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New Teachers, Local Impact

The Harvard Teacher Fellows Program deepens its relationships with Boston-area schools and districts in the face of COVID-19.
HTF alumnus Jerry Nelluvelil teaching

Harvard Teacher Fellows alumnus Jerry Nelluvelil teaches a class at Chelsea High School in 2018.

Photo: Jill Anderson

For five years, Harvard Teacher Fellows (HTF) has provided Harvard undergraduates with an innovative pathway into teaching, preparing fellows for the complex world of education through five semesters of coursework, summer student teaching, and a year-long teaching residency. In schools from Oakland, California, to New York, fledgling HTFers have grown into accomplished educators.

Last spring, HTF was preparing to send its new fellows out of state for teaching residency placements when school closures threw the program into turmoil. Faced with uncertainty about licensing requirements, summer teaching, and travel, HTF pivoted, placing all of its 2020–21 fellows in the Boston area and doubling down on its expertise in online teaching and learning. In past years, finding new placements on such short notice would have been impossible — but the pandemic actually made it easier.

“As it became clear that COVID would continue to impact local schools throughout the fall, the schools began to say, ‘We need more people, because we have no idea what remote learning is going to look like,’” says HTF fieldwork administrator Emily Hess. “Our fellows were able to start to fill that need.”

In Greater Boston, a Strong Community Impact

Of the 28 fellows working in schools across the Boston area, half are working in the Chelsea Public School District (CPS), in a city the New York Times once called the “epicenter” of the pandemic in Massachusetts.

CPS is one of HTF’s longstanding partners, and “it was gratifying to partner with the district’s educators and to offer the support of a group of recent college graduates who had been learning and practicing to teach for eight months prior,” says Lecturer Noah Heller, director of HTF. “Our fellows spent the spring developing foundational pedagogical knowledge and the summer rehearsing teaching practices and learning to implement instructional technologies. They were eager to apply these skills in the challenging remote settings that currently exist in Chelsea and elsewhere.”

CPS, a district where more than 80% of students are classified as high needs and over 40% are classified as English language learners, found homes for the new fellows as teachers of record and co-teachers. While Chelsea normally accepts HTFers for hard-to-fill positions like high school chemistry and math, this year, fellows are filling positions across the board, bringing their expertise in both STEM and the humanities to CPS students.

All fellows are being mentored by master teachers in Chelsea as they continue to develop under the supervision of HTF. “The HTF fellows, in addition to having a growth mindset and being open to feedback, are really knowledgeable about their content,” says Sarah Kent, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Chelsea Public Schools. “Some of the new humanities fellows are bilingual, which has also been helpful.”

“The fellows have been really genuine in joining in dialogue with their colleagues, from a humble perspective as new teachers, but without taking a back seat.” – Priti Johari, Ed.M.’11, chief academic officer at The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School

In another local placement, the impact of this year’s HTF fellows is even more pronounced. The Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR) Charter School, in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, is a smaller school, and the five new HTF fellows have become valuable contributors to the community.

“They have been energetic, thoughtful new members of our community, particularly when it comes to engaging in conversations about race, identity, and what it means to reconvene school,” explains Priti Johari, Ed.M.’11, chief academic officer at APR. “The fellows have been really genuine in joining in dialogue with their colleagues, from a humble perspective as new teachers, but without taking a back seat.”

Over the summer, Johari says, fellows reached out to see if there was any way they could help leading up to the school year. Grateful for the offer, Johari and the high school principal paired the fellows with students who needed extra help for one-on-one sessions.

“I was energized to see the fellows already engaging both with our students and with our organizational commitment to anti-racist work, so early in the year and in their careers,” Johari says.

Challenging Times, Positive Change

For Natti Robinson, a current HTF fellow teaching at Prospect Hill Academy in Cambridge, leaving Harvard in the middle of their senior year and returning home last March was an unexpected, even traumatic, challenge.

“I woke up to the email from [Harvard College] Dean Khurana, and I flipped,” explains Robinson. “I thought, well, my life is ruined.” But the community they found in Harvard Teacher Fellows made things easier.

“Every week, we’d have a dance party on Zoom. HTF organized anti-racism programming online, interviews with teachers, countless resources,” says Robinson. “They’ve been supportive, friendly people through all of this.”

In the wake of the pandemic, HTF has had to move more than just its community dance parties online. The program has also had to adjust their instruction to be fully remote, while simultaneously changing their curriculum to train fellows for online teaching. While this has introduced challenges, HTF was, in some ways, ahead of the curve.

“We’ve always had a remote aspect of our program,” explains Heller. “When HGSE went fully remote, we were in a position to help a number of our colleagues in terms of what online learning can look like and how you make it happen.”

For HTF, successful remote learning had always involved small group discussions, collaborative documents, community check-ins, and the ability to virtually enter each other’s classrooms by sharing video. As the HTF faculty shared these practices among their colleagues, they also used the opportunity the pandemic provided to improve the remote techniques they had been using for five years. Among other things, the pandemic gave the program’s faculty the opportunity to work collaboratively in a way they never had previously.  

“The educational impacts of the pandemic, namely the ways in which educational opportunities are being distributed unequally and the ways the inequities in society are being exacerbated — this is going to reverberate through our society for a long time. We are just proud of fellows for committing themselves to be a part of positive change.” – Lecturer Noah Heller, director of HTF

“We learned to work together in very efficient ways to solve just-in-time challenges,” says Heller. “We also relied more heavily on teaching rehearsals than we ever had before. Because we had fellows teaching in remote, controlled environments, we were able to rehearse specific routines that serve as a teacher’s go-to tools in the field. Oftentimes for new teachers, that toolbox can feel inaccessible when they first get in the classroom. Since fellows were practicing in remote settings, those tools were already ingrained when they logged on in front of their students this fall.”

Of course, nothing could fully prepare the new cohort for the unique challenges of teaching online.

“Being in in-person school does not remove the personal problems that might be occurring in the background, but at least there’s some distance from it for a few hours,” says Robinson. “Online school, you are in it. I’ve had the same problem my students have had. If there’s something happening in my house, that’s now going to be on display. How can I properly support my students through learning while they are dealing with the whirlwind of things happening at the same time?”

Finding the Silver Linings — and Looking Ahead

While the recent crisis has created challenges for HTF, it has also brought positive impacts. According to Lecturer Katie Rieser, HTF’s English language arts master teacher in residence, the teaching practices of this year’s first-year fellows are creative, engaging, and effective – even more so than they would likely be in person.

“Our fellows spent the summer training to teach in a remote environment, and for the first time ever, instead of sending the fellows off saying, ‘You don’t know as much as everyone around you about teaching,’ I said, ‘Actually you know more in this one category of things. You still have a lot to learn, but you have a lot of things to offer your mentor teachers,’” says Rieser.

Even the fellows themselves, while new to teaching, are seeing these benefits play out. “I have access to a lot of structures to support students with IEPs. The internet makes it easy to diversify instruction,” says Robinson, reflecting on the successes they’ve had so far this year with accessible technology. “Supporting students in this way is pretty awesome.”

HTF isn’t sure what teaching will look like next spring, or what changes the program will face as it navigates COVID’s repercussions in the future. For now, they are focused on supporting the current fellows, and through them, middle and secondary school students across the Boston area.

“The educational impacts of the pandemic, namely the ways in which educational opportunities are being distributed unequally and the ways the inequities in society are being exacerbated — this is going to reverberate through our society for a long time,” says Heller. “We are just proud of fellows for committing themselves to be a part of positive change. It’s going to be a long haul for the state of education. In the meantime, we are happy to be making a local impact.”