Teachers in Training: Launching the First Class of Harvard Teacher Fellows

UPDATED: April 17, 2016, at 3:35 p.m.

Standing in front of the inaugural class of Harvard Teacher Fellows, Sarah R. Leibel, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Master Teacher for the Teacher Fellows program, shared a personal poem biography in the style of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Touching on topics ranging from teachers who were important to her growing up to the various languages spoken in her family, she said her goal was to make the Fellows feel more comfortable with sharing their own experiences during their classes.

Later, the Fellows drafted and read their own poems to the rest of the class. Leibel said this was just one example of the many exercises her and other lecturers in the program have implemented to build camaraderie among the Fellows and better prepare them for the challenge that lies ahead: teaching in high-need public urban schools.

The Harvard Teacher Fellows program, a teacher training initiative centered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, prepares aspiring educators to teach in under-resourced urban schools. The program recently selected its inaugural cohort of 20 fellows.

Already enrolled in a teaching methods course at the Graduate School of Education, these Fellows are in the midst of a multi-year process of intensive training to become teachers. While they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, many attribute a combination of a passion for education and social justice as motivating factors for becoming a teacher and choosing Harvard’s program over others.

LEAVING A LASTING IMPACT

For some Fellows, positive experiences with teachers motivated their joining the program. Several Fellows commented on the impact they hope to have as role models to their students, as well as the importance of recognizing the unique experiences that have shaped them.

For Rebecca V. Park ’16, teaching and education are fields she has been immersed in from a young age. Her parents and several of her extended family members are all teachers. Park also worked as a counselor at a youth summer camp based in New Hampshire for several years, citing that as another experience that has influenced her interest in education.

“I definitely was raised to value and appreciate teachers, and see how hard they work... [and] how rewarding it can be,” she said. “I think definitely coming from there, having that background, was a big part of being attracted to teaching and understanding what it looks like.”

Grace Kossia ’16 said that since she immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family at a young age, her family has faced a number of challenges that made it difficult to find stability. However, she said her experience at school with teachers who showed they cared helped to improve significantly her experience in the U.S.

“I could really pick out the teachers who were really there for us… They just poured in a lot of extra effort that they probably weren’t getting paid for,” Kossia said.

Reflecting on her own experience, Kossia said she struggled with courses in her mechanical engineering concentration, but chose to continue nevertheless. She said she hopes to use this experience as a woman of color in science and math as a motivation for her students to succeed in these fields.

“I think I also continued with engineering just to prove that as a minority female, I could do it,” Kossia said, “And that’s what I want to impart my students with: with the notion that they can do something if they put their mind to it.”

A KNACK FOR TEACHING IN COLLEGE

For other Fellows, experiences in college led them to pursue the program as a way to contribute to society.

When Quan C. Le ’15 entered college, he started on the pre-med track with the intention of gaining experience with research and working in a hospital environment during his undergraduate years. However, his interest in working with youth led to extensive involvement in several Phillips Brooks House Association programs.

Over three summers and multiple semesters at Harvard, Le worked with children from high-trauma populations, including refugees, domestic violence survivors, and immigrants. He said these programs motivated him to enter the teaching profession as opposed to medical school.

“I ended up spending all my summers and extracurriculars doing tutoring work, something I actually enjoyed. I never got into research or in a hospital to know what it’s actually like to be a doctor,” he said.

Le attributes his upbringing as a son of immigrant parents in a low-income household as influencing his decision to serve underprivileged youth as a profession. He said he hopes to inspire his students in the classroom, who will often come from low-income backgrounds.

“Not only is it meaningful for me to be able to help people that come from similar backgrounds, but I can also serve as a role model for them,” he said.

For Park, her concentration in history and literature has influenced the way she plans to teach, in part through bringing attention to the stories of historically underrepresented groups.

“Having [history and literature] has both further reinforced the importance of the social justice aspect of history and also really prepared me for the content knowledge to teach,” she said.

Jing Qiu ’16 said she similarly decided to become a teacher while doing public service work in college. She said her family has always seen education as the gateway to opportunity.

Having attended a private school her entire life, she said she was troubled by the disparity in opportunities she was given compared to her peers attending public schools in the same area.

“From a very young age, I saw that dichotomy and it was very jarring. I knew from middle school onward that I wanted to do something public service related, something addressing education and equality,” she said.

While participating in and leading a number of PBHA programs during her summers and term-time at Harvard, Qiu discovered her passion for mentoring students and working in youth development.

Jonathan D. Young ’16 said he finds teaching to be one of the best ways for him to combat educational inequity. “For me, it’s more about...the inequality that one can fix and one can start to overcome through the means of teaching,” he said.

Leibel said she was impressed by the insight and humility that the Fellows have about entering the field and their potential students.

“I think sometimes…there’s a perception that Ivy League college students are just thinking they know it all and they are going to go in there and get it right, and I think that’s really not the case with our Fellows,” Leibel said. “I think our students are really looking to enter their practice from a place of what can I learn, how can I serve, how can I do better?”

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS

Out of the teaching programs they considered, some Fellows cited intensive training and the possibility for better impact on urban schools as factors that attracted them to the Harvard Teacher Fellows program over others.

Young said the program best helps him achieve his longer term goals of impacting education reform and educational entrepreneurship. He said he is looking forward to participating in a new program where the inaugural class will have a large voice in how it develops over the years.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of something that’s growing… to have the potential to play a real role in how it grows,” he said.

Evan B. Weiner ’16 said he chose the program partially for the amount of preparation it provides with the goal of gradually easing Fellows into full-time teaching.

Weiner said he appreciated how Fellows are assigned half the normal load of courses in their first year of teaching, which he hopes will allow him to reflect and focus on the experience, instead of being preoccupied with a busy teaching schedule.

“At each step along the way you have the space to reflect and get advice and improve, and not be so invested and busy with everyday teaching stuff,” Weiner said.

Le echoed Weiner’s sentiments.

“You’re able to expend more energy actually making sure that those classes are well running and kids are getting something out of them,” Le said.

In addition, Weiner noted that in his experience, the urban public schools he has worked with through the program have had passionate teachers and administrators with a strong sense of purpose.

“Throughout the year there’s a lot of coaching, feedback, constructive criticism and observation, that is very atypical of a lot of public schools, especially urban high needs schools, but it’s true of the schools we’re partnered with,” he said. “I think HTF, more than any other teacher program that I could see, was a program that could give me the support and training.”

Kapena Baptista ’16 said he was impressed by how “intentional and robust” the program seemed in terms of preparing its members for the teaching profession, especially when compared with Teach for America.

“I know a lot of the criticisms that revolve around other alternative teacher licensure programs, like [Teach for America], is that they don’t teach their teachers enough… that you only go to your camps for about five or six weeks, and then they throw you into the roughest neighborhoods in the roughest towns,” he said. “So teachers go in fairly unprepared, and that’s something that HTF I think is aware that happens, and is something that they’re trying to mitigate.”

However, Teach for America recruitment manager Bryan Sohn characterized their program’s approach as “rigorous,” despite its shorter timeframe.

“We believe in a shorter on-ramp to impact, knowing the challenges that students in classrooms face today,” he wrote in an email. “We also know that many students are eager to make an immediate impact, with lots of coaching and hands-on learning along the way.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Despite the diverse reasons for having picked the program, Fellows and administrators alike say they have forged tight-knit bonds during the training process.

“We’ve only known each other for two months but I already feel very comfortable with everyone in the program and the faculty,” Qiu said. “The faculty are very receptive to our feedback and it’s very much like we’re doing this together and this is something that we’re working together on, and that’s amazing.”

Weiner said he expects to become closer with other participants as the program continues post-graduation.

“The group is phenomenally supportive,” he said. “This isn’t something I knew going in, but it’s just a wonderful group of students and faculty who I feel very close to already and that’ll only get more intense as time goes on.”

Eric H. Shed, director of the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, said he looks forward to the next few years with the Fellows.

“I couldn’t be more confident about any group’s success, even given the daunting challenge of teaching,” Shed said. “I’m nothing but excited.”

—Staff writer Jesper W. Ke can be reached at jesper.ke@thecrimson.com. Follow him on twitter @jesper_ke.

—Staff writer Jessica Kim can be reached at jessica.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on twitter @kimyjessica.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 17, 2016

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Grace Kossia ’16 was from the Dominican Republic. In fact, she is from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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