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Space for Change: Alaina Harper, Ed.L.D.'16

By Nadia Fenton-Rahim on May 31, 2016 11:28 AM

Alaina HarperThe Ed.L.D. Program has a saying — you have to transform yourself in order to transform the sector. This is what Ed.L.D. Commencement marshal Alaina Harper set out to do when she came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Passionate about improving learning outcomes for students of color, Harper started her teaching career in 2003 at KIPP Academy Middle School in the Bronx, New York. She held several leadership roles and worked on various teacher development projects. Working in places that value outcomes for all students through a culture of shared learning led her to explore opportunities outside the classroom. She wanted to help teachers explore their own personal development.

“I realized that we don’t do enough to help transform the adults that need to create the conditions for children to transform themselves in these classrooms,” she says. Her capstone project — born out of her third-year residency at Hartford (Connecticut) Public Schools — Modeling the Way for Change: Senior Leadership Team Development in Hartford Public Schools, focuses on adult development and the idea of a teaming and learning approach at the senior levels to effect change in the classroom.

While working with Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman as a teaching fellow helping to build successful teams, Harper realized and formalized her passion for working with adults. “I wanted to understand what type of culture needed to be modeled by senior leadership to create a ripple that would impact students all the way down to the classroom,” she says.

Professor Monica Higgins also helped Harper think about how she could impact teams and the important role adult development plays in helping to create change teaching her how to effectively use evidence and data of organizational learning to drive decisions.

While in her residency at Hartford Public Schools, Harper worked directly with the senior leadership to help create the conditions to promote effective team development. “While conducting my research, I found that in order to promote learning there needed to be a cultural balance of trust and accountability,” she says. “People learn and grow better in these situations and are more willing to take risks.”

The idea of connecting community and culture was key to Harper’s research. “Being able to have conversations about culture and personal growth allows space for change. In order to impact change in a complex world you need to identify interdependencies to understand where change is necessary and possible,” she says.

Harper credits her time at HGSE for her own personal transformation. “I learned to refine my opinions and I immensely appreciate the willingness of the HGSE community to engage in shared learning,” she says. “It provided a space to experiment and share ideas.”

Harper acknowledges that learning can sometimes be a hard and painful task so one should “develop and extend your joy,” she says, by finding things outside of that process. For Harper that has always been her family. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without my family. The gratitude and thankfulness I have for them is beyond measure. They are part of my joy.”

Her advice to anyone who embarks on this journey is not to be afraid to try new things and learn different perspectives. Building relationships is also important because a lot of learning happens outside of the classroom. “I have a network of people that believe in a similar vision, even if through different paths,” she says. “This can be lonely work and knowing that you have a group of people behind you is valuable.”