Face to Face With Karen Kovach Webb, Executive Director, Fund for Teachers

Christine Hall
Houston Business Journal

Karen Kovach Webb teamed with Apache Corp. founder Raymond Plank to bring his personal initiative of recognition and reward for school teachers to the public in 2001. The resulting foundation, Fund for Teachers, aims to enrich teachers’ lives by offering them the opportunity to self-design summer sabbatical experiences, returning to the classroom re-energized in ways that impact students on a daily basis. To date, Fund for Teachers has granted over $14 million to over 4,000 teachers working in 47 states. In addition to positions in the corporate arena and as a small business owner, Webb has worked in nonprofit management, strategic planning and development for over 25 years. She has served on various community school boards and concerned citizens and advocacy groups that seek to ensure adequate resources and opportunities for basic services and education. She was interviewed by Christine Hall.

How did the Fund for Teachers program get started?

During the early 1980s, Raymond Plank, having been the fortunate beneficiary of many good teachers in his life, chose to honor the influential role those teachers played in his success by establishing a modest fund at his Minneapolis high school. Fast-forward to 2001: It was serendipitous; I was ready for a new professional challenge when Raymond approached me with the idea of scaling up his pilot program. From idea to pilot program to today: Fund for Teachers has grown from inspiration to a Houston-based, national public nonprofit program that helps teachers from across the country pursue their own self-designed learning opportunities.

How do you think Houston is advancing beyond other cities or markets in terms of education?

It is hard to ignore the national debate about education reform and its impact on the economy, today and tomorrow. Houston, like cities across the country, is facing the challenge to determine and sustain effective school improvement that will equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the globally driven marketplace. A pause for reflection should be part of the deliberations as we all determine the best path forward.

What is the organization doing to supply the area with a quality base of employable people?

One in four Americans is in a school building every day. Research proves that teachers make schools successful. Fund for Teachers attributes its growth to the concerted effort to define our partnering relationships with corporate supporters and local education foundations with a commitment to shared purposes. To reach teachers across the country we affiliate with various locally based education reform groups. Fund for Teachers is somewhat unique in mission and program. We give money directly to teachers for the work that they know will most directly impact their efforts. We have been successful in bringing education reform groups from New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other places together in collaboration around our mission and granting program to foster teacher growth and learning and thereby student growth and learning. The definition and scope of “community” grows exponentially through the constructive exchanges around our “table” – teachers and students benefit immediately.

And how is the private sector, i.e. companies and corporations, reciprocating?

We use the same approach with our donors. The Houston corporate community, led by Apache, cradled FFT: Its continuing support has served as the model and inspiration for national funders. Employers have a stake in hiring future graduates who are high achievers. The purpose of business cannot separate from the purposes of education. As companies struggle to articulate and act on value propositions, Fund for Teachers provides them with a way to support teachers and education directly, with immediate impact. Our teachers’ stories are proof that doing the “right thing” is good for business. Corporations feed the pipeline to the future. Let me give you an example: Understanding that a mastery of math concepts is integral to competing on the global business front; Steve Farris, chairman and CEO of Apache, started the Fund for Teachers Pi Society. He challenged other CEOs to join him in pledging funding earmarked specifically for math-related fellowships hoping to inspire the current generation of math students through their teachers.

What’s next for the organization?

As I look to the next decade, I know that Fund for Teachers must remain focused on achieving our goals and vigilant measuring our progress. We are nowhere near the fulfillment of our aspirations for a full-scale national coverage program making self-designed learning opportunities available to all professional teachers charged with guiding our future. Our continued successful partnerships will allow us to recruit the donors and local education partners aligned around that purpose. I am confident that the Fund for Teachers’ community table will expand and grow in positive, inspiring ways. Without doubt, more students will benefit from teachers who have explored their own curiosity and deepened their own scholarship. This is my passion.