Having worked almost exclusively in Out of School Time and community-based youth programs, Heather McCormack enrolled in the Ed School with an eye toward improving her practice.
“Even though I was always really gung-ho about my youth-serving projects and programs — and they got done, with varying levels of success — I knew that I needed to learn more of the theory and research to improve my practice, and gain the skills to develop programs that would effectively serve the unique needs and assets of the kids I work with, many of whom come from pretty tough circumstances,” she says.
With experience as a babysitter, camp counselor, Boys & Girls Club drama teacher, and community youth program site coordinator, McCormack’s work has always been focused on kids, but, she says, “I had no explicit background in education — all of my learning was based on my hands-on experience.”
Upon enrolling in the Prevention Science and Practice (PSP) Program, she was happy to find exactly what she’d been hoping for at HGSE: a community of like-minded individuals asking similar questions to those she’d been pondering, and challenging her with new questions.
“Heather has been an inspirational partner in PSP students’ learning this year,” says Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, program director of PSP. “She brought warmth and authenticity to our learning community, and encouraged everyone to take risks and ask questions of themselves and those around them. Many students found her passion for youth work and advocacy a motivating force in their own studies. One of our students summed it up well by saying that she is the ‘spirit and the energy’ of PSP!”
Upon learning that she had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for PSP, McCormack answered some questions about her time at the Ed School and beyond.
How have your goals changed in your year at the Ed School? Fundamentally my goals are the same, but the classes I’ve taken at HGSE and in the PSP program in particular have really challenged me to think about the ways in which we can design programming based on youth and community assets, and democratize learning in a way that is empowering for everyone. In that sense this year has been really validating in that it reinforced my belief that youth need to be recognized and engaged as active agents in their own education and development. But I also learned that it’s not enough to just say that your programs develop youth agency and leadership — you need to prove it and back it up with real data, and define what “leadership” really means for your specific population. Before this year I was always really intimidated by research, policy, and evaluation — I had never heard of a “theory of change” before — and thought of myself as a small scale, community level “programming” person, believing that those other things just weren’t for me. This year really challenged that belief and made me realize that all good programs need to be able to measure their successes and learn from their mistakes in ways that are tangible and meaningful, and that I needed some new skills to be able to do that. Now I realize that I want to make programming that is locally relevant but can also be backed up with research and data that can help it to be funded and implemented in other settings as well.
What are your post-HGSE plans? Uhh… I feel like I should say something really life-changing and impressive, but I am planning on taking the summer off to travel, go on tour with my band, write lots of new songs and poetry, and visit friends and family. I’ll also probably be working part time at the Mystic Learning Center summer camp, which is where my heart continues to reside. Maybe I’ll end up continuing to work there in a different role — I really want to run adolescent programs in a community setting — or I’ll be looking for something else similar around the area. If you hear of anything, hit me up!
What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? That I need to constantly interrogate my positionality and identity in the work that I do, and recognize that in order to help bend the arc of the universe towards justice, I need to be willing to cede some power, take some risks, and know when to step back and let youth lead the way. Also that the things that scare and intimidate me are probably the most important things for me to learn, and that only by facing my fears can I empower my youth to face theirs.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year? Hanging out with the incredible people I’ve met here — every single one of you is a genius. I am still baffled that I received this award because literally everyone I’ve come into contact with this year at HGSE has been full of brilliant ideas, and has used their experience and vision in such creative and meaningful ways to improve the lives of young people. You all kept me motivated and energized to work harder than I ever have in my life, so really this is a testament to you guys — I am more grateful than you could ever possibly know. Thanks for offering me your sense of humor, your Crimson Cash, your shoulders to cry on, and your incredible insights and knowledge that I will no doubt be digesting for years to come.
What will you change in education and why? I think my biggest mission is to create real, meaningful opportunities for youth to be leaders as well as learners, to teach others, and to gain knowledge and appreciation for their own skills and assets in order to help make the world around them a more just one. I think it’s so critical to invert the traditional discourse about youth being deficient, “at risk,” or otherwise needing our support to “save” them — when we have the option as educators to see youth as having their own valuable skills and knowledge, and have the power to create spaces for those skills to be valued and celebrated. Whether that is in school or out of school, in high school or elementary, my main passion is to continue to educate myself out of a job, so that every young person has an equal chance to succeed according to their own definitions, and has the ability to share their gifts and successes to make the world around them that much better.