I’ve spent the past 6 years working toward my PhD. And I’ve wanted to quit more times for more reasons than I ever could have anticipated.
But I’m in the final stages now. I’m editing my dissertation and getting ready to send it to my committee. I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m so close.
Someone recently asked me if it was worth it.
Whenever I’m asked to do a workshop during school hours, I always think– is this worth taking teachers away from the students who so desperately need them? If I don’t feel the answer is yes, then I won’t do it.
I’ve asked myself the same thing about getting my PhD often. Is it worth it? Is the time I am spending writing a dissertation worth the time I could be teaching kids or teachers?
Every time I wanted to quit, it was because I struggled with that question And every time, I eventually decided that it was.
I did take some time away from it over the past 6 years (against much of the advice I was given). I took time to teach, to coach, to do workshops, to blog, and to read about what you all are doing. It helped me to remember what this whole enterprise is about and that all the research being done doesn’t matter if it doesn’t affect our students and our teachers and our schools.
That said, I have learned so much over the past six years from engaging in research and thinking long and hard about difficult questions. It’s changed the way I think. Which has changed the way I design lessons, the way I teach kids, and the way I coach teachers.
So yes, it was worth it.
So now what?
I can share with you all what I found in my dissertation and what we found in our larger research project. But what I think is more interesting is sharing how I use what I’ve learned from this experience to my work with teachers and students. So that’s the plan for now. I’m sure I’ll learn lots from all of you along the way.
I started my Ph.D. program thinking I knew a lot about teaching and learning. After all, I spent 7 years in a classroom, went to many professional development sessions, attended courses, and read a lot of books and articles on education. However, having the luxury to step away from the classroom and really immerse myself in thinking about teaching and learning exposed me to a whole new world. I realized that there was all this research out there that would have helped me when I was teaching.
Here’s an example. Recently, I was looking through the research on algebra. One of the things I learned after reviewing the literature was that researchers have known since the 80’s that elementary students develop misconceptions about equality that cause major problems later on in algebra. For example, when most elementary school students see the equal sign, they view it as a signal of where to write an answer or as a direction to work out an equation. So “5 + 3=__” becomes a direction to add 5 and 3. They don’t see the equal sign as relating two equivalent quantities or amounts. Therefore, when they see a number sentence like: 5 + 4 = __ + 2, they often write 9 as their answer. Various researchers have offered teaching interventions, such as using balance beams when first introducing the equal sign, to avoid this misconception.
What amazed me was that the research community documented this problem years ago and yet, I never heard about it when I was teaching. Now maybe my fellow teachers were secretly reading lots of journal articles and not telling me about what they were learning, but I have a feeling that I was not the only one who was unaware of the research.
Why was this work that was being conducted in universities by people who had the time and money to study these things not being relayed to the teachers who needed it? This seemed ridiculous to me. Imagine if doctors in hospitals weren’t using the research that scientists did in the 80s.
I’ll mention this in other posts, but I want to make it clear that this lack of communication goes both ways. Some researchers are completely disconnected from what goes on in classrooms today. Just as I was surprised to learn about the research world, I would imagine some of these researchers would be surprised at what they would learn if they went into a classroom today and had to teach full-time.
So why does this happen? Why is there this gap between these two worlds? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
It said, “You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” At the time I was working long hours as a market research analyst trying to figure out why people bought one toothbrush instead of another. That day on the subway it became clear that I was wasting my time doing something I didn’t care about.
So I quit my job and joined the program advertised on the subway. I was placed in what was labeled a “hard to staff” school with no real teaching experience and little training. Yet, despite the challenges and heartbreak, I fell in love with teaching.
I taught for seven years, starting at the elementary school level, then moving to middle school math, and eventually coaching math teachers. I also dabbled a bit in the policy world as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education. My quest to learn more about teaching and learning led me to a Ph.D. program where I am now researching student learning in mathematics. I also continue to work with current teachers as well as those pursuing a degree in teaching.
I truly believe that teaching is one of the most important and difficult professions one can choose. Although other jobs have paid more, offered better working conditions and were more respected by my peers, it is the profession I am most proud to have been a part of. I may no longer be a full-time classroom teacher, but I will always be a teacher at heart.
Over the last few years as a Ph.D. student, I have had the time and opportunity to think about teaching and learning from a different perspective. Unfortunately, I think that those outside the classroom often speak a different language than those inside the classroom. As a result, messages get lost in translation. I believe that only through true communication across these different groups can we bridge the gap so that change can occur. I hope you come along on the journey as I explore what that means and how we can begin to do that.