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Teach for Prestige

Harvard’s Professional Pipelines

The Graduate School of Education (GSE) Monroe C. Gutman Library is located at 6 Appian Way.
The Graduate School of Education (GSE) Monroe C. Gutman Library is located at 6 Appian Way. By Addison Y. Liu
By Julien Berman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julien Berman ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. His column, “Harvard’s Professional Pipelines,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

We need more teachers. Across the country, primary and secondary schools struggle to fill vacancies, especially in high-poverty areas.

The few who are hired can be woefully underqualified, lacking proper training and certification. This will likely have long-term, harmful effects on student learning, as increasingly unskilled teachers will be forced to teach increasingly larger classes.

Thus, the million dollar question: How can we incentivize more college students — especially ones graduating from Harvard and other elite institutions — to become teachers?

Perception and Prestige

Above all, the teaching crisis is a cultural issue. Many high-achieving students just don’t see teaching as prestigious, and so discard the option early on in their time at college.

“There’s a sense that teaching isn’t prestigious enough. I’ve actually had Harvard undergraduates tell me that to my face, knowing that I study teachers,” professor Heather C. Hill, who studies teaching quality at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said.

Research shows that some students at elite institutions felt routed away from education studies programs, believing these programs to be perceived as insufficiently rigorous.

Pressure amplifies these negative perceptions.

“It is social pressure from peers. It’s social pressure from parents, from other people in their lives who feel like this profession isn’t ‘worthy’ of a Harvard degree or an Ivy degree more generally,” Hill said.

According to some students, the culture at Harvard funnels students away from teaching.

William M. Sutton ’23, a current teacher at Brooke Charter School in Boston, said that he, to some extent, felt “pushed by the culture and structures at Harvard” to explore other options such as consulting or finance.

Part of the problem is that students perceive a career in teaching to be financially unsustainable. It is certainly true that the wage gap between public school teachers and their non-teacher peers has ballooned in the past 50 years.

However, teacher salaries aren’t necessarily as low as people think, especially in certain areas. For example, in Boston, the average teacher salary is over $100,000.

Nevertheless, when compared to increasingly profitable potential alternatives such as consulting and finance, students naturally end up writing off many middle class careers like teaching.

Institutional Inattention

In part because demand is so low, Harvard lacks infrastructure to support aspiring teachers. We have a graduate school for education, but no undergraduate education concentration or Faculty of Arts and Sciences department.

Opportunities for undergraduates to engage with teaching are disappearing. Beginning in 2022, the Graduate School of Education fully subsumed the teacher training initiative Harvard Teacher Fellows, shifting it from an undergraduate to a masters program. Last year, Harvard ended the Harvard Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, which helped students receive teaching credentials prior to graduation. At the time it was discontinued, the program was serving fewer than 10 students per year, according to Hill, the GSE professor.

And, while the Mignone Center for Career Success advises students on the complex process to land a job in finance and consulting, it knows comparatively little about the pathway to becoming a Massachusetts teacher, according to William M. Sutton ’23.

“It just didn’t feel like I ever was doing a path that felt super supported by the school or by my peers, even though many people love and support me at Harvard,” Sutton said.

“We don’t have clear pathways and structures that enable people to feel like they’re making legitimate choices for their career to become a teacher as they are going through elite institutions,” Zid N. Mancenido, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, said.

The result is a vicious feedback loop. High-achieving students perceive a career in teaching to be neither prestigious nor lucrative enough, so they choose other career paths — reducing demand for teacher training programs and thereby reinforcing the notion that teaching does not befit a Harvard degree.

Teach for Two Years

Teach for America is a nonprofit that trains college graduates to teach for a two year commitment in struggling schools — and a great case study of an institution that managed to get ambitious students interested in teaching.

TFA originally sought to make teaching more prestigious, and it seems to have succeeded. For the most part, this prestige comes from TFA’s selectivity. Understanding the allure of finance and consulting, TFA employs an aggressive recruitment strategy in order to compete for top talent at places like Harvard; as of 2019, TFA was able to produce acceptance rates averaging between 11 and 15 percent.

Elisa Villanueva Beard, then and current CEO of Teach for America, participates in a student discussion on diversity's place in the program and her own experiences teaching with TFA in 2015.
Elisa Villanueva Beard, then and current CEO of Teach for America, participates in a student discussion on diversity's place in the program and her own experiences teaching with TFA in 2015. By Lauren A. Sierra

Astoundingly, TFA’s efforts to construct prestige were successful. In its heyday back in 2009, approximately 19 percent of Harvard seniors applied to TFA.

But in recent years, the organization has struggled. In 2023, that number fell to under 2 percent, calculated according to information from Whitney F. Petersmeyer ’05, TFA’s vice president for growth, and approximate Class of 2023 numbers. In addition, the overall 2022 TFA corps was under 2,000 teachers nationally, down from its peak of around 6,000 in 2013.

Formerly the darling of the education reform movement, TFA has now faded to the background.

“Once you’re in the education world, Teach for America is something that you have to constantly be justifying. It’s kind of like a blot on the resume,” Jessie L. Bates ’24, who is currently aspiring to be a teacher, said.

In part, TFA’s retreat reflects the broader decline in the teaching pipeline. But the organization has also drawn intense criticism from many of those in the education space.

One main drawback to TFA is the limited two-year commitment. Over half of TFA members leave their initial placements in low-income schools after their contracts are up, a turnover rate much higher than non-TFA teachers in comparable schools.

“I’ve come to think of Teach for America as a species of fraud,” Joseph L. Featherstone ’62, former head of Michigan State University’s teacher education program and a former Crimson Editorial Chair, said.

“They train people for a brief amount of time and then send them into the field,” he added. “They really don’t learn how to teach.”

Perhaps the TFA model might not even be designed to address the nation’s teacher shortage.

“It’s not clear to me that the mission, or how the mission ultimately evolved, was necessarily to solve the teacher crisis” or increase the supply of teachers, Janet K. Levit, former chair of a TFA regional board, said.

Rather, TFA sought to create a cohort of leaders in a variety of sectors who would go on to help improve the quality of public education later on in their careers, she added.

Despite its flaws, TFA has successfully trained almost 70,000 teachers since its inception, according to TFA vice president Whitney F. Petersmeyer ’05. Corps members produce student outcomes equal to or better than their non-TFA counterparts in the same schools. Furthermore, while corps members may not stay long-term at their original assignments, about 60 percent of TFA alumni work in education or education-adjacent fields, Petersmeyer said.

TFA’s moment in the zeitgeist, however fleeting, indicates that the social prestige associated with teaching is malleable. According to Petersmeyer, the president of Arizona State University sends an annual letter to hundreds of students recommending that they consider TFA, which has measurably increased TFA’s recruitment at ASU. Turns out: encouragement and validation can, in fact, convince students to enter the profession.

How to Teach Teachers

As an enduring bastion of education, Harvard has a vested interest in encouraging its graduates to become teachers and nurture the next generation of students. Clearly, that’s not happening.

In the short term, Harvard, as well as other elite institutions, can take several steps to ensure that all students interested in teaching have opportunities to explore that path.

The University could create an undergraduate teaching degree. Research has shown that high-achievers who attend elite colleges that have a teaching degree are more likely to become teachers.

Harvard can also improve career advising for aspiring teachers and expand its fellowship package for eligible students in the Teaching and Teacher Leadership program at the Graduate School of Education.

But resolving the deeper cultural problem takes more work. Financial support — scholarships, loan forgiveness, and alternative certification pathways — often comes too late in the career process, once students are already socialized against the teaching profession as financially irresponsible and lacking prestige.

University Hall houses the offices of key Harvard administrators, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean.
University Hall houses the offices of key Harvard administrators, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean. By Frank S. Zhou

Yet the perception of teaching as an irredeemable financial cost is partly divorced from material conditions. Teaching is a respectable middle-class career, not an automatic road to destitution. Students hear about teachers’ poor compensation in their social interactions, not from combing through employment contracts.

Moreover, Harvard should discourage students from benchmarking their salary expectations against ludicrously lucrative consulting and finance salaries.

Thankfully, it’s not impossible to change students’ perceptions of teaching; TFA tells us that much. Still, educational institutions can do more to validate teaching as a legitimate career choice.

“I think that institutions can actively promote and set that narrative in how they are talking about their graduates and what they’re doing. We’re just not making that choice,” Mancenido, the GSE lecturer, said.

Schools could identify and honor alumni who work as teachers. They could collaborate with local school systems to create initiatives for high achievers at elite colleges to spend time in schools. They could also encourage professors to develop courses that focus on education issues and explicitly endorse careers in teaching.

More broadly, though, institutions like Harvard should take steps to deprioritize prestige when students are making any career decisions.

Of course, administrations can engender this culture change by crafting new narratives of success. But we students must also remember that we are the ones who shape Harvard’s culture. So, for those of you who feel inspired: Teach! And for the rest of us: Let’s celebrate careers in teaching and take a moment to reflect on why we care so much about prestige in the first place.

Julien Berman ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. His column, “Harvard’s Professional Pipelines,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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