it takes a lot of interventions to address education inequity. Teach For America recruits educators to channel their energy and leadership into having an immediate impact on education for children who may not have access to as many opportunities as peers elsewhere.

“Our focus and our contribution is leadership, exceptional leadership—equity-oriented, purpose-driven leadership, that is who we are,” she said. “We're saying ‘let's bring incredible leaders to work alongside many others doing really good work, to have an impact.’”

Villanueva Beard said through feedback from principals and students, she believes the organization’s teachers are doing right by kids.

“That keeps us on the mission. But it doesn't end there,” she said “Getting into the classroom literally changes the hearts and minds of adults too.”

She believes the teaching profession can be transformational for people who follow that path.

“You see all the inequity, you sort of just can't live the same,” she said. “Whether it's staying in the classroom, or working outside of education, we need incredible purpose-driven leaders, leading systems at every level of an ecosystem.”

Villanueva Beard said teachers are [a major] lever to student success, and they need more support. She said teachers are being asked to do more with less, and they are not paid adequately.

“We don't invest in our educators, we don't set the expectations of what we need and want,” she said.

Artificial Intelligence in the Classroom

Villanueva Beard is looking to technology and innovation to help repair the American education system, which she said “is not preparing kids to have the skills, capabilities, confidence, understanding of self-critical thinking, to understand media and information—all the things that we need our kids to know.”

Villanueva Beard said Teach For America is looking for more ways to incentivize innovation. 

“I don't know how we get out of the crisis we're in without deep innovation and reinvention,” she said. While she said learning is a deeply human experience, technology does offer new ways for teachers to connect with students, including artificial intelligence. She said AI brings huge opportunities, including the ability to personalize and give access to learning and feedback.  

Teach For America is testing AI-enabled tools that could improve the classroom experience, including TeachFX, which evaluates student engagement. 

“It is giving the teacher real-time feedback on how much this teacher is speaking, how much the students are speaking, what students are speaking—the quality of the questions, and the teacher is able to respond to that,” she said. Other AI tools have the power to help boost efficiency in connecting with students, and she said she is interested in continuing to learn about those resources. As an organization, Teach For America is still figuring out its strategy for AI.

“There's also massive risk—massive inequity, ethics questions—that come with this,” she said. Villanueva Beard does not believe the education system is prepared for the impact of AI, and it is not managing its risks well enough. 

While some school districts have moved to ban ChatGPT, Villanueva Beard said children still have access to it and want to learn about it.

“We're not managing it. Instead, we're trying to control, which is, you know, what I'm most worried about,” she said.

Recruiting and Adapting for Gen Z

Villanueva Beard says Teach For America was built by and for a different generation than it is serving and recruiting now.

“Now we have Gen Z (as teachers) and there are different conditions and interests of every generation and expectations that folks have,” she said. “We are having to adapt.”

Villanueva Beard is working to minimize the barriers of costs and salary to entering the education field.

“We need this generation of young people who are digital natives, who see the problems, but see solutions very differently, to be really energizing the system with creativity,” she said. “What I find is that we have a generation that cares so deeply about the world—about solving systemic inequity, about justice, about systemic racism—and wants to be in the arena.”

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