Grad Story #28
Grad Story #28
Teaching & Learning
Where are you from?
I graduated high school from Mohall, North Dakota, which is in the north central part of state. After graduation, I attended Minot State University for my degree in Music Education. I taught music in a rural community in south-central North Dakota and earned my Master’s Degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment from the University of Mary. This really sparked my interest in education that led me here to UND.
What are you are doing now, at UND?
I’m studying in the Department in Teaching and Learning, and my focus is teacher education. I’m also a graduate teaching assistant, teaching two courses: Introduction to Education and Classroom Management. I am currently working on my dissertation research in the western part of North Dakota researching how the oil boom has impacted schools and communities in the area.
The western part of the state is changing so much – can you describe what your research there?
The oil boom has had such an economic, population, and social impact upon North Dakota. What sparked my interest initially in this project was my experience in rural education. Having attended and taught in rural North Dakota, I asked myself, if I was a teacher in one of these communities, would I feel prepared to teach? How would I feel about the effect of the boom around me?
This led me to look at the effects of the community support in the schools. So right now I go into the communities and the schools and observe different areas. I observe teachers in the classroom; I observe locations in the communities being impacted by the boom. I also interview residents and school staff and get their perspectives on how they feel about the changes that accompany the boom and how they are preparing for further growth.
The communities that I am researching aren’t the communities that are being impacted to the extent of Williston and Stanley - the big news communities. But these are communities that are facing potential growth. They are the “bedroom communities” of the oil boom. They’re experiencing some growth and they’re accommodating some of the spill from the larger boom areas. They do have some drilling and quite a bit of growth, but at this point they are not in the peak stage of booming. However, that doesn’t mean they are not being affected. They see the effects of the other communities, some 20 miles away, which are being impacted on a larger scale, and have the unique opportunity to prepare their own schools and towns for change; this is an opportunity some towns may have never had.
I’m still gathering data, although what I’m finding is that those community members do support the idea of the growth, although they are not always supportive of the changes to the community – for the most part. This is something we see quite frequently. Change is hard, especially in small towns. When they’re dealing with changes to their social structures, traditions, infrastructures, housing and roads, it can be difficult. But, like most communities in North Dakota, they are profoundly supportive of their school because it is the heart and center of the entire community. They realize that if the school fails, the community usually goes with it. They are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the community successful while they are experiencing all the other things that are dramatically impacting the way they live their lives.
You mentioned people moving into these communities and that often brings with it a change in the diversity of a community. How is that impacting the schools?
For teachers in these rural communities, some may not feel prepared to deal with some of the diversity impacts. They have the best intentions, but it ultimately comes down to: Is there an expert in the school who can help them with students who are English Language Learners? Are there experts who can deal with special education needs they are seeing move into the school that they’ve not experienced before? Are they knowledgeable of or sensitive to the needs of students with diverse cultures, beliefs, backgrounds, and academic readiness levels?
I read an article about the school in Stanley, and they have a map where they put a pin indicating where all of their students have come from across the US and across the world. That map is quite full, it seems. They are also experiencing this in the communities I am researching. They’re finding students are coming from all around the country and even some worldly students whose parents come to work and stay in these communities. Maybe they’re not on the same academic level as other students. Or maybe they don’t have the same cultural background or interests or knowledge of the community. I haven’t analyzed much of the data yet, and while it seems that the teachers are doing their best in these communities, they are definitely seeing things that they haven’t seen before.
So there is pressure on the teachers?
There absolutely is.
As well as the students in the classrooms.
Yes. It seems when it comes to standardized testing for No Child Left Behind and you have students who have just moved in and have an entirely different knowledge base, they are representing their new school with knowledge from their old schools. So the teachers are trying to get them caught up. If the students are behind academically, it may be because they have experienced dramatic change in moving across the country. [Because housing is scarce] … maybe they’re living in a garage at this point. Maybe they have moved a handful of times in the last few years as their parents look for work. Some parents drive 2-3 hours a day to and from work in the oil fields. So the home life isn’t always stable. Not to say that they are all unstable, but in some situations the students also have home issues that are impacting their academic success.
And then there are the further impacts of a sharp growth where other jobs, like afterschool care, might not be available?
Yes. I felt this research was so important and so timely. I wanted to get into the schools and see not only what they are experiencing, but also how they are preparing for the future. They have a chance to prepare for the growth that others didn’t and they’re referencing other communities when they talk about what they are doing. They say, “This happened in Williston, so this is what we are trying to prevent”, for example. So they have the opportunity to be potentially more successful than those around them at some levels.
How is the community able to help the teachers and the schools?
The research I’ve done on community support suggests that their support is vitally important. Rural communities need to be supportive of extracurricular activities, academics, fund-raising initiatives, and other school-sponsored activities. This support directly benefits the teachers and students. If the school needs to pass a bond or a levy or a new tax because of growth, or they need to put an addition on the school, such as a new building, a bus garage, or a new field, they need the community to support them and sometimes to vote for these initiatives.
The schools in the communities that haven’t been supportive during these times have suffered. Dropout rates might increase because the school cannot do what is necessary to educate the new population, and student academic success suffers. Teachers could be under an immense amount of stress with overcrowded classrooms. Some research indicates that inappropriate activities, such as drug and alcohol use, increase among some students in boomtowns, and schools need funding and development to be proactive and reactive to these issues. Community support is usually necessary for this to happen.
How often are you getting out into the field to collect data?
I try to get out there once a week. I travel across the state every Friday and usually come back on Saturday night. It’s a busy time for me, but I’ve gotten some funding from The Graduate School for my research and from our department, too. It’s about a 5 hour drive out there and 5 hours back, but it’s worth it.
Speaking of funding, can you talk about what opportunities you have as a grad student to conduct research?
One of the many reasons I chose UND was the support they give their graduate students. The university offers such great opportunities for graduate research and teaching. Teaching is what I love - it’s my passion. They’ve allowed me to teach two courses every semester and with these courses come a stipend and, in some cases, a tuition waiver. This has been just wonderful and is more than I ever thought I would get.
For my graduate dissertation research, The Graduate School has offered funding for travel and for presenting at conferences, which is great. They offer funding for doctoral-level research, and that’s been really beneficial. Our department offers opportunities for service if you want to serve on committees. Faculty members are also sometimes willing to allow you to be a part of their research or presentation projects.
You presented a couple of posters at The Graduate School’s Scholarly Forum. One was your Dissertation research and you were a contributing author on another. What was the second project?
The second project was research that I had done for a course with a few of my classmates. We looked at how teacher anxiety impacts student performance on standardized tests. The opportunity to present at the Scholarly Forum is good, because it gives you the opportunity to present in a formal and yet fairly relaxed setting that prepares you for presenting at larger conferences and at other universities. It kept me on my toes and made me think even deeper about my own research.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I want to be working in an educational institute. Whether it is pre-kindergarten, post-Secondary, or anywhere in-between, it doesn’t matter to me. I just love education and love working with teachers. In five years I want to be an advocate for our profession because I think it is the greatest and most important profession in the world.
What is the single piece of advice you would give to a student considering a graduate program in Teaching and Learning?
Be ready to make some sacrifices. Like all graduate degrees, you have to be prepared to let some parts of your life - sort of take a back burner to your education. I think that is the best way to be successful – to put your education at the forefront, but find a way to plan your academics and your life and achieve some balance. I wish I followed my own advice!
Can you discuss the importance of mentorship and faculty advisors?
At every level, whether undergraduate or graduate, it is vitally important that you are close with your advisor. If you are pursuing a degree, make sure you have an advisor that matches your interests and is knowledgeable regarding what you plan to study and research.
My advisor, Dr. Jodi Holen, has been incredibly helpful and supportive in everything I have done. I think you have to have a positive relationship with them and be willing to communicate with them. They hold in their hand your opportunity for success. In our department they seem more than willing to be available to graduate students, and care about our growth.
Do you have any funny stories as a grad student you would like to share?
Living in the Red River Valley, on this side of the state, it’s a different experience than living in central North Dakota. I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of rain we get in the Valley. I didn’t have an umbrella - I didn’t know I needed one! I stepped out of my car and was absolutely drenched by the time I took two steps. I taught drenched, dripping from the sleeves when I wrote on the board, and, of course, had night class afterward. I was still soaked while I sat through class. What a fun night. I guess that could lead to another piece of advice: have an umbrella in the Valley! It’s beautiful, for sure, but be prepared. It’s the one thing I asked of my wife for Christmas.
Talk about the joys and pressures of graduate school.
It’s a different world at this level, even at the master’s level. But when I reached the doctorate level, since it requires so much of your time and effort, it is almost like taking on another wife. I have needed to literally write in my planner the time to spend with my wife, Laura, and my family and friends. There are so many other things pulling you in all directions during your graduate studies. It’s strengthened our relationship, but there are instances when we just haven’t found enough time to spend together. And that has been a challenge. But she has been nothing but supportive of me. I couldn’t imagine doing this without a supportive spouse.