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Teaching Toward Joy: Catherine Pitcher, IEP'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for International Education Policy reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Catherine Pitcher at the Last Bookstore

Catherine Pitcher: "This is a photo of the first time that I got to meet another classmate in person this year and represents continuing relationships and fun... . Being surrounded by books represents all the reading I did this year. The keffiyeh scarf I’m wearing represents my love and support for my students in Palestine."

Photo: Michele Vick

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Catherine Pitcher will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for International Education Policy (IEP) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Professor Fernando Reimers, faculty director of IEP, comments on Pitcher's selection: “As the last recipient of the intellectual award in the International Education Policy Program, Catherine Pitcher embodies well the qualities that have characterized the many graduates of this program since the first cohort graduated in the year 2000: a commitment to expanding educational opportunity to all children and youth, especially the most marginalized; the pursuit of excellence as a professional in the field of international development; and the understanding that effective and sustainable change requires collaborating with others in collective leadership efforts that truly advance a world that is more inclusive and sustainable.

“During her year in the program, Catherine has researched how education programs in the developing world are empowering marginalized learners and gone the extra mile in turning that work into scholarly publications. She has excelled collaborating with her peers in studying challenging and complex topics while looking for ways to make a difference and transcend the mere contemplation of complexity. In generous, gentle, and humble ways she has contributed to class discussions helping classmates and faculty think again.”

We spoke to Pitcher about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

This is a photo of the first time that I got to meet another classmate in person this year and represents continuing relationships and fun. Michele Vick and I had worked on multiple projects together this year, so we felt we knew each other well and were comfortable with each other, yet this day still marked the “first” meeting through a traditional lens (she snapped the photo!). Being surrounded by books represents all the reading I did this year. The keffiyeh scarf I’m wearing represents my love and support for my students in Palestine. I had the awesome opportunity to apply much of my learning from HGSE to an English program that I coordinated in the West Bank with Palestine: Sports For Life in January and February so that was a big part of my year.

What were the challenges and/or silver linings of online learning? What are some creative or special ways you are able to connect with your peers?

So, I must admit I have one major area of FOMO that still lingers from this year. I really love libraries, and know I missed out on being a regular at Gutman and other libraries on Harvard's campus!

A major silver lining in online learning was the flexibility it provided. It was nice not to have to commute or deal with the hassle of getting ready to leave the house every day. It also made going to office hours with professors or meeting for a "coffee" with a friend much easier. Lastly, and most importantly, I feel that HGSE benefited from the inclusion of students from around the world who would not have been able to travel to Cambridge for personal or professional reasons. Removing that barrier to participation opened up a lot of opportunities for learning and building relationships that would never have been possible with a typical in person program.

One of my favorite ways to connect with my peers was through our IEP study room. Prachi Narang created a Zoom room that we could all go to at any time to work together or check in with each other. It was a wonderful way to “study” together in our online environment.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

This is hard! All of my classes were so meaningful. I could write about all of them and am so grateful for all of the professors I got to learn from. A801 with Professor Fernando Reimers was meaningful as it helped me develop a lens through which to examine policy and also pushed me to do original research with my wonderful team, Richa Gupta, Ryleigh Jacobs, and Rinesa Deshishku. T410H, A835, and T410J with Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson (yes, I took three classes with her!) gave me a critical lens through which to examine education in armed conflict and pushed me to be thoughtful about how to support desire-centered spaces that are appropriately rigorous and which promote belonging. S553 with Professor Eileen McGowan gave me space and support to pursue an independent research project on intellectual humility.

"As educators and leaders, we must strive to be responsive to the lived experiences and identity of our staff and students to support them in building a future for themselves that encompasses the kind of person they want to be, the kind of impact they want to have in the world, and the joy that they want to have in their lives while simultaneously supporting critical inquiry."

What are your post-HGSE plans?

Currently, my post-HGSE plans include continuing work in Palestine and continuing my research on intellectual humility. Exactly how that will pan out is still unfolding, but I am planning on applying for doctoral programs later this year.

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

One thing that I learned this year that I will take with me throughout my career in education is the importance of focusing on the future through a lens that is optimistic but that doesn't ignore the realities of our past and present. For example, my students and teachers in Palestine are curious, bright, thoughtful, caring, intelligent people that have varied passions and interests. They also live under a military occupation which carries with it challenging realities. As educators and leaders, we must strive to be responsive to the lived experiences and identity of our staff and students to support them in building a future for themselves that encompasses the kind of person they want to be, the kind of impact they want to have in the world, and the joy that they want to have in their lives while simultaneously supporting critical inquiry. I’ve come to a belief that this combination of joyful future-building and critical consciousness can support students and teachers in realizing the change they want in their communities.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

This year has opened thinking about ways to teach and learn that don't exist in the confines of a physical classroom. The pandemic highlighted intangible ways that relationships are built and that warmth and caring are communicated. It also highlighted how flexible the education sector can be when faced with the need to pivot. I hope that we harness this energy and continue to prioritize responsiveness, being willing to let go of the things we know don’t work, and being ready to try new approaches in order to better serve our students.