Big Data, Bigger Questions


What happens when teachers and leaders commit to having an impact on their students who live in poverty? What is it about a teacher that makes them have life-changing, transformational impact?

These are the big questions that Steven Farr, chief learning and knowledge officer at Teach For All has devoted the past 13 years of his life trying to understand and explain. Farr came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Tuesday to engage with students in the International Education Policy and Education Policy and Management master’s programs and help foster deeper understanding about what works and what is still needed in classrooms across the world.

Farr himself was a corp member during the early years of Teach For America (TFA) in Texas, which he frequently references as a point of “life-changing impact.” After he completed the program, he went on to Yale Law School before coming back to work at TFA on staff. Since then, Farr’s work focuses on understanding what makes successful teachers across the globe have transformational impact on their students lives. He maintains that learning from successful teachers can be shared across classrooms and contexts.

From Spain to Malaysia and India to Peru, Teach For All partners now exist in more than 34 countries across the world with similar goals, as Farr puts it, “to get the right people into education.” The impact on students, and the teachers themselves, from across the network has been extraordinary and affirms that elements of teaching in transformational classrooms remain universal. Farr’s team works with all network partners to discover how in classrooms all over the world, teachers are making huge strides with kids living in poverty.

During the talk, Farr reminded students about how education is a deeply personal issue and that experiences we may have had during our childhood and in our classrooms have motivated many of us to be where we are today. Drawing a graph, he asked students what, in an ideal world, student “growth” or “transformation” would look.

Students were encouraged to reflect back to their own circumstances.

“How much do you think that your race or social class defined what life trajectory you had?” he asked.

Farr noted that if you are born at the top of the spectrum, there are many support structures that are there to help you back on a path if you fall. But for many students who start at the bottom, there is little support. There are also added social difficulties that aren’t always apparent to educators, especially if the educator is from a different background than the student. He encouraged the Ed School students to understand their privilege and power in order to better understand how to best impact students from different backgrounds.

After researching best practices for transformational teaching, does creating a map or route for teachers have to always be successful? Farr doesn’t think so. But having written and published Teaching As Leadership, Farr thinks that there are key elements that induce transformation in students. Teacher actions such as having big goals for students, planning purposefully with that goal in mind, and working relentlessly, all have proven to have significant positive effects on student outcomes.

Even after claiming himself a “believer” in the Teach For model, Farr still maintains that Teach For All and its network partners are just a handful of entities compared with the need. There are hundreds more needed that are working to get transformational teachers into the classrooms that need them the most, and more so to have systemic change that enables disadvantaged students to have life-altering paths. Farr acknowledges there is much work to be done, but his belief in “not letting perfect become the enemy of good” is what has pushed him to achieve the success he has today.

— Myra Khan (@myrakhan) is currently a student in the International Education Policy master’s program at the Ed School.

Published on the Harvard Graduate School of Education website, September 11th 2014.


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