Education Opinion

Young Education Leader: Rabiah Harris

By Sara Mead — June 20, 2013 8 min read
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If there’s one thing that everyone in education can agree on, it’s the importance and tremendous value of high-quality teachers. But our current education system does little to provide opportunities for excellent teachers to make their voices heard, to grow as leaders and professionals, or extend their impacts beyond the classroom to shape the larger education field. That’s why I’m excited to feature Rabiah Harris in this year’s list of leaders shaping the next generation of education. She is an exceptional middle school science teacher who has worked in a variety of district and charter settings, most recently E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Next year, she will be a member of the TeachPlus Turnaround Teacher Team at Kelly Miller Middle School, a DCPS school. In this role, she will teach 8th grade science and also serve as part of a team of teachers who assume leadership positions within the school to assist the administration in raising student achievement. She’s also a member of the Inaugural cohort of the City Bridge-NewSchools Educator Innovation Fellowship, a competitive fellowship that introduces Washington, D.C.'s strongest teachers to promising innovations in blended learning and supports them to design and lead blended learning pilot programs. These roles will enable her to make a significant contribution to improving student learning in Washington, D.C. over the coming years.

Born in Washington, D.C., Rabiah Harris grew up in several different U.S. states before graduating from High School in Jackson, Mississippi. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Howard University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from the University of Pittsburgh, she taught in the District of Columbia Public Schools and was a founding teacher in a New Orleans Charter School before coming to E.L. Haynes. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her four-year-old son.

Tell me about your work as a teacher:
I teach 8th grade science at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, DC. My students hail from all over the city from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Our school has three tenets: Be Kind. Work Hard. Get Smart. I have taught here for four years and since the second year of the middle school. E.L. Haynes will eventually grow to 12th grade by 2015. At E.L. Haynes this year, I wear a bunch of hats including teacher. It all boils down to the fact that I love to help others, peers and students and will do that in any and everywhere I can! It’s fun to be a part of such a strong community as the middle school has.

You’re a City Bridge Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund Education Innovation Fellow--what does that mean?

The Education Innovation Fellows program is in its inaugural year. We are a group of teacher-leaders from DC public and public charter schools that have an interest in blended learning. The fellowship year started in January and we meet monthly to discuss blended learning with leaders in the field. We have taken two trips to see blended learning work across the United States in New York City, Trenton, NJ, Oakland, CA and Los Angeles, CA. As a teacher it is a real treat to get to see other schools and hear about the latest innovations from leaders in the blended learning field. I think very often teachers can feel like they are on an “island” all to themselves or just at their school or in their city. The teachers who were chosen for this program are incredibly talented and we hail from schools all over the city and have varying levels of teaching experiences, so it’s a really collaborative group. We each have something to learn and contribute. I am really grateful to both the CityBridge Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund for starting this program.

I am also participating in the Flamboyan Foundation‘s Family Engagement fellowship, which allows middle school and high school teachers to share best practices in engaging families.

You’ve taught in a variety of different settings--public and charter schools in Washington, D.C. and a charter school in New Orleans. How have these experiences shaped your work and how you think about education? What are the pros and cons of teaching in different types of environments?

Each place that I’ve taught has been unique. Some places had stronger cultures and others had less. But across each of these environments, it has been very important for me to remain a stellar teacher who works tirelessly for my students. Strong school culture can make teaching a bit easier, but won’t change the fact that you have to teach and work tirelessly at reaching your students. There was a saying at one of my schools that said “We’re never done. We’re never finished.” It’s so true, for teachers and students.

One thing that I would say I learned the most, especially from the charters, was that change is good and necessary. At my first school, we might change at the end of a quarter or the end of the year, but at both of my charter school experiences, changing a system/procedure from one day to the next was necessary and done often when deemed necessary. I think the when deemed necessary part is really important, because every change was made in reference to something that just wasn’t working for kids and we would work to find a new solution. Being a part of communities of people/learners who are driven to support all students is integral for me when working in a school community.

Why did you become a teacher?

My mom is a teacher, so being a teacher was definitely one of the careers I wanted from a young age. I had a lot of other ideas of what I could be, too--at one point, I thought I would become an actress. As I got older, I started to witness some educational inequities that stuck with me and helped me to make my decision to be a teacher more concrete. I also had some phenomenal teachers, including two in high school. These two teachers, my geometry and chemistry teacher, made me really interested in mirroring their passion for their content to my own future students. My goal going into teaching was to show ALL students that they can succeed, especially in math and science!

Since I had this dream of becoming a teacher in high school, I went to college knowing what my end goal was. It stuck with me and never left. I attended Howard University as a chemistry major and mathematics minor. I felt that if I wanted to teach science, chemistry, to students who were made to feel like they couldn’t succeed previously, that I needed to know as much as I could about the subject. I was honored to receive a fellowship from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to support me in my interests to become a teacher and attended University of Pittsburgh. There I was also an African American Teaching Fellow in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Once I graduated from University of Pittsburgh, I officially started my teaching career.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?

Wow. There are really so many from former teachers, peers, family and students. I’ll just name a few. 
First and foremost, my mother and father have both shaped my work as a teacher. They were my first teachers and continued to supplement education for my siblings and me through our graduations. I am incredibly grateful to them for their love, support, and examples of what lifelong learning is all about.
In high school my teachers Mr. Lorinchak and Mrs. Pearsall taught me geometry and chemistry, respectively. They were both incredibly passionate about their work and I was intrigued. I think of each of them often.

In college, I had a number of great professors and mentors who helped to inspire me: Dr. Carr, Dr. Richardson, Dr. Bakare, Dr. Nicholson and Rev. Acker. Each of these people, whether they knew it or not, really made an impression on me with their passion and care and devotion for students at a research institution where they really could’ve been more focused on research than helping students, but they weren’t. In graduate school, every professor I had really helped me to think deeply about becoming a teacher and supporting students in a variety of ways.

My most important inspiration, however, is every single student I have ever taught or worked with. From the time that I started working as a camp counselor the summer after my freshman year of college to my 8th class of students this year, I am incredibly inspired by the hard work so many of my students devote to school, even when life isn’t so easy. Seeing some of my students go from underachieving to achieving is a big accomplishment and a special one. Recently, I started running into students from my first and second classes when I taught at a local DC high school. It seems like just yesterday I watched them graduate from high school and now they are graduating from college and starting their lives. It is so exciting. They have big dreams to run video game companies, open bilingual quality early childhood programs, as well as many others. My students continue to inspire me daily.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now?

My long term goal is to be a STEM coordinator and teacher for a school district, charter school, or nonprofit organization. In 5-10 years, I hope that I will be in that role or starting that role. In the time leading up to that, I hope that I will continue to be an advocate for the authentic teaching of STEM, receive my National Board Certification, and continue to make a difference in the lives of students.

What do you do in your free time?

I have a 4 year old son who is my world. We do lots of kid stuff and that takes up a lot of my time: swimming, t-ball, Mandarin language classes and just fun adventures to all the great places in DC. I love music and like to hear live music as much as possible. I also enjoy cooking and am trying to get into to fitness. 

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.