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Posts Tagged ‘Kansas’

It had been a while since I had been a student. I finished my Masters degree in 1999 – that was last century! At the time, I had imagined continuing on immediately into my doctorate. I actually visited a school and did a lot of research on programs, but other things began to take priority and I moved on.

The opportunity re-emerged about five years ago in conversations with my friend and mentor Dr. Yong Zhao, who was then at the University of Oregon, now at the University of Kansas.  And all the sudden, by the fall of 2018, we had a cohort of 17 students ready to do a Doctorate in Education through a Vancouver cohort of the University of Kansas. My fellow classmate, Gerald Fussell (I guess it is Dr. Fussell now) recently wrote a very good summary of our experience HERE that is a great read for anyone looking to better understand the doctoral experience or maybe join the next cohort.  I won’t cover the same ground, but here are some of my student lessons from my experience:

Sometimes You Need to Start Over

I wrote about eighty pages of my dissertation over the Christmas break.  It was most of my first three chapters.  I knew it wasn’t great.  It felt like I was pasting together a bunch of different ideas and trying to make it coherent.  I needed someone’s opinion, so I sent it off to my advisor.  He got back to me quickly, and we set up a Zoom call.  His advice – don’t try to fix it, start over.  I had assumed he would give me a list of things to fix, and that would give me a good to-do list.  I was not so lucky.  Well, actually I was.  I had all the ideas, my paper just lacked voice or energy.  It was bland.  Not trying to fix it was the absolute best advice.  Two weeks later, 70 pages had become 50 pages and it was a completely different paper – one that was something I was proud to have written.  We always try to fix and edit papers, but sometimes we just need to start over.

Don’t Lose Your Voice

The biggest problem with that first draft I discarded is that I was trying to write how I thought it should be written and not in my voice.  I write a lot.  On this blog and elsewhere, I publish thousands of words each month. And I know I have a casual tone, but I thought I needed to abandon that for my doctorate.  My advisor told me just the opposite was true.  So, in version two, my dissertation read more like my blog posts with my voice coming through. At first it was excruciating not to write in my own voice, and then the words just flowed when I could “just write.”

Grades Don’t Matter as Long as They are Good

I know grades in grad school don’t matter.  And I have spent much of my 25-year teaching career trying to elevate the importance of learning, and decrease the obsession with grades.  But . . . when all of a sudden you are getting grades again, it is the first (and sometimes only) thing you look at.  I was guilty.  I appreciated ongoing feedback until I got my grade and then I was done.  As long as the grade matched the expectation I had, I was no longer interested in ongoing feedback, I was ready to move on.

Professors Want You to Succeed

Again, remember it has been a while since I have been in school.  I think I have been jaded by television and movie characters of college professors over the last two decades. Every professor I worked with really wanted all the students to do well.  None of them wanted a bell curve, or for some to succeed at the expense of others, they just wanted everyone to do well.  Professors challenged me, pushed me, and made me defend my positions.  Especially as I approached some key deadlines over the last six weeks, they went above and beyond to help me hit targets, so I could graduate now.  

Study What Interests You

It sounds simple that you should study what interests you, but I hear from many people that they are not  even interested in their research.  I knew early on what I wanted to study, and it was something I had been wondering since I started as superintendent more than a decade ago, just what do superintendents really do?   I know what I do, but it is that the same as everyone else?   As I began to collect my data, I became obsessed by it.  I had the good fortune of having 59 of 60 BC School Superintendents respond to my survey so I had a complete picture of the province.   If I am going to invest so much time into research and writing, it should be something I care about.  And full credit to every professor along the way in the program who allowed us to design papers and projects that had direct relevance to our work in our school districts.  

Enjoy Challenging and Being Challenged

Having people disagree about ideas was one of the best parts of the program.  I find we don’t debate ideas well in the school system.  We debate people most of the time. Of course, this is so true in the state of world politics and is true in education, that we struggle to take an issue with ideas and we decide if someone disagrees they must be a bad person.   I also find in education most staff are fairly like minded.  So even our disagreements are superficial.  In the program, professors challenged me about my ideas, my data and my future vision.  And they encouraged me to pushback.  I can’t remember another time in my life this has happened.  Even my dissertation defense was loud and tense but engaging and never felt personal.   It is a skill I need to continue to work on as challenging others and being challenged made me better.

Break It into Smaller Chunks

We have all given this advice as teachers to students.  Take a large project and divide it up into smaller parts so you are not overwhelmed.  And a doctorate works with this strategy as well.  There are obvious milestones along the way to work towards.  In addition to individual courses, there is the comprehensive exams, the proposal approval and ethics approval that all serve as useful smaller benchmarks.  I would hear a new term to me often used – ABD – All But Dissertation.  This describes students who finish all the course work but never finish the dissertation.  I see different percentages cited online, but it looks like up to a 1/3 of all doctoral students might fall into this category in some programs.  I know there are a lot of reasons for why this fact is true, but the act of dividing a seemingly overwhelming 100 page research project into small, manageable tasks with obvious small victories sure helped me along the way.  We definitely build up the mystique of the dissertation. 

You Get Out of It What You Want

There are no financial or professional incentives for those of us in the K-12 sector in British Columbia to finish our doctorate degrees.  In some jurisdictions, you need a doctorate to be a superintendent, or you get a pay bump with the added credential, this is not true in BC.  It was interesting for our professors in the program as they universally described our mindsets and engagement as completely different from many of their usual students.  We were there because we really wanted to learn, be challenged, work together, and were driven by intrinsic motivators.  When your motivators are your own, you get out of the doctorate what you want.  You don’t have to do all the readings, or participate in all the discussion boards, or revise a good paper into a great paper.   But you can.  And apparently, we did far more than “regular” students. The program balances the old world of letter grades and credentials, and the new world of personal bests and ongoing improvement.  

Conclusions

I was thrilled earlier this month to successfully defend my dissertation, How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time, and complete the doctorate process.  I had the sense of accomplishment that Gerald wrote of in his post. I have heard comments before like “a doctorate doesn’t make you smarter.”  I get it and that is true at face value.  But doing my doctorate has made me smarter – it has allowed me to look at issues differently, read papers I would never have read, connect with experts I never might have known, be exposed to new ideas and write, write, write.

My full dissertation is available HERE under the Research tab on my blog site.  Over the summer I am going to take some of my main findings and share them in short, more casually written, and hopefully user friendly posts that will create conversations.  

Next Week . . . . a look at the gender differences in the superintendency.  

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I Am Them

For the first time since finishing my Masters Degree in 1999 I am back in the student world. In January I began a doctorate program with eighteen colleagues from my district and around the province. It is so interesting going into the modern student world I have been seeing as a teacher and administrator over the last two decades. There are probably a lot of future blog posts in the work and the reflection of my experiences.

For now, I want to talk about my first two major assignments and my feedback on my feedback.   These are both fairly large written assignments – done in a group of three (I really like the ability to collaborate – a post for another time).  We submitted the first one, and a few days later one of my partners texted the others of us in the group to let us know our paper was marked.  I think the text was something like, “Paper is back .  A-“.  Well, that was a bit disappointing, like an A- is an OK letter grade and we all have some paper-writing rust, all just getting back into writing after a long time on the other side of assignments with our students.  My partners then said that there was a lot of feedback on the paper.  I think to their somewhat surprise and disappointment I said something like “We got an A-. Time to move on.  I am not going to read the feedback.”  And perhaps to partially prove a point, I haven’t read any of the feedback on the paper.  I heard it was very good.  The professor raised a number of issues and questions for our consideration.  And I know he may be reading this blog, and I know I am supposed to be a mature learner, but I didn’t read the feedback – I had my grade, A-.  And that was OK, and I was moving on to the next assignment.

Push ahead to our second assignment. Same professor.  We got it back today.  There was no letter grade on it.  He gave some kind comments that we were well on our way and he offered a lot of feedback, questions, suggestions, and provocations throughout the paper.  I have read the comments three times already and re-read the paper at least as many times.  I am sure I will spend several hours seeing how I can incorporate the thoughts into an improved paper.  I see some ways it definitely can be better.  My mind is just so different without the letter grade on the assignment.  I know at some point there will be a letter grade on the assignment and as our professor says, “deadlines are your friends.”  And in that way, I guess marks are as well.  They do signal conclusion.

Now, for all inside education this little experience I have had will not come as a surprise.  For the last twenty years (and longer) we have been talking of the power of feedback and the challenges associated with grades on papers.  This links to the movement away from grades at younger ages.  It is interesting to experience it myself.   Feedback is an invitation to a conversation and to improvement and grades (even if accompanied by the same level and quality of feedback) is an end point.

Thinking of our students, and what they have told me about feedback and grades, as I said in the title, I am them.

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