I can still remember a conversation I had with my child psychology professor during my first week of pre-service training for Teaching Fellows in June 2007. She asked me about my plans for teaching, and I responded without hesitation, “I’m only going to do this for two years. Then I’m planning to move on to journalism.” I’m embarrassed now when I think of myself back then.
I had the best of intentions when I entered the Teaching Fellows, but even as I ended my training filled with nervousness and doubt, I had no real appreciation for the challenge ahead of me. At the end of a tumultuous first year, I felt proud I hadn’t quit but deeply regretful about the classroom I’d presided over.
By the end of my second year I felt a much greater sense of pride, but I knew my work wasn’t finished. The ingenuous idealism I felt two years earlier had evaporated. Now that I understood the immensity of the task of teaching, I had no choice to work until I had mastered it.
Now, two years later, I can see that I was still looking at teaching from naive perspective. While I’ve made important gains each of the last two years, it’s become apparent to me that while one may become a “master teacher” over time, the challenge of growing, developing, and improving as an educator never ends. I could dedicate myself over the next year, or next 10 years, and my growth would never be finished.
It’s with mixed emotions, then, that I am preparing for my new classroom, no longer on the third floor of PS 310, but in Longfellow Hall at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education where I will pursue a degree in education policy and management.
Early in my time as a teacher I felt a frustrating disconnect between the policymakers handing down mandates from City Hall, Albany, and D.C., and those of us practicing in the classroom. I had been discouraged by a lack of preparation for my first year and a lack of support throughout it. I have been angered by an over emphasis on testing, and at times frustrated by a curriculum (Everyday Math in particular) that seemed ill-fitted for my students. Above all, I remain overwhelmed by the evidence that system is not working for the kids who needed it most.
Over the past four years I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the importance of school leaders in interpreting education policy and carrying it out effectively. With different supervisors during those formative years, I’m not sure I would have experienced those frustrations as acutely.
Meanwhile the past year has given me opportunities to think and write about issues like tenure, layoff policies and teacher evaluations. Still the issues I faced as a first year teacher — preparation and ongoing support, a robust inquiry-based curriculum, and social-emotional supports for students — retain a central place in my thinking as an teacher interested in education policy. Whatever the issues being debated, in four years I’ve still found teachers’ voices startlingly absent from the public discussion on education reform.
I hope that my time at Harvard prepares me to add one more teacher’s voice to this conversation. Through this one-year program I hope to get a better grasp of the technical tools of policy research and analysis and a broader and deeper understanding of what makes some schools and school systems succeed, while others fail. I’m especially interested in the role of teachers, school leaders and district leaders in these successes and failures. I hope to draw on the diverse experiences of the faculty and my fellow students to explore the answers to these questions. My cohort will include other teachers, as well as those with experience in non-profits, district offices and the private sector. I’m most excited to join classmates from all over the world who share my passion for education.
I am nervous and excited to bring my own classroom experiences into a challenging new academic setting. I look forward to connecting my four years of teaching with the academic research and the experiences of my classmates and professors in order to develop a broader perspective on education reform.
It turns out I was wrong when I told my professor my career in education would only last two years. I’m grateful that the challenges of urban education became a enduring passion, rather than a brief line on my resume. Whatever the future of urban education reform, I hope the next year will help me continue to make an impact.