Learning from and giving back to the community through the classroom

January 25, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Deborah Jewell-ShermanDeborah Jewell-Sherman, Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership, helps students develop leadership skills and a deeper understanding of the work involved in being a systems-level leader. In her two-term course, The Workplace Lab for System-Level Leaders (WPL), students actively collaborate with school districts across the nation, including the local Cambridge, Lincoln and Boston public schools. Jewell-Sherman intentionally scaffolds the course from personal introspection to undertaking significant problems of practice for sitting superintendents and CEO’s of educational entities. Before students are assigned to teams that maximize diversity in leadership and communication styles, they deeply reflect to identify their core values. “In terms of practice,” she notes, “it’s important to know who you are and for what you stand.” Groups collaborate on simulations and analyze case studies based on real-world problems while leveraging recent research. Later, students work directly with community partners and present recommendations in a “New Haven” run before hosting an on-campus final “Broadway” run to a full audience. In January, Jewell-Sherman typically takes students on a four-day trip to a school district or educational entity in another state to collaborate on new projects.

The benefits: Students learn important skills for building strong teams and analyzing complex problems, including understanding the context, the history, and the root causes. As Jewell-Sherman sums, “students develop an appreciation for the complexity of the work while learning some tools to address the work.” In assignment structures throughout the course, Jewell-Sherman emphasizes that students must contribute to the community as they learn from them. “I believe that to whom much is given, much is required, so as we learn, we are giving back to communities nearby and across the country in very significant ways.”

“We are Harvard with a little ‘h.’ We are definitely value-add, but the communities we serve are also asset-laden, and so how do we combine what they offer with what we offer and come up with better solutions?”

The challenges: With the team structure, students don’t receive first-hand experience acting as individual leaders, the way they likely will in the real world. However, Jewell-Sherman believes this limitation is an asset: it provides them with practice using their influence through collaboration, negotiation, and consensus building, which are important leadership skills. “If you want people to do exactly what you say, you better switch to teaching first grade,” Jewell-Sherman jests. “Because you never have enough positional authority to do what it is you want to do. You always have to negotiate.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Layer students’ levels of collaboration. “Part of my pedagogy is to scaffold both the demonstration of leadership and the interaction with community.” Starting with smaller projects or case studies, Jewell-Sherman structures her course so that students build trust in “low-risk settings,” with themselves and with community members, and then expand out to have deeper impact. This helps students build stronger relationships and contribute more deeply to their teams as they develop personal leadership skills.
  • Build relationships with people outside Harvard. It is critical that the professors maintain relationships with people from outside Harvard in order to keep the learning relevant and impactful. “The context has to be real. For example, I could not have imagined the COVID-19 pandemic or its impact on teaching and learning in the PK-12 sector. Yet our students are helping school districts and educational organizations design and implement strategies for navigating through this new normal.” Building and maintaining relationships with leaders in the field facilitates an implicit trust that allows students to learn from and serve with colleagues addressing real problems.
  • Embrace an interdisciplinary approach. In preparation for the January trip, students work with an HGSE librarian who identifies relevant research on the genesis and context of complex problems, frameworks for analyzing and understanding the issues, and examples of work currently being done in the field to address the challenge. Students also hear from guest speakers in other disciplines to understand how leaders in other sectors address similar leadership challenges. “People in the sector don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care,” Jewell-Sherman notes, “and one of the ways we convey that we care is that we begin the work with knowledge about their context and an appreciation for the work they’re already attempting to do.”

Bottom line: The scaffolded approach enables students to build necessary leadership skills to be successful in their future career. The humility Jewell-Sherman demonstrates and urges students to embrace serves as a foundation for reciprocal relationships between the communities’ and the students’ learning. “I say to my students on their first day of class that if you are sitting in these seats, you have been given much. There are people who will never, ever have the privilege that you have in being here. And in accepting that privilege, there is much required of you. This is part of that—that you give back to make a difference.”