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Ed. Magazine

The Making of Lecturer Vicki Jacobs

Vicki Jacobs

This fall, Lecturer Vicki Jacobs, C.A.S.'80, Ed.D.'86, took over as faculty director of the Teacher Education Program (TEP) following Kay Merseth’s retirement from the position. We wondered how Jacobs, who had been serving as faculty director of the Specialized Studies Program since 2015, found her way to teaching and to the field of education. Jacobs sat down with Ed. to talk about her path, which included almost missing her first teaching interview, and dreams of becoming a folk singer.

Hometown? I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but we spent a good number of years in Columbus while I was growing up. We lived by a river. At night, we listened for the freight trains passing, and in summer, we would sneak raspberries from a neighbor’s patch. I could ride my bike anywhere I wanted, singing Broadway show tunes at the top of my lungs.

One thing about your childhood that had an impact on where you are today. My mother used to say to my sisters and me that it was more important that we knew how to occupy ourselves than count on others to do so for us. So I read a lot. Once, when I was sick and had to stay in bed, I read at least the first three volumes of the Golden Book Encyclopedia. I was pretty nerdy very early on.

Any teachers in your family? I come from a fairly long line of well-educated women. My father, who was smart and wise, never attended college, but the women on my mother’s side did — including my grandmother and her sister. My sisters and I grew up understanding the urgency of education. All three of us earned master’s degrees, and all three of us began doctoral work (although I am the only one who completed hers). My father was probably a little bewildered by it all. When we set off for college, he told each of us that we could major in anything we liked as long as we could find employment when we graduated — as a nurse, teacher, or secretary. My older sister and I became teachers. My younger sister applied her education in microbiology and public administration.

Did you want to be a teacher when you “grew up”? Yes, I was one of those kids who lined up a row of neighbors to teach them. In third grade, I wanted to teach kindergarten. In middle school, I wanted to teach elementary grades. In third grade, my teacher told me I asked too many questions; I vowed that, if I ever were to teach, I would never tell that to a student. In fact, I am fond of telling my current students that if they leave HGSE with more but better defined or different questions than those with which they came, they will have succeeded in their studies well.

How did you end up in Massachusetts? My senior year in college, my parents moved outside of Springfield, Massachusetts. I had just graduated with a teaching degree and a fierce determination to be a famous folk singer. The Midwest in me wasn’t ready for New York City. Boston was closer to my family, and the music scene was much more inviting at the time.

What was your first teaching experience like? I actually lost the directions to the interview for my first job en route to the school. (They were on a piece of paper that literally flew out the window.) The first year was tough. My student-teaching experience had been barely supervised, the book room at my new school was virtually empty by the time I could access it, and I didn’t know my teaching assignments until three days before school began. It was learning by doing, and I’m just fortunate (and grateful) that the students were so forgiving. Every once in a while, I still hear from a former student who finds me on online. And even as we have all aged, I always know a former student because they are the only ones who call me Miss Jacobs.

How did you start focusing on literacy? The year I was to be laid off from teaching (because of a reduction in student enrollment), the school’s reading specialist came by to let me know that whatever I had been doing in one of my composition classes was having an appreciable effect on the students’ reading development. Staunchly believing I was not a reading teacher (and not particularly wanting to be one), I had no idea why. As a result, I began my doctoral work in what is now called “language and literacy” wondering how comprehension and composition could possibly be interrelated as cognitive processes. It’s a complex and enduring question that I never tire of.

You eventually started teaching at the Ed School. During my second year of doctoral work, I was asked to teach a four-week module that had been called Reading in Secondary Schools. I agreed with the condition that I could change the title to Reading and Writing in Secondary Schools. In four sessions. It was the first course at HGSE that addressed writing. The module I currently teach, Teaching for Inquiry: What’s Literacy Got to Do With It?, reflects the evolution of my thinking about content teachers’ complicated relationship with literacy. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about the critical role that literacy does play in helping students become literate in and about academic disciplines.

As the new TEP director, your hope is… that our youngest teachers understand the urgency of education and its practical, political, and personal implications. That they understand that teaching is a practicing profession. And that to become the teacher–leaders and change agents they should be, they need to become meta-cognizant about and prioritize their purposes and the kind of teaching, learning, and leadership those purposes require — remembering to keep their students at the center of it all. All the time.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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