Those Who Can Do, Teach

By Mollie S. Ames and Scott P. Mahon, Crimson Staff Writers
By Courtesy of Jill Anderson, Courtesy of Aishah Ahmed, Courtesy of Elianna Shwayder, Courtesy of Will Li, and Courtesy of the Institute of Politics

A 'Tool for Liberation'

Letters cut from assorted patterned construction paper spell out “history is power” on the classroom wall. Just below the letters, at the front of her 7th grade social studies classroom, stands Ellie N. Bridge ’17. It’s the day before spring break, and students fidget in their seats while awaiting further instruction.

For an independent project, each student created a website with information about nonviolent resistance. Bridge asks them to share which aspect of their assignment they feel most proud of.

Several hands shoot up. From the second row, one particularly enthusiastic student describes the webpage she designed about India’s history of using nonviolent resistance to combat British colonization. She later explains how this history can serve as a model to inform the current movement for gender equality in America. Several other students’ projects focus on gun control and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Bridge is a member of the second cohort of the Harvard Teacher Fellows, the program which began in 2016. HTF, a teacher training and education program, was developed specifically for Harvard graduates. Bridge, who earned a degree in History and Literature, gravitated towards teaching as a way to confront systems of injustice, especially racial injustice, in America.

“I joined the field of education because, particularly, I find history education to be the most underutilized tool for liberation of all time,” she says. “I am really, really interested in that idea and that concept, and that’s why I decided to become a teacher.” The world history curriculum she has developed for students at Prospect Hill Academy, a Cambridge charter school, focuses on British imperialism and its impacts on different countries.

Ellie N. Bridge '17, a member of the second cohort of Harvard Teacher Fellows, teaches a 7th grade social studies class in Cambridge.
Ellie N. Bridge '17, a member of the second cohort of Harvard Teacher Fellows, teaches a 7th grade social studies class in Cambridge. By Andrew W. D. Aoyama

Every year, dozens of newly graduated Harvard alumni go back to elementary, middle, or high school through various education programs, like Harvard Teacher Fellows and Teach for America. Harvard TFA recruiter Meredith Heckman explains that, without these programs, pathways to teaching are limited for students at universities that don’t offer undergraduate teacher certification programs. “That’s where alternative certification programs – like Teach For America, HTF – are really important because they create that pathway, when there is not one that existed previously.”

For three decades, TFA, which describes itself as a “leadership development organization,” has sought to promote educational equity across the United States by offering high-achieving students a clear pathway to a teaching career. Heckman says that TFA seeks out “outstanding, diverse student leaders” and then provides these students with “the training and support to ensure that our corps members really are leading their students to academic growth.”

TFA requires participants — called corps members — to teach for two years. If corps members don’t want to pursue the field beyond those two years, TFA believes that they can apply the skills they learned to create positive educational change in whatever profession they end up choosing.

Still, Katherine K. Merseth, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and instructor of the popular Harvard College course United States in the World 35: “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education,” detected persistent gaps in existing teacher training programs, like TFA, and saw Harvard students as an untapped resource in the struggle against educational inequity.

“I became aware that there are a lot of Harvard students who were being pulled off to go to TFA, and I said, ‘You know, what are we doing? They’re right here. They’re right under our noses. We’re not recruiting them. We’re not doing anything for them particularly.’” In response, by 2005, she had, along with Orin Gutlerner, produced an outline for the concept of Harvard Teacher Fellows, variations of which would surface in following years.

A decade later, the program had raised around $15 million dollars in funding. Merseth, who devoted her career to teaching, studying, and writing about education, wanted Harvard students to have access to “the best kind of teacher education that I think could be provided.” Merseth, as well as current HTF Co-Director Eric H. Shed, emphasizes the importance of building a program that allows Harvard students to enter their classrooms feeling supported.

Both of these programs have their limitations, but they are the principal options for graduating Harvard College students who want to teach. TFA requires that corps members teach for two years, and while HTF has never included a required time commitment, the original program included the stated expectation that fellows teach for four to seven years.

Shed adds via email: “There is no formal time commitment for fellows to stay in teaching. We have, and continue to, strongly encourage fellows to stay in the field teaching for several years. The ideal candidate for our program is committed to a career in teaching.”

However, some students do not have interest in remaining in the classroom long-term — TFA in particular is known for being a stop for students on the way to medical and law school. HTF encourages a more permanent tenure, but Harvard College itself shies away from openly inviting undergraduates to consider the teaching profession. Although Harvard recently approved an education secondary, Merseth contends that the nature of the undergraduate liberal arts focus de-emphasizes pre-professional studies.

“The climate of Harvard is that everyone is sort of focused in on a certain idea of success, which normally means applying to really prestigious graduate programs, or fellowships, or pursuing a well-paying job, so generally consulting, or tech, or finance,” says Will T. Li ’19, a fellow in HTF’s fourth and newest cohort. “Public service is generally, I think, not considered widespread to be the most successful career path.”

Harvard students interested in education may encounter an undergraduate community often focused on a particular vision of success — one that does not always afford visibility to the teaching profession. Those who choose to enter the classroom end up confronting another source of tension on their path to teaching: determining whether their vision of teaching aligns more with Harvard’s program or a nationally recognized one.

A Pathway In

In her junior and senior years of college, Elianna M. J. Shwayder ’18, a current TFA corps member, was on the obligatory soon-to-graduate job hunt while finishing her degree. The process came with typical collegiate anxieties of determining next steps. Shwayder couldn’t help but notice the “overwhelming power that finance and consulting recruiting can have over the student body.” She discerned a pressure to attain certain jobs over others — specifically those with prestige or larger salaries over those in education.

“[Recruiting is] insane. Basically, it takes over people’s minds, it takes over people’s lives, and truly domineers the school’s culture,” she says.

According to the 2018 Senior Next Steps report from the Office of Career Services, 5 percent of Harvard graduates entered the education sector, compared to 13 percent in financial services, 11 percent in technology or engineering, and 10 percent in consulting. Since 2012, the proportion of graduates entering the education sector has ranged from 2 percent in 2015 and 3 percent in 2016 to 7 percent in 2013 and 2014.

Financial services has consistently landed in the 2nd or 3rd most popular post-grad path, after full-time graduate or professional school. In fact, in every year since 2012, more Harvard graduates have been unsure of their future plans than have chosen to work in education, excepting 2014.

If education only attracts 5 percent of graduates, teaching, logically, attracts less than that. This lack of interest may reflect a larger public trend of the devaluation of teaching as a profession. According to Learning Policy Institute, teacher salaries have decreased since the 1990s. Now, on average, teachers are paid 70 percent less compared to other college-educated professionals.

Samir Paul ’10, who participated in TFA after graduation, notes that the devaluation of teaching may have historical roots. “In this country for decades the teaching profession was subsidized by sexism and racism. So there were many, many incredible women and people of color to whom the professional world was closed off in really significant ways,” says Paul. “As those barriers began to break down a little bit, the notion of teaching as, say, ‘women’s work,’ and society’s… willingness to not pay or reward it in a meaningful way — it had a long term effect on the profession.”

Samir Paul '10 currently works as a teacher-educator at the University of Maryland.
Samir Paul '10 currently works as a teacher-educator at the University of Maryland. By Courtesy of Samir Paul

Heckman, the TFA recruiter at Harvard, similarly ties the devaluation of teaching to its former status as women’s work or “an extension of women’s caretaking abilities.” She also connects the diminishment of the profession back to college campuses, highlighting how undergraduates at elite universities usually do not have access to traditional teaching paths.

“You cannot go to Brown or Harvard and graduate in four years with a teaching certification like you can at other colleges,” says Heckman. “I think that speaks to a larger devaluing of the teaching profession, and it’s why it’s so important to not only have programs like Teach For America but to have programs like Harvard Teacher Fellows and Urban Teaching Fellows and Boston Teacher Residency and really to create alternative pathways into teaching.”

Beyond the routes into teaching available for Harvard graduates today, the idea that teaching is not a first-choice career may be ingrained into some students’ mindsets. “I think something students come up against is this feeling of ‘I went to Harvard, I have this degree, now I have to do something next that proves to the world how smart and successful I am,’” says Heckman. “Teaching is often not the thing that our world sees as that highly prestigious next step.”

Similarly, Merseth notes a hesitance about teaching grounded in economic concerns — namely from students who are seeking out salaries that will enable them to repay loans and support their families. “You can be noble and poor,” Merseth says. “But if you’re here, really honestly, because you want to provide for your family, I can’t change that.”

The opinions of friends and family members can also deter Harvard students from pursuing a teaching career — even when that career begins at TFA, a well-recognized program that has roughly a 15-percent acceptance rate. Derek Z. Paulhus ’19, a rising TFA corps member who ultimately aims to attend law school, encountered skepticism from his father when applying to the program. “[My dad’s] like ‘you’re graduating from Harvard. You’re going to be a teacher?’” says Paulhus. “He was kind of like, ‘You have good grades. You have good credentials. What are you doing?’”

Aishah I. R. Ahmed ’20, a future TFA corps member, plans to eventually attend medical school. But, like Paulhus, she had to work to convince her parents that teaching could not only be valuable in the short-term but also grant her beneficial skills for her future in medicine. She even cited examples of successful doctors who participated in TFA to help her mom “find solace in [her] decision.”

Even for students who intend to teach long-term, the perception that education is a temporary career or stepping stone still lingers. In fact, a handful of leading finance companies, including Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, have established partnerships with TFA. Some of these firms will defer applicants and prompt them to join TFA for two years before returning to banking.

The perception of teaching as a placeholder before a second career irritates some students. “I didn’t like how, on TFA’s website, they would show alumni… like, “Oh, these people, after two years, went on to do something else,” says Ata D. Amponsah ’19, a member of HTF’s fourth cohort. “It seemed like they were emphasizing using teaching as a stepping stone for other things, and I didn’t want to because I didn’t like the idea of using students in that way.’”

In an email, Heckman restates that the mission of TFA is contingent on “diverse leaders working together at all levels of the systems and across all sectors – inside and outside education.” The TFA website therefore highlights alumni who currently influence other professional fields, as well as those who have remained teachers. "Eighty-four percent of our alumni network continues to work in education or in a field that impacts low-income communities,” she adds.

While many students perceive TFA as a site of transience within education, approximately 60 percent of TFA’s 60,000 alumni currently work in the field of education, and half of that group continues to work as full-time teachers.

“No one goes into TFA or teaching in general, especially in underprivileged communities, to just use it as a stepping stone,” says Paulhus. “You do it because you actually are interested in doing it and want to make a difference.”

Regardless of why Harvard students enter teaching in the first place, the profession certainly presents an opportunity to gain concrete skills. George E. Goodwin ’17, who entered HTF after graduation, attests to an unmatched skill set that teaching provides. “I know I’m learning more, and I know I’m acquiring more skills, especially in the department of management and leadership, in a way that you just couldn’t get in an entry level job in another industry,” he says.

“Taking the pay cut in the short term is pretty great when you look at the skills you’re acquiring. Pretty good advertising for teaching as far as I’m concerned.”

A 'Big Bet' For Reform

For current Harvard students interested in teaching, TFA and HTF are arguably the most widely discussed options for jump-starting a career in education. Before the introduction of HTF in 2016, TFA largely dominated this field, attracting Harvard students through strong recruiting practices.

Even a decade ago, TFA had established a reputation at Harvard, encouraging the likes of Spencer H. Hardwick ’11 to join in its efforts. “Teach For America had a big presence on campus, and I really loved the message they had on framing education as one of the central issues in the 21st century,” he says.

Although it may not boast the national recognition of TFA, HTF has more recently gained traction among Harvard students, becoming an increasingly popular avenue into post-grad teaching. In 2016, HTF’s first cohort included 18 fellows, expanding to 21 and 27 fellows in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Beyond TFA and HTF, a range of other opportunities exist for recent grads to enter teaching. Still, prior to HTF’s creation in 2016, TFA was the most visible option — and Merseth perceived gaps in its model.

“I suppose you can say that I have respect for TFA, but I have some very deep concerns about the extent of training that people get before they go into these very difficult teaching placements,” she says.

Heckman responds via email, referencing TFA’s highly selective, data-driven admissions process that works to determine the most qualified applicants and ensure that “transformational leaders are in front of students.” She also cites TFA’s 5-8 week summer training program, which fulfills preliminary state liscenery requirements and includes intensive teacher training to inform classroom management and cultural mindfulness. She also explained that corps members continue to receive individualized coaching in their next two years in TFA.

Merseth is not the first to express dissatisfaction with TFA’s program structure and approach to teacher training. A 2014 Crimson article reported that a group of students from Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement urged the university to sever ties with the organization until TFA made the following changes: place corps members only in regions experiencing teacher shortages, improve the extent and depth of their teacher training and resources, and discontinue partnerships with companies that potentially oppose teacher unions. Existing ties between Harvard and TFA include on-campus recruiting of undergraduates and connections between Harvard’s graduate schools and TFA alumni.

TFA has endured its share of critical media coverage, and because HTF was created as an alternative to TFA, it’s easy to see HTF as a new-and-improved version of the program. Still, 55 current Harvard seniors have already applied to TFA’s 2019 corps. Harvard students continue to display a concerted interest in TFA, despite previous student objections and the creation of HTF.

HTF and TFA share the same fundamental goal: to combat education gaps in America by placing promising teachers into low-income school districts. But their approaches diverge from there. TFA is a self-proclaimed “leadership development organization” that works to get capable students into the classroom and encourages those students to champion educational equity in their future professions, whether or not they become teachers. On the other hand, HTF is principally a teacher education program. It strives to provide its fellows with intensive training and support to facilitate their entrance into the classroom and, like TFA, promotes educational equity.

TFA‘s short-term mission focuses on recruiting promising students and placing them in one of its partner schools across 51 different regions. Corps members participate in a 5-8 week long training program before their first fall in the classroom in which they teach under daily observation and observe other teachers themselves. They are then expected to fulfill a two-year classroom commitment. “In the long term,” says Heckman, “you are always a part of Teach For America, and our big bet for how we’re going to change our country is that our alumni are going to go off to become leaders in whatever sector they choose to go into.”

The TFA alumni network of more than 60,000 current and former corps members is a draw for applicants who wish to connect with educationally-minded professionals across the country. TFA corps members can also pursue a master’s in education from partnered universities during or after their two-year commitment.

TFA’s nationwide reach also gives corps members some flexibility in preferencing their placement locations. Applicants rank 10 locations out of an available 51, at least one of which must be “high need” as designated by the organization. With this range of placement options, applicants can weigh the costs and advantages of various locations. They can also return to teach in their hometowns, a practice TFA encourages. Paulhus, for example, was particularly interested in teaching in his hometown in Miami, and TFA enabled him to do so.
Offering less variety of placement opportunities, HTF currently partners with 12 different schools from five states, including Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Colorado, and California. Compared to TFA class sizes, which reached 3,717 corps members in 2018, HTF cohort size has peaked at 27.

Inherently there’s variation in quality of experience between placement locations because of the program’s wide reach. In addition to any support corps members may receive from their school, TFA provides affiliated regional advisors, but these support systems look different for every corps member.

“My experience has been that you, with Teach for America, get about as much support as you ask for,” says Austen J. Needleman ’18, a current corps member. “Because I’ve had a really good support network at my school, I haven’t tapped into Teach For America resources as much, but I know people who have less support within their school have tapped in a little bit more and have had more intensive coaching experiences.”

'When Harvard Does Something, People Notice'

Maeva M. O’Brien ’18 was interested in teaching, but wanted to avoid burnout. “HTF made it very clear to me that they perceive [burnout] as a major problem in the education system, and so their goal was to counter that problem by offering a lot of support to their first-year teachers.”

HTF gradually introduces teachers to the classroom in hopes of mitigating burnout. Students begin taking courses in Harvard’s School of Education their senior spring, before teaching summer school in local urban areas under supervision. In their first year, fellows teach part-time with coaching from an assigned advisor, simultaneously taking courses and shadowing other teachers. The following summer, fellows complete requirements for Massachusetts teacher certification.

“In theory, you won’t end up in an impossible situation for your first year out,” says Goodwin of HTF’s training. “That took away a lot of the burden that I was worried about and was pushing me away from teaching.”

Still, HTF did not fully lower all barriers to entry — its initial time expectation of four to seven years still proved daunting.

“You see the commitment is four to seven years, you say, ‘All right, I can do that,’” says Goodwin. “But, I mean, I think seven years ago, I didn’t have facial hair. So, how are you supposed to make that kind of commitment when you’re 22?”

HTF ultimately removed its original time expectation, detecting George’s hesitance among other students. Harvard students simply could not predict their interests and professional lives so early on. HTF Co-Director Noah S. Heller decides to let the benefits of teaching speak for themselves, saying “our belief is that when Harvard Teacher Fellows experience the wonderful and challenging profession that is teaching, that they will see it as something worthy of their energy and passion for a good long while.”

HTF’s commitment to longevity is salient to Jerry G. Nelluvelil ’18, a member of the third cohort. “It felt like I was being supported more and that the culture was more towards true social justice education and truly caring about being in the classroom for an extended period of time, as opposed to some other alternative teaching program that wanted you to be in it for two years and then do something else.”

Jerry G. Nelluvelil ’18 is a member of the third cohort of Harvard Teacher Fellows.
Jerry G. Nelluvelil ’18 is a member of the third cohort of Harvard Teacher Fellows. By Courtesy of Jill Anderson

“Sometimes I feel bad because I literally teach two classes, and then I spend the rest of my day observing other people, doing lesson plans, doing unit plans, doing grad school homework,” says Rachel K. Silverstein ’18, a current HTF cohort member. “The people from TFA, they’re trying to get all the same things done, but they’re also teaching twice as many classes.”

HTF’s significant funding enables this kind of balance. Fellows earn half their salary from working part-time at their schools, and HTF subsidizes the other half. Fellows can also earn their master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a significantly reduced price. First-year teaching is notoriously difficult, but HTF’s resources aim to ease the transition as much as possible.

Harvard’s resources offer significant support for first-year teachers, but cohorts are quite small. Merseth’s extensive experience and position at the Graduate School of Education enabled her to develop a program that aims to produce particularly capable new teachers. Still, the applicant pool is restricted to Harvard students because fellows must be on campus during the spring of their senior year.

Some current HTF participants acknowledge that a cohort comprised entirely of Harvard students is somewhat flawed. “Something that I think about and that I’ve talked to fellows about a lot is the fact that we got to Harvard, so we’re all good students,” says Silverstein. “[This] makes it a little bit difficult to empathize with those students who are not the people that we were.”

Especially at a university that historically resists vocational training, some may sense a veneer of elitism lingering beneath HTF’s position as a Harvard-specific alternative to TFA. In response, Merseth notes that “when Harvard does something, people notice. Should I begrudge that? Yeah, maybe. But I think in this case we’ve got a damn good model. And so, sorry if you’re offended, but we’re going to do it.”

Samir Paul currently works as a teacher-educator at the University of Maryland, where students follow an apprenticeship training model, incrementally increasing their responsibility in the classroom in each quarter of the year. While he appears passionate about this method of gradual teaching, which resembles that of HTF, he also appreciates his experience with TFA in retrospect. He recalls that his “first year of teaching… was extraordinarily difficult, but also it was a time of really incredible growth for me as a teacher, as a practitioner, and for my students, too… I don’t know if I would trade that experience for anything, but it certainly was difficult.”

'You Went to Harvard? Why Are You Here?'

While Harvard’s announcement of the Education Secondary in April 2018 indicates the college’s increased focus on education, Harvard is also the last Ivy League school to initiate this type of program.

“I’m not going to condemn Harvard. I think perceptions of teaching that I may have experienced at Harvard are a symptom of a larger problem that we are having as a culture of Americans,” says Goodwin. “I think that it is important for people at Harvard not to try to divest themselves from the fact that they are representing American culture.”

Merseth proposed the education secondary five years ago, and she maintains that part of the administration’s hesitance to approve it stemmed from Harvard’s position as a liberal arts college. Merseth says that she envisioned an interdisciplinary study of education, but the Faculty of Arts and Sciences administration perceived the program as a teacher training or recruiting project. As an institution that aims to encourage diverse academic pursuits, Harvard could not facilitate a department that would possibly operate as vocational development.

Katherine K. Merseth is senior lecturer on education at the Graduate School of Education and professor of the popular Harvard College course USW 35: Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education.
Katherine K. Merseth is senior lecturer on education at the Graduate School of Education and professor of the popular Harvard College course USW 35: Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris explains via email: “No one in administration was hesitant to support the secondary field in principle. The broad focus was determined early, and gave no one pause. The hesitation revolved entirely around questions of governance and oversight.” He adds that FAS leadership appreciated the dedication of Graduate School of Education faculty to the secondary but wanted to ensure that FAS faculty would be able to contribute to establishing requirements, advising students, and serving on the oversight committee. FAS faculty “needed time to clear other commitments before they could take on this service.”

In the Office of Career Services, director Robin E. Mount says that counselors present options to students who express an interest in education, but, ultimately, they are “Switzerland.” In other words, from a careers standpoint, advisors will never push a student towards a designed path.

Julie A. Reuben, Graduate School of Education professor and director of Harvard’s education secondary, suggests that the diminished importance of teaching stems from visibility. “There’s a lot of visibility for the financial industry, for consulting, for tech industries.” As a result, she posits, it seems as though “more Harvard students want [those careers] and care about that than they really do.”

Daniel Abarca ’16, a TFA alum now working in the education sector, detected this lack of attention paid to teaching as a post-grad option, particularly compared to other professions. Companies visited and publicized opportunities in the private sector through fancy events, boasting free, expensive food and drinks. Teaching jobs struggle to compete with this level of prestige, leading teaching opportunities to fall to the wayside.

Although Harvard may deem the active encouragement of teaching to be beyond its scope, the landscape of education opportunities seems to be changing, if not advancing. Along with the education secondary, HTF has emerged as a tangible sign that Harvard values teachers and wants to foster their development. Alumni also recently created a “Shared Interest Group” that connects Harvard students interested in education and graduates already in the field.

Mount remains hesitant to say that Harvard itself has spurred these developments, given that donors funded HTF and alumni started the shared interest group. She sees the secondary, however, as “the College making a statement about investing in that area.”

While the education secondary is not expressly designed for aspiring teachers, Reuben says that “we certainly would be excited if one of the outcomes of the secondary is that some people would consider teaching as a profession, but that isn’t our purpose, and of the people that are in the ed secondary, many of them will not.”

The push for the education secondary has generated significant student involvement, both in terms of advocacy about creating the program and in developing it further. Members of the Undergraduate Council filmed a video to encourage its development, and the secondary’s student advisory committee has started to collaborate with OCS in hopes of increasing the visibility of education as a career path. However, in a liberal arts college reluctant to actively steer students towards teaching, those with concern for the future of the profession may need to take matters into their own hands.

Silverstein, who graduated last year, recalls being struck by the general perception of teaching as a career path on Harvard’s campus while attending an education careers panel. “There was one person on the panel who had taught, and it was for one year. And that was kind of the moment where I realized like, ‘Oh my god, the stigma is real,”’ she says. “I hear it from my students, as well. I would bet if you asked every single HTF cohort fellow, none of us have not had a student say, ‘Oh my god, you went to Harvard? Why are you here?’”

“It breaks my heart every single time I hear it – imagining these, but any kid, doesn’t think that they are deserving of an education coming from someone who went to an institution like Harvard.”

— Staff writer Mollie S. Ames can be reached at
— Staff writer Scott P. Mahon can be reached at

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