Gordon seeks to use the tools he gains from his Harris MACRM to better understand and address the substitute teacher shortage.
Headshot of Alex Gordon
Alex Gordon

Although Alex Gordon graduated from Northwestern University at 19 and worked in private industry before landing in Chicago Public Schools as a substitute teacher, it was his teaching experience that he felt prepared him to apply to graduate school. “I knew I couldn’t be a productive researcher until I identified a question that had practical value to people,” he said. “I went into the workforce to find the question I could put years of my life toward answering.”

At Northwestern, Gordon sought to understand the world through an analytical perspective, majoring in economics, math, and higher education studies. His interest in research arose through his senior thesis, which explored if students looked at past evaluations before registering for classes. “It was a fairly simple project, but every faculty member I talked to about it was excited,” he recalled. “It spoke to concerns and helped faculty understand their workplace better.”

Gordon said his senior thesis also helped him realize great research didn’t have to be about finding the most unique dataset or using the most advanced analytical methods. “If you find something interesting and people want to know about it because it affects their lives, that’s enough to drive great research.”  

After graduating from Northwestern, Gordon worked in the private sector. He also expanded his research experience, doing contract work with the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern. “My connection with the Clinic was inspiring and helped me keep in touch with the fact that research is not a game—it can change lives and change the world.”

He subsequently joined City Year, working as a teacher’s aide in a school on Chicago’s West Side. “I was immediately struck by the difficulty in finding substitute teachers,” he said. “Teachers would call in sick, we wouldn’t be able to find subs, and we’d end up sending eighth graders into the kindergarten room to supervise. It was terrible, and everyone would be exhausted at the end of the day. I began to wonder why there was such a shortage of substitute teachers and found a surprising lack of research. The practical importance of the substitute teacher shortage was disproportionate to the amount of research on it.”

Alex Gordon had found his question.

While putting together graduate school applications, Gordon signed up to be a substitute teacher himself and ended up being hired as a full-time teacher for the remainder of the year. “I had days where I needed to call in but couldn’t because I knew there were no subs. I saw teacher burnout, and also fewer subs available because they were all filling positions full-time. This past year unequivocally confirmed for me that the substitute shortage is a crisis that needs to be researched and solved.”

Gordon said Harris was his top choice, buoyed by UChicago’s prestigious reputation and the MA in Public Policy with a Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM) program. “I grew up in Evanston, and I always knew UChicago was the best school around: it was the benchmark by which I evaluated research and academic rigor. I’m motivated to do research that is immediately and practically beneficial, and Harris and the MACRM program are grounded in that mission as well. My goal has always been to advance my education in order to understand the world and then apply what I’ve learned to enact change, and now I get to do that while engaging in research at the highest level possible.”

After completing his MACRM, Gordon hopes to pursue his PhD at Harris. “I’d like to write a book rooted in policy about the crisis substitute teaching faces. With the tools I’ll gain at Harris, I’m confident I could be that person.”