Heather Harding, Ed.M.’00, Ed.D.’06, says that it was happenstance that led her to what has become her life’s work: striving for a better understanding of teachers, practice, and development. Still, in many ways, it really all began with what she calls her “secret” desire to be a teacher.
Although Harding didn’t pursue education as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, soon after graduating she joined Teach For America (TFA) when the organization was in its infancy. “I really loved teaching,” she says.
At the time, she was unaware of how the nonprofit organization would become a mainstay in her career. Over the years, she has worked on and off at TFA having most recently left a position as senior vice president of community partnerships to direct EdCORE, an education research consortium based at George Washington University.
Harding’s first job with TFA, however, was teaching in rural North Carolina, an experience which opened her eyes in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “The education that those kids were getting was light years behind what I got in a small town in Michigan,” she says. “I couldn’t believe something like that was happening…. It was a shock to me.”
Directly following her two years in the classroom, she joined the TFA staff working on development and reform efforts. By then, she knew education would be the focus of her career, even though it wouldn’t be directly in the classroom. “I don’t think I was a fabulous teacher,” she says, admitting that it was a challenge and a struggle to figure out instructional work. Yet, Harding walked away from her time as a TFA teacher longing to understand how you become a better instructor. “I wanted to ensure that other teachers and educators were continuing to grow,” she says.
Her interest in researching teacher instruction to improve practice led her to HGSE, where she developed connections with faculty members like Professors Richard Elmore, Richard Murnane, and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Senior Lecturer Katherine Merseth. “These were people concerned about the quality of research but also deeply committed to what happens in school,” she says. Her dissertation work explored the work of four successful white urban middle-school teachers.
When she finished HGSE, she knew her future wouldn’t be as a professor or working directly within a district. Still she felt eager to bridge the gap between research and practice. Though she spent time working at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform she eventually went back to TFA. Harding says she felt right at home returning to TFA, an organization that cares about management and effectiveness.
As the vice president of community partnerships, she sought research partnerships and tested TFA’s efficacy, the impact of student learning, and teacher outperformance. Then, after several years, Harding was ready to try something new. At EdCORE, she has a chance to work on a local level, travel less, and be close to her school-aged children, who are enrolled in D.C. public schools. “My interest in marrying research and practice drew me to this opportunity,” she says.
At EdCORE, she will oversee current projects including an analysis of D.C. public school students participating in special education and STEM courses.
To this day, Harding says she brings a particular frame of reference from HGSE mixed with her TFA experience to her work.
“We shouldn’t do any research that no one has identified as improving their practice,” she says. “It is easy to get sucked into debates about intellectual quality. But I think it would be hard to have been a part of TFA and not walk away as an advocate for ensuring that students from a low-income background and students of color are not being served or have access to social mobility.”