Tyler Hester cried into a stack of buttermilk pancakes at an IHOP in Pasadena, Calif.
It was two months into his teaching career, and he was already feeling overwhelmed and ineffective. “I’ll never forget this,” he said, recalling the breakfast with his mother. “The pancakes had just arrived and she asked me, ‘Tyler, how are you doing?’ My eyes welled up and a tear drop literally rolled onto the pancake in front of me and I just said, ‘Mom, it’s so hard.’”
A decade later, that low point led Hester, now in the final year of a doctor of education leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to an idea: create an initiative to offer struggling new teachers emotional support. The need for such a program was apparent to Hester not just because of his own experience, but because of the nation’s high rates of teacher burnout and turnover.
But how to find the support and guidance to take his idea and turn it into an actual program? Hester turned to Operation Impact, a program launched last year by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning and its Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching that supports budding entrepreneurs in education innovation.
Operation Impact has funded almost 200 students working on more than 80 projects around the country and the world. Ventures have included a school readiness app for incoming kindergartners, a medical case-logging system for surgeons, a workforce training program for youth in Indonesia, a support program for adolescents living with a caregiver or family member who struggles with mental health issues or addiction, and a mobile app that helps match students and mentors.
The program awards small seed grants for pilot projects, typically $200 to $500 up to four times a year, and provides access to software from its corporate sponsors that can help the groups get their projects off the ground. Limiting the size of the awards allows Operation Impact to spread the grants around more widely.
“We didn’t want to just award a bunch of people,” said Jaime B. Goldstein, HILT’s director of strategic projects and innovation grants. “We wanted to teach as many people as possible the mechanisms for how you go about being a change agent [in the field of education].”
The program encourages students to collaborate across disciplines and requires teams to meet with Harvard graduate students, called program fellows, who have experience in education innovation.
Funded by SMART Technologies — one of Operation Impact’s corporate sponsors —the fellows understand what funders are looking for, and they help teams research the problems they are addressing, build businesses plans, grow their teams, and tap into relevant research at Harvard. They also connect teams with external experts and potential funders. Their ultimate goal is to help the groups move their projects forward, said Gorick Ng, M.B.A. ’18, a fellow from last year.
“Standing between someone who has the passion, the background, and the skills and this better world they aspire to is this big mountain, this paralyzing question of what to do next. The problem is a lack of guidance, a lack of resources, a lack of community,” Ng said. “What this program offers is a structured way to help people take what is otherwise an overwhelming sense of ambiguity and nudge them into motion and help them take that next best step.”