It’s not as though Harvard discourages teaching, but the sorry fact remains that undergraduates here don’t seem to value it as a possible profession. Maybe it’s because teaching isn’t sexy. It doesn’t conjure up images of cigar-smoking business meetings or the Trump Towers. It certainly doesn’t make you think about the piles of cash won from your last brilliantly-litigated court case. Rather, it might conjure up images of that tenth grade English teacher who subsisted on chalk dust and notebook paper. Or perhaps a principal so frazzled that the idea of him smiling was laughable. It’s fairly realistic images like these that detract from teaching’s appeal. And while it’s certainly not a problem at all unique to Harvard, it’s hard to pinpoint whether the lack of enthusiasm for the profession stems from the College or the student body, or both. In Eventual Vocation studies done by and on Harvard students over the last 15 years, a consistently meager two percent were teaching in elementary and high schools. When undergraduates were asked in surveys to assess their view on teaching, many replied that it is “one of the most important roles in society,” but that teachers are consistently “underpaid and under-appreciated.” Others blamed the “poor reputation, thanks to the media.” Clearly there is a substantial disconnect between the perceived importance of the job and the unwillingness to actually do anything about it. Looking at the numbers, 38 percent cited money as the biggest deterring factor, 42 percent cited work conditions and 14 percent cited status. The remaining percent voiced peer pressure as the biggest deterrent.
These numbers are not surprising; we’re groomed to seek careers with high financial rewards and the best working conditions possible. With salaries for teachers starting at less than half those of first year I-bankers, it’s no surprise that students aren’t drawn to teaching. Clearly, much of the negative attention given to the profession is a result of the low pay, and unfortunately there isn’t much Harvard can do about that. The school can, however, work to institute as much support for budding teachers as there is for budding businessmen.
Henry J. Seton ’06, the director of the Harvard Program for International Education (HPIE), an International Relations Council program that sends undergrads into Boston public schools to actually teach classes suggests: “Harvard could help support a program for each subject area so that, for example, math concentrators could have the opportunity to try teaching math once a week if they wished.” In supporting this sort of training, Harvardians could tailor their teaching to whatever they happen to excel (or be interested) in. The university also needs to build more bridges with local public schools. As a major player in Cambridge politics and in the community, Harvard should increase its support for the surrounding schools both financially and administratively. It would increase not only our standing in the community, it would also be an organic way to help out on an institutional level.
There also should be a greater partnership between the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the undergraduate community. Seton suggests a GSE “equivalent of the Institute of Politics—a center designed to get undergrads involved and interested in education. It could have all sorts of study groups: hot topics in education, seminars with guest scholars, et cetera.” And within the existing options, most students don’t take advantage of the cross-registration options for undergrads at the GSE. Students can take classes ranging from American educational policy to method-specific classroom approaches. These are probably the best way to spark interest in teaching, and the College should publicize these as a viable option. Even if you don’t want to be a teacher, budding politicians or academics could learn quite a bit from a policy or theory class.
Shannon T. Hodge ’00, a current Lowell House tutor and candidate at the GSE explains, “several Houses, including Lowell, are making education a priority by appointing Pre-Education Tutors who can assist students who are considering the field.” This is a big step in the right direction; perhaps all houses could have this resource. Another great but not widely publicized option is the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP) that allows students to pursue certification concurrently with their studies. “It was an experience that completely changed my life and my career plans,” Hodge says, “in fact, taking advantage of graduate-level education courses as a junior helped solidify my interest in the field.” Unfortunately UTEP is a concurrent 4 year program and completing all the requirements while still getting a B.A is frankly, pretty darn tough. Perhaps, then, the university needs to make pitches earlier, or even better make it a five year program, with the fifth year funded by Harvard; it certainly could afford it.
First-years are inundated with opportunities; the college needs to publicize programs like UTEP continuously and make them more practically feasible. Multitudes of Harvard grads have proven to be highly successful bankers, doctors, lawyers and politicians, but there need to be more educators added to the list. Harvard has the resources to publicize and support more teaching programs and advisors, and it’s about time Harvard made training future teachers a priority. Teachers don’t need to subsist on chalk dust or notebook paper—there’s a lot more to the profession than that—and it’s up to Harvard to get the message out.
Aviva J. Gilbert ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House.