What Do We Teach For? Creating a Community of Network Alumni Graduate Students

Mariana Sanz de Santamaría, Enseña por Colombia alumna and Founder of Poderosas

It is no coincidence that more than 20 Teach For All network alumni from all over the world found each other at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We had never met before, but at one point of our lives we all invested two years to teach in our countries. For most of us, that decision was pivotal to our careers, and foundational to our future professional and life plans.  

It is no coincidence indeed: we all believe in education.

We came together from many different programs at HGSE to meet and build, here in Cambridge, an international Teach For All community: Teach For Beyond. We created the community to host events, learn from each other, and propose collective ideas that leveraged our diverse experiences and current ventures. 

Finding a common time slot for two people, let alone a group of people, is a challenging task during graduate school, but we insisted. While we knew we wanted to connect, the first time we met it was not very clear what we should do.  We discussed different possibilities:  

What if we...

...discuss our roles in education and the pros and cons of our organizations in particular contexts?
...identify our successes and failures and determine what  success actually means and how to learn from our mistakes and do better?
...share our personal enterprises, projects, career as education leaders and how our experience helped us find it?
...pilot a Leadership Development Program led by us?

Before moving forward with any of those ideas, we wanted to get to know each other better, so we hosted a second event. A free pizza lunch inspired more alumni to come this time. As we talked, we discovered that we held different perspectives despite our similar teaching experiences. For some, the experience sparked a passion for education and a deep connection with their organization and the network. Others were more ambivalent, and questioned the system, and their role. Hearing each other’s perspectives led us to deep conversations about how each country’s educational context, school system, and organization influenced our experiences and sense of belonging.

Together, we reflected on what we had learned from Teach For India, Teach First, Teach For Qatar, Enseña por Colombia, Enseña Uruguay, Enseña Ecuador, Teach For Australia, Teach For Bulgaria, Teach For France, and Teach For Armenia, and how those insights shaped what we were doing now. A few examples:

Teaching we learned...

...the hidden reality of our countries
...that teaching is hard, and teachers are resilient
...that kids are amazing, brave, insightful, and inspiring
...to shift ‘the problem is the people’ to ‘the problem is the system’
...about ourselves, our privilege, and how we handle challenges
...how hard it is to attract, support and retain good teachers in low-income schools
...to give ourselves and our students grace

And that led us to focus on...

...leadership coaching, institutional leadership, school improvement and equity-centered progress
...learning how to exercise adaptive leadership and scale up and scale deep an education program on sex and reproductive rights for young women and men
...embedding equity principles into technology and design, and amplifying the teacher voice
...continuing to teach as preparation for becoming a public school principal
...figuring out where we belong in education

After learning from each other’s experiences, there wasn’t much time for discussion; we were left with curiosity and unanswered questions. So, three months later, we met again. Spring was already fighting winter and the temperature had been rising. But that Wednesday evening it snowed, heavily. Despite the weather, around 20 of us showed up. Our experiences teaching connected us, but we didn’t know how much and in what way, so we decided to try an activity to explore the question “What do we teach for?” 

The instructions were as follows:

Summarize in a phrase or a few words the most profound and transforming experiences during your time in the classroom. Write them down on a piece of paper, fold it, and place it in the bag at the center of the circle.

When the bag was full of everyone’s responses, we took turns taking out a piece of paper, reading what it said, and attempting to interpret those few words. Then the author of the reflection built on what had been shared by explaining the significance of what they’d written.

After each of us had shared our experiences, it was like we’d all taken a deep breath of fresh air. We were a group of individuals from many different countries, but there was a reason we had come together. It became clear to all of us what we teach for. 

Learn more about some of the stories members of our community shared on Facebook