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Pathways Toward a Career in Teaching

Through the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program and Harvard College's secondary field in educational studies, HGSE is nurturing undergraduates' interest in the field of education.
Teacher glimpsed through classroom door

Cohort 1 Fellow Sarah Cole teaching summer school at Chelsea High School

Photo: Jill Anderson

In recent years, education — the field of education, the pathways toward a career in teaching — has taken a greater piece of the spotlight at Harvard College, thanks to a series of initiatives led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

HGSE has long been dedicated to nurturing Harvard undergraduates’ curiosity about teaching and learning, while making education a viable and supported career — as exemplified by Kay Merseth’s pioneering Equity in Education course (one of the college’s most popular courses). Now, as the Harvard Teacher Fellows (HTF) Program nears the end of its fifth year, and a new secondary field in educational studies gains popularity, the Ed School is helping to reinvigorate a sense of service and community among undergraduates and opening doors to careers as teachers and educators.

“It’s so important for Harvard College students to see teaching as valuable and meaningful career path and to make a difference in the lives of young people,” says Lecturer Noah Heller, faculty director of HTF. “We’re seeing in society an invigorated call to action that addresses current and historic racism, the current health crisis, and the many ways the world is reckoning with itself. Education is deeply implicated in all of these challenges and being of service and committing yourself to opportunities through education is a way to have a direct impact locally and globally in the struggle for a more just and equitable world.”

Launched throughout 2015 and 2016, HTF was meant to create a new kind of pathway for Harvard College undergraduates into the classroom. Through HTF, Harvard College seniors and alumni receive exceptional, thoughtfully curated (and funded) teacher preparation and mentoring to become middle school and high school mathematics, science, history, and English teachers while also having the option to earn a subsidized master’s degree from the Ed School. In the five years since HTF’s inception, interest in the program has continued to expand, with more than 100 Harvard College seniors wanting more information about the program this year. The latest cohort — cohort 5 — is also the largest, consisting of 28 fellows with 36% identifying as first-generation students and 52% as people of color or multiracial.

“Being of service and committing yourself to opportunities through education is a way to have a direct impact locally and globally in the struggle for a more just and equitable world.” – Lecturer Noah Heller

HTF does more than just provide an appealing on ramp into classroom teaching. It sets fellows up for success by training them to teach specific subjects, preparing them to be skillful teachers through field-based training from their first day on the job, and providing continued resources and supports necessary to enable students to remain in teaching — something Heller says is a key aspect of the program. And HTF has stayed committed to changing with the times. “There are so many ways that we continue to grow and develop as a program. We’re continuing to strengthen our school partnerships and articulate HTF’s language of practice. We teach common strategies and routines as tools for ambitious instruction while also focusing on culturally responsive disciplinary pedagogies and practices that are learned and enacted in our discipline specific methods course sequence,” Heller says. “Programming has been evolving to continually reflect growth and innovations to the HTF model of practice-based teacher education.”

Eighty percent of HTF alumni have stayed in the classroom since graduating from the program, a statistic that shows promise considering many young teachers leave the field within the first five years. Heller credits HTF’s unique model, as well as the community that continues to offer the support young teachers’ needs.

HTF offers a suite of “early career engagement” tools to alumni including regular video-based coaching and collaborative coaching groups, professional development grants, providing mentorship to current fellows, and learning groups.

“We see our alums doing remarkable work in the field. They are the best representatives of HTF, not just great teaching and remarkable contributions in their school communities but forming lifelong connections with their HTF colleagues and continuing to push each other, and the program, in many important ways,” Heller says, adding that HTF alumni are very active in the program, and their voices have profound impact on developing and preparing new cohorts of fellows. “It’s not enough to just stay in teaching, but we want them continuing to grow in the profession.”

Alina Acosta, Ed.M.’18, an HTF alum from the second cohort, currently teaches high school math in Denver. She has continued to use HTF as a resource and for support since completing the program. “It is a great way to connect with other passionate educators and knowledgeable professors that currently work at the Ed School,” Acosta says. “For example, my school is working on developing an advisory program, so I emailed some HTF professors to get their recommendations on strong advisory programs to look at more closely.”

As an undergraduate, Acosta recognized the “power of public education as a tool for liberation,” she says. Ultimately, it was the support HTF offered that attracted Acosta to the program, as well as the option to earn a master’s along the way. “HTF helped develop me as a teacher by pushing me to reflect on my own identity, and providing me with strong mentors,” she says.

Although Harvard’s new secondary field in education — known as the “Ed Secondary” — isn’t exclusive to those interested in classroom teaching, its creation came with some similar intentions as HTF: to get Harvard undergraduates interested and active in education.

“The Ed Secondary is raising the prominence and legitimacy for the study of education in the College. In our two years, we have seen rapidly increasing numbers of students declare the Ed Secondary and they are really excited and proud to be part of the program,” says Professor Julie Reuben, faculty director of the Harvard Ed Secondary program. The Ed Secondary is the Harvard equivalent of a minor degree, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between HGSE and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), with five approved courses from three different departments or schools and a capstone project.

Reuben notes that 50 rising juniors and seniors have declared the Ed Secondary. “A lot of college students want to make a positive impact in the world and they see education as a way to do that,” she says.

While Merseth’s course often acts as a gateway to education, the Ed Secondary can now carry forward those students who become enthralled with the subject. Ed Secondary students envision bringing their interest in the field into a number of different possible careers. But the education secondary can also create a path to HTF, like it did for Catherine Zhang, a 2019 graduate of the college, who is one of seven education secondary students who got their undergraduate degrees, then entered HTF.  

“A lot of college students want to make a positive impact in the world and they see education as a way to do that.” – Professor Julie Reuben

When Zhang arrived at the college as a freshman, she looked for ways to become involved in education. Through Merseth’s class and mentorship, Zhang began exploring different career paths in education. She participated in everything the college had to offer undergraduates geared toward education like the Opportunities in Education Program. As the president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, she advocated for the creation of the Ed Secondary, and became one of the first 10 students to complete the program.

“Education touches every single person,” Zhang says. “Everyone goes through the education system but often times people have very different experiences. I started thinking this was something I could really dive into and spend my career.” But still Zhang didn’t see herself in a classroom right away until her senior year.

“I felt compelled and excited to be in the classroom, which is why I applied to HTF,” she says, noting that she explored many different education careers and took a few classes at HGSE as an undergrad before choosing HTF. After a year teaching abroad as part of a Fulbright Fellowship, Zhang began the HTF Program this spring, and relished the moments to grow alongside the love, care, and support of HTF faculty. “You can tell when people coaching you are experienced teachers because they are so thoughtful and careful of the ways they enter the space,” she says, noting that the curriculum, its approach to antiracism, and the cohort experience have been phenomenal so far.

Harvard College students sometimes feel that all of their peers are interested in investment banking and tech careers but HTF and the Ed Secondary demonstrate that a significant number of students recognize the importance of education. Reuben acknowledges that there is still a way to go to make education as prominent as these other fields. “We want to get to the point,” she says, “Harvard College students feel that education is so important, they have to understand it.”

But Harvard College isn’t yet known for churning out educators, and Heller admits it’s common for fellows to confront the question: "Wait, you went to Harvard, why would you become a teacher?”

“I hope in the work that we do that question becomes easier and easier for students to answer because as a community we are surfacing all the ways the work is valuable and critical in the world, and all the rewards and delights that come with teaching, and confronting the challenges that accompany classroom teaching, and how it can be incredibly rewarding,” Heller says. “I don’t think of [teaching] as a sacrifice and for all the reasons why a program like HTF is essential to help shift internal dialogue in Harvard it’s also important to shift the preparation for and perceptions of teaching nationally. No matter how many options there are for Harvard College students if they feel called to teach, then I would hope they would entertain it as a profoundly meaningful and worthwhile way to engage with the most important challenges facing us today.”