After 2 1/2 years of coursework, I’m currently preparing for my final semester of coursework at Northern Illinois University in the Educational Administration program and the writing of my dissertation that will follow. (And, yes, I am totally excited about the Orange Bowl! Go Huskies!) Being in a doctoral program, I’m always interested when conversations emerge about the merits and challenges of that pursuit. Just last night, I reread this post from Jason Markey about his own decision to part with his program. It prompted me to both reflect on and share my own choices on this path.
Why did I start?
As my husband worked on his doctorate in Religious Studies, I kidded that we weren’t going to have any of that “Dr. & Mrs.” business in our house. While I said that jokingly, I do acknowledge that I have a competitive spirit that prompts me to really challenge myself. I also knew that, despite many ways to simply continue my own learning, having a doctorate would allow me long term opportunities I wouldn’t be able to seek without it; a couple of those include serving on a central office administrative team or teaching future teachers or administrators.
How did I choose a program?
I had an interest in earning the Superintendent Certification, so I narrowed my focus to programs in Illinois that had those requirements embedded. As an aside, once in my program, I learned that I could dual-enroll in an Ed.S. program with parallel requirements to earn my certification prior to the completion of the the last 5 courses and the dissertation. I also looked at logistics such as distance, course, and schedule. NIU’s program is located on the University campus 45 minutes from home. Courses were held full days on Saturdays during the school year and moved to Tuesday/Thursday evenings in the summer. Other programs were split over a weekday and partial day Saturday or 2 weekdays. The cost of a state university was more manageable than some other options, too, as our district does not offer reimbursement. Finally, I talked to people I knew who were in or had completed all of the programs I was considering. At that time, I also hadn’t been a part of any online learning community and preferred a face-to-face program to keep me on track.
First, I have to acknowledge that my husband has been a tremendous support, as we are parents to 4 elementary children. His willingness to work part-time and take on most household responsibilities has been so critical to pursuing my doctorate and becoming a principal during that same time frame. That said, it is still a challenge to coordinate schedules. Our extended family or friends step in to help from time to time if our kids have conflicting events or Jim does need to be out of town for his work. Likewise, there are many times where I feel bad that I’m not at a soccer game or family event. I only felt that would get harder as the kids got older, though, so I had to give myself permission to be okay with it now. I also had to come to terms with the cost of a program to my family now v. our needs now and the possible long term opportunity. Finally, balancing my academic life and my principal life has been challenging at times, as you might imagine, which leads right to my next question…
What are some unplanned benefits?
I came to greatly value my partners in this process, including the members of my cohort and the practitioners teaching some of our classes who had walked this path themselves. Before starting a PLN through Twitter, it helped me expand my learning community in real life. While I appreciate the many laughs with my friends in Cohort #20, I don’t think I realized how necessary it would be to lean on each other at times…such times when we were trying to balance a major paper and writing up teacher evaluations or when we were feeling that guilt from being away from home more than we’d like. I also underestimated how much my coursework and the professional discussions in class would positively impact my current role as a principal. While there were indeed times I needed to read or write about something I simply wouldn’t have chosen on my own, I have encountered frameworks, historical perspective, or theories that inform how I approach a situation like a curriculum implementation or identifying members of my team for different tasks. To me, this differs from knowing that I need to understand collective bargaining, for example, if I work as a district official; I fully expected that. Those nuances in between were sometimes missing pieces for me about the how or the why.
How does it work with my PLN?
I was nearly two years into my program when I seriously began exploring a PLN. Initially, I explored Twitter as a time saving tool since I couldn’t keep up with the journals and e-mail blasts that kept me informed of the larger educational sphere. (Guess that would also make it an unplanned benefit.) That, over time, evolved into learning with others in this space and projects that stem from it. My PLN also has given me a different perspective and different tools to take to my cohort. It has also influenced my dissertation topic related to school principals and technology, for sure. One afternoon, while researching, I encountered articles written by Scott McLeod and an instrument developed through CASTLE. I recognized his name right away as a member of my PLN and was able to connect with him through Twitter; that’s not something I would have thought possible even a year ago. Like is shared in Jason’s blog post and the comments that follow, both really work together allowing me to further personalize my learning and contribute to a greater degree.
I’m honestly grateful for (although sometimes frustrated by) both the benefits and the challenges that have impacted my professional growth and leadership development. All of it allows me, in turn, to impact my school community, other professionals, and even my own family. If you’re in the midst of this, too, what has your experience been? Although I bet common themes emerge, it’ll differ on some level for all of us. I think we can agree that, just like in all areas of our professional life, encouraging of one another and celebrating of successes along the way sure does help us move forward. And for that I am grateful, as well.