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Posts Tagged ‘University of 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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Happy September!

There is a lot going on this fall in schools and I have no shortage of ideas to explore related to COVID and schooling, but as we head back to school I wanted to use my post this week to share my own learning plan as I also head back to school via Zoom at the University of Kansas. Hopefully later this fall I will complete my comprehensive exam and move to doctoral candidacy (regular visitors to my blog will see I have updated various tabs on my homepage with current content in preparation for my portfolio presentation).

The question that I am pursuing for my dissertation is really a simple one, just what occupies the time of British Columbia public school superintendents? It is a question that has interested me for a long time. I am entering my second decade as superintendent. And while I have a growth plan, receive regular feedback from the Board of Education, and have a job description that is covered by Board policy, the job does seem to be a bit what one makes of it. I followed two very successful longtime superintendents in West Vancouver, and all three of us have done the job very differently. In speaking with colleagues around British Columbia, it appears there are multiple ways to do the job well. I often hear stories of others describing the job, and while some parts sound familiar, others are inconsistent with how I spend my time. There must be some commonality and I am interested in just what is consistent among the 60 of us who hold this position in our province.  From spending time with our Board, to time in schools, to work in the community – just what is common?

And I think there is a wider interest in understanding what BC School Superintendents do. As my research has confirmed, we have one of the highest performing jurisdictions in the world and district leadership plays an important role in school success. And in our context, superintendents are hired by individuals boards who do so with complete autonomy. Understanding the similarities and differences in the work, helps to add to the story of learning success in British Columbia.  

And I like to think many others will be interested in this study. I am sure that I am not the only one of us in BC who wonders how their work compares to the work of their colleagues. Unpacking the impact of the superintendent’s gender, experience, and district size on the way he or she spends time will also be interesting. And it is a position with a high level of turnover (although not as much as many US areas), so for Boards who are responsible for hiring and educators who may aspire to the position better being able to articulate the daily activities of the superintendent will be useful.

I am basing my study on a 2011 study that asked a similar question in Virginia.  I will be surveying my 59 BC colleagues and following up with interviews.  Hopefully they will see the value and be able to carve out the time to assist.  I do think the information will be valuable for all of us.

I often get asked my I would go back to school.  There is no requirement for superintendents in BC to have a doctorate.  Hopefully you don’t think less of me if I tell you one of the reasons is so that I can be part of a re-creation of this iconic movie scene.  Have a great year everyone!

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