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Donor Q&A: Katherine Finnegan, Finnegan Family Foundation

May 4, 2021 New Classrooms

Katherine Finnegan is the President of the Finnegan Family Foundation in Chicago. Since 2014, the Foundation has partnered with New Classrooms to bring Teach to One to students across the city and has supported our work with some of our longest-standing school partners.

Tell us about your vision for the future of education.

When I think about the future of education, equity is at the center of everything. And if we truly want to advance this, there is so much we need to consider. We need to support growth mindsets, advance critical thinking, and allow students to explore their passions. We need to meet students where they are, support them in becoming self-directed learners, and to provide experiential opportunities even for those in younger grades. We are so often stifled by industrial ways of thinking about education, but we need to be more creative. And in addition to supporting students’ academic growth, we need to provide wrap-around services that meet their non-academic needs. We knew all of this before the pandemic, but it has become even clearer in the past year. I’m so glad to see that these issues are finally being talked about in more spaces.

How does New Classrooms’ work fit into this vision?

At its core New Classrooms is centered on meeting kids where they are. Their approach combines rigor with passion, and even empathy, to foster students’ love of learning, inspire them to thrive, and to get excited about the future of their education.

How do you see a program like Teach to One impacting teachers and students?

More than ever, this year has taught us about the importance of self-directed learning. It also showed us that technology is here to stay. Combining self-directed and individualized approaches with technology allows teachers to get a much deeper understanding of where students are—whether they need more support or whether they need to be more challenged. Many people assume that technology can replace a teacher, but in fact it does just the opposite. Teachers are the ones who guide students, and who provide critical relational and emotional support. Technology can help teachers get a stronger sense of where students are, and allow them better support their growth trajectories.

How has this past year changed your perspective or priorities as an education donor?

On top of ensuring that our grantees are doing well, we had to make sure that some more foundational needs were being met—that students and teachers were receiving emotional support, that students had food. At the same time, the past year has also shown that we need to go even deeper into personalized learning. More funders are realizing how much this matters in light of the pandemic.

We also recognize that school and teacher leadership is important too, and more funders are seeing that as well. We need to ensure that leaders are prepared to adapt to new contexts, that they can access and share best practices, and that they can develop a strong vision that can be communicated to teaching staff. This is critical to teacher support and retention.

What words of encouragement do you have for teachers this year for Teacher Appreciation Week?

I like to think that this was a breakthrough year in terms of people finally seeing what a pivotal role teachers play in their children’s lives. Teachers are developing our next generation of leaders, allowing them to be creative, asking students deep and hard questions, and also ensuring they feel safe and welcomed. Teachers are giving our students a sense of inclusiveness and belonging, and teaching them how important they are. It’s our turn to say thank you, and we definitely don’t say it enough. They are truly our unsung heroes!