Communicating a clear, inspiring, and unifying vision is the most important task of any CEO, and I failed miserably at this initially.
During the early days of Teach For Malaysia, I constantly emphasised the leadership development of Fellows and Alumni as the core purpose of the organisation. In hindsight that was definitely “what” we were doing, but it wasn’t the “why,” and it didn’t resonate with others as much as I had hoped. Many Ministry of Education officials questioned the need for an additional pathway given the oversupply of teachers in Malaysia. Financial support for the organisation was limited to a small set of very generous donors and we struggled to inspire more support. In fact, some of our own Alumni questioned the decisions that the organisation made to focus on leadership pathways.
A few loosely connected events seemed to converge between 2014 to 2016. At that time, Wendy Kopp and the Teach For All team were asking ‘difficult’ questions about Teach For Malaysia’s contextualised vision. Around the same time, I was struck by Teach First CEO Brett Wigdortz’s explanation of the five student aspirations for the UK’s Fair Education Alliance that Teach First was a part of, as none of Teach For Malaysia’s strategic goals called out student success explicitly. We considered student outcomes a secondary result of recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding young leaders as teachers in the classroom.
Finally, it was Shaheen Mistri’s infectious enthusiasm about Teach For India’s student-centered production of the musical “Maya: Find Your Light” that made me reconsider a CEO’s role within a Teach For All partner organisation. I was baffled by Shaheen dedicating almost 18 months to working closely with Teach For India students and roping in production experts from Bollywood and Broadway for the project. I eventually had the chance to watch videos of the musical and I could feel immediately why Shaheen decided to commit so much of her time to it—the students were deeply inspiring and their transformation was powerful. One of the actresses, Priyanka Patil, a formerly shy girl from a very under-resourced community, was rewarded with a scholarship to the prestigious United World College. As an alumnus of United World College myself, Priyanka’s scholarship raised my sense of possibility about what our students can achieve when we focus on empowering them.
Conveniently the Teach For Malaysia team was simultaneously exploring what an “excellent education” meant in the complex melting pot of Malaysia’s political and social context and among stakeholders such as parents, other teachers, and students. We were surprised to find that the perspectives of these very diverse groups converged around the importance of supporting the empowerment of students to lead their own learning, their lives, and the future of the country.
We formalised our vision and then cascaded it throughout our work, with student outcomes being called out for the first time as a strategic goal of the organisation instead of simply the result of developing strong classroom leadership. We integrated a leadership development camp for students to identify and solve problems in their schools or communities into our programme. This camp was successful beyond our expectations—students who never spoke in class were leading their friends to recycle more, advocate for local councillors to improve traffic conditions, or negotiate with a principal for more English enrichment programmes.
We also encouraged one of our Alumni to study and adapt the Maya Musical for the Malaysian context, and we supported another group of Alumni to launch a mentoring programme to help high-potential students from low-income backgrounds apply to top universities in Malaysia. We began communicating to donors very specifically how much it costs to empower one student through Teach For Malaysia as well as continuously highlight that every Fellow will teach an average of 150 students a year during recruitment pitches. And we significantly shifted our training and support to emphasise Fellows’ development based on student feedback.
The positive feedback from Alumni and the additional support from the Ministry of Education and prospective donors in response to our new student-centered vision were simply amazing. But for me, the most rewarding outcome was witnessing our students becoming more engaged in their learning, raising their voices, and leading change in their schools and communities.
— Dzameer Dzulkifli, CEO, Teach For Malaysia