Skip to main content
Ed. Magazine

Welcome Undergrads

A look at the growing interest in education and teaching among Harvard College students
Illustrations by Justine Beckett

It's the last day of the spring semester and Senior Lecturer Katherine Merseth, M.A.T.'69, Ed.D '82, is pacing barefoot across the front of the lecture hall, her black heels kicked off long ago. She turns to the big Uncle Sam "I want you" poster being shown on the pull-down screen behind her. The students laugh — this version has been doctored to include Merseth's face.

"My message to you is this: I want you to consider working in education," she says, "for either a short or a long time." As far as messages go, this is pretty much what you'd expect from a professor to her students at a graduate school of education. 

But these aren't Merseth's usual students — they are all undergraduates, and they are taking the one and only education course offered exclusively at Harvard College. They are also part of a growing trend that education veterans like Merseth have witnessed for the past few years at Harvard: more and more undergraduates hungry for ways to be involved in education, either as a future career or as part of their public service ethos.

"They look out at the world and see that being aware of others, not just the self, is important," Merseth says. "They realize society needs them. And as Harvard students, they also know they can make a difference. These students are savvy enough to see there's a place for them and a need that is desperate."

Merseth began teaching her class, United States in the World 35: Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education (USW35), in the fall of 2011, after Harvard President Drew Faust reached out to various deans across the university, including the Ed School's then-dean Kathleen McCartney, asking them to contribute one course to the undergraduate general education program. The idea behind gen ed, as it's commonly known, is to expose students to courses outside of their concentration — their major  — and to help them link what they do in college to the lives they will lead after Harvard.

The first semester that Merseth taught USW35, many more students showed interest in the course than expected: 90 students for just 47 seats, forcing her to hold a lottery. That next fall, she upped the enrollment to 75 to help meet demand but the number of students in the lottery also jumped — to 150. This past academic year, Merseth and her team decided to cut back enrollment to about 60 but offer the course both semesters. During the fall 2013 semester, nearly 200 students entered the lottery. By the spring semester, the number shot up to 300. During that same time, two new student societies focused on education were founded at the college. 

"The demand for the course is just growing and growing," Merseth says. "People ask me why I don't just teach 300 students over in Sanders Theatre. My teaching is so dependent on personal relationships — I couldn't teach 300 well all at once."

Lecturer Matt Miller, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'06, associate dean for academic affairs, helped Merseth organize the class. "In order to make the class work as discussion-based, she has to limit the size," he says. Still, knowing so many undergraduates are now interested in the education issues that she has been passionate about since she began teaching in public schools after her Cornell graduation in 1968, "she's sad about every person she has to turn away." 

To fill the gap, Merseth started offering more to undergraduates outside of USW35: At the student-run Phillips Brooks House, she gives hands-on workshops on topics like classroom management for undergraduates interning in schools. She helped create a mailing that highlights lectures, book talks, and courses offered (and open to undergraduates) at the Ed School. This past January, she hosted a drop-in "consultation hour" on Appian Way, where undergraduates could ask questions of Ed School faculty members and current graduate students about career options and potential education thesis topics. Merseth also visits the undergraduate houses a few times each semester to host EdChats — informal talks about hot topics like standards and using race in higher education admissions.

"I've become a bit of an ombudsman," she says.Illustration by Justine Beckett

So what explains the explosion of interest in education among the Harvard undergraduates? Associate Professor Jon Star, Ed.M.'93, says Teach For America (TFA) deserves some of the credit. The national teacher corps trains and places college graduates into public schools for two years. Since it started in 1990, slots in the program have become highly competitive and selective. At Harvard College, since 2005, the number of applicants have gone as high as 366 students, or 18 percent of the class in 2011, according to Robin Mount, Ed.M.'79, Ed.D.'94, director of the Office of Career, Research, and International Opportunities at Harvard College.

"Teach For America captured something," Star says. "It elevated the status of teaching for high-level students."

EJ Blair is one of those students. He took Merseth's class during his junior year. As a senior, he applied to TFA while concentrating in math. He is now starting his second year teaching calculus at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate High School. Blair says Merseth's reputation among the undergraduates for her engaging, discussion-based teaching may have something to do with the growth in students signing up for the lottery. Plus, he says, education issues have become more mainstream. "Interest in education at the undergraduate level has increased in part because of national attention given to recent reforms in federal programs," he says, "which has more Harvard students considering both teaching and education policy as potential postgraduate fields.".

Manny Mendoza is starting with teaching. After he took Merseth's class this past spring, he moved to Oklahoma to teach secondary science with TFA. He says that pursuing a career in education, starting with TFA, is important to him because he wants to give students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds the same educational opportunity he had at Harvard — a sentiment echoed by many students from Merseth's class. "It's a privilege to be given even the choice of what career to pursue," he says. "I want to effect change on a large scale, one that will allow all students to pursue an education and career that is meaningful and productive to them." Merseth says this kind of public service sentiment is important to this age group and a big reason why education — either as a career or as public service — has become such a rising priority.

"If you look up stats on millennials, 65 percent or so say they want to contribute to society," she says, using the term given to young people born roughly from 1982 to 2000. "That wasn't true of Gen X, the generation before them — they wanted to make money."

Merseth says she sees it at Harvard's Institute of Politics, where students typically interested in politics are now asking questions about how to help schools in places like Washington, D.C. She sees it at the Phillips Brooks House, where students volunteer in nearly two-dozen local school programs.

"There's more social awareness," Merseth says.

Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted this in their seminal book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. "Millennials are unlike any other youth generation in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse," they wrote in 2000. "More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty, and good conduct." Millennials are civic-minded optimists who are "more upbeat about the world in which they're growing up" and they "believe in their own collective power."

When it comes to teaching, this growing interest among young people couldn't have come at a better time. According to a report put out by the Ed School's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, half of the teaching force in the United States retired between 2000 and 2010. In addition, high teacher turnover, increased student enrollment in some districts, and pressure at the state and federal level for higher standards have pushed not only for more teachers, but more talented candidates — candidates like Kia Turner.

When Turner showed up at Harvard as a freshman in 2012, she knew she would volunteer but wasn't sure where. At the time, she didn't have any particular interest in the education world, but an open house at Phillips Brooks House excited her about the Mission Hill Afterschool Program. The program sends Harvard undergrads to tutor young people in one of Boston's most diverse neighborhoods.

"I fell in love with it," she says. Before long, she was volunteering between 25 and 30 hours a week. "The kids give you more meaning than 'I'm just doing things for myself.' Seeing students grow and change is the best part."

Last spring, Turner knew she had to take Merseth's class. She got in, and it further cemented her focus on education.

"Before the class, going into education was just a thought," she says. "Taking this class has really pushed me. Education is [the combination of] all the things that interest me." This past summer, she taught in New York with the Breakthrough Collaborative, an academic enrichment program for underserved middle school students.

For Turner, one of the most eye-opening parts of Merseth's class was when the students went on three-hour visits to K–12 schools in the greater Boston area. Growing up, she attended public schools in rural California — schools that were very different from Buckingham Browne & Nichols, the private school she toured in Cambridge.

"That visit was the biggest moment of impact in this class for me," she says. "I never knew the discrepancy — schools that have, those that don't. It really opened my eyes. We are not giving our kids the same opportunities. It was a moment of frustration for me, too."

It's exactly this kind of eye-opening experience that Merseth says is at the heart of her course, and why she wants to help more Harvard College students find their paths — or at least consider a path — into the education world.

"All of the Harvard students have an understanding of education; they've been in it their whole lives," Merseth says. "But then someone shows them a bigger, complicated picture. It's what liberal education should be: the opening up of the mind. These kids are hungry for that. They get a lot of knowledge poured into their heads, but not many faculty pull it apart."

As Merseth moves into her fourth year teaching USW35, she is hoping to offer another path for Harvard students interested specifically in becoming teachers: Harvard Teacher Fellows — a new, selective program similar to the Rhodes Scholarship. If funded, the program will train Harvard College seniors to become middle and high school teachers in targeted areas: math, science, history, and English. Dean Jim Ryan is fully onboard with the program.

"I'm thrilled to see so much interest in teaching among Harvard undergraduates, and Kay deserves an enormous amount of credit for both encouraging and inspiring that interest," he says. "I'm very hopeful that we will be able to raise the funds needed to create the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, which would enable more Harvard undergraduates to get into a teaching career, while also underscoring the university's commitment to teaching as not only a viable but noble career for its graduates." And once the program takes hold at Harvard, the aspiration is that other higher education institutions will offer similar fellowships for their most talented students, not unlike the Master of Arts in Teaching Programs, which started at the Ed School in 1936 and is now offered nationwide.

Currently, Harvard College has a small teacher-training program, run in conjunction with the Ed School, called the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, or UTEP. Started in 1985, UTEP combines coursework at the college and the Ed School, a pre-practicum, and field placement. Historically, the program has been small, typically about six students a year. Last year, UTEP enrolled its biggest group ever: 25 students. However, Star, who is working with Merseth on the Harvard Teacher Fellows program logistics, says UTEP has some constraints.

"It's designed to be flexible, but it's still hard for many students," he says. For example, students must complete all of the program requirements during two back-to-back semesters while also completing all of the requirements for their concentration.

Merseth and Star hope to address this issue with the new program. Admitted students won't start until their second semester of senior year. Running through the following summer, it will include eight months of intensive classwork with master teachers and supervised student teaching, followed by a year of training in the field, and another summer of coursework and mentored teaching in a summer academy. After fellows are placed in teaching positions, they will receive free, professional development opportunities and on-call coaching for several years.

If the program gets funded, it will begin admitting students in a couple of years — too late, unfortunately, for students like Gracie Hurley, who graduated this past spring and is determined not only to teach because she loves it, but also because she wants to change the mindset that going into teaching is a waste of an Ivy League degree, that it's not the noble career Ryan refers to. This fall, she started a master's program in education at Tufts University that includes an apprentice program at a local private school. Her long-term goal is to teach middle school and high school, then work as a principal, and maybe even become a superintendent.

"I saw a lot of attitudes and criticisms about the unprofessional culture of teaching affect my mom and aunts — all teachers — and those attitudes greatly impacted my decision to pursue a teaching career," she says. "Hearing those attitudes makes me want to get into a classroom, teach well, produce strong results for my students, and combat this attitude that teaching is somehow unprofessional or something people with no 'real' skills do."

It's this kind of can-do, positive attitude that makes Merseth feel thrilled about this new generation of future educators.

"I am so hopeful for our education system," she says. "We need these people in the game."

Story update: In November, funding for the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program was announced and plans for the program began moving forward. Read the press release for details.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles