In the School of Education, community engagement is a two-way street. While many students, staff, and faculty reach out to the community for service projects, research, and professional opportunities, community members often become part of the School of Education and share their expertise and experiences to enrich our understanding of education.
Through a partnership with Guilford County Schools, the Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations (ELC) department in the School of Education has guided a cohort of doctoral students through an Ed.D. program that has enriched their professional experience while producing unique community-based projects.
Guilford County Schools recruited some of its top school leaders for this cohort program, and it also pays some or most of its employees' tuition. "They are trying to expand the leadership capacity within the district—trying to nurture leadership," ELC chair Rick Reitzug says.
"Most of these students are principals, which is a very demanding job," Reitzug says. "Most probably work at least 60 hours a week just for their job." In addition, most have family commitments and are active in their communities. Despite these demands, all doctoral students in this cohort have completed their coursework and have passed their comprehensive exams. Currently they are at varying stages of the dissertation process, in which they are exploring questions of personal and professional significance related to their degree.
Cohort member Angella Hauser, a principal at Jesse Wharton Elementary in Greensboro, just completed and defended her dissertation, which studied the childhood resilience of selected North Carolina school leaders.
"Hers came out of her own experiences and being familiar with the other childhood and adolescent stories of some of her fellow principals throughout the state," Reitzug says.
Hauser, who was an elementary school teacher for 10 years and an assistant principal before becoming a principal in the schools for the past 13 years, dealt with poverty growing up in a single-parent home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
When she would go home, she would see old friends from her neighborhood who may had been incarcerated, had numerous children outside of marriage, or had dealt with homelessness. "How was I able to survive?" Houser wondered. "Your mom and my mom would drink together, we lived in poverty, lived in the projects, gangs were there, alcohol and drugs…how was I able to make it and you didn't?" she says.
Facing hardshipTo answer that question, Hauser reached out to gatekeepers she knew in various North Carolina school systems to help her find study participants who were leaders in their schools and communities but had also faced difficult upbringings. She interviewed five study participants for three hours each and explored their challenges growing up and how they remained resilient through those challenges.
"My study participants, the stories they told were just amazing to me," Hauser says.
"One of my study participants, when he was 10 he came home from school and found his mom dead, where dad had shot her in the head," Hauser says.
"Another one of my study participants was molested several times, and he would not let his parents know because he was afraid his father would kill the person," Hauser says.
"And then another study participant watched her mom get beaten every weekend, taken to the hospital, broken bones, black eyes, and it went on for about 12 to 15 years," Hauser says. "She lived in fear all of her life."
Building relationshipsAt the same time, Hauser spoke to her study participants about what helped them get through these extremely difficult situations.
"Most of them lived in a single-parent home, so the mothers in the neighborhood really looked out for each other and each other's children," Hauser says. "Because gangs were prevalent in some of their neighborhoods, the mothers would sit outside and watch the kids play," she says.
"In their neighborhoods they had the Boys and Girls Club or YMCA recreational centers, and they got heavily involved in different activities at those types of community organizations. Out of all of that, their self-esteem grew," Hauser says. "Those locations emphasized respect and making good choices. You could not just come to these locations and not demonstrate correct behavior," she says.
"Even in the schools they all talked about how they had great teachers with high expectations," Hauser says. "My study participants all stated in their schools, they were really making some connections with the teachers and the principal. One of my study participants said even the office support folks would allow her to come and answer the telephone and do things in the office, which really made her feel good about herself," she says.
"Really, ultimately, it was all about the relationships they formed, these positive relationships, be it in the church, be it in the school, in the community," Hauser says. "It was the positive relationships they established with these adults and the praise and recognition they received from these adults, which built their self-esteem and their motivation," she says.
Making connectionsRelating the experiences of her study participants back to her own life, Hauser sees many direct applications of this knowledge to her role as a principal.
"In my school setting, we always talk about relationships," Hauser says. "When you see students sleeping all day or they're not motivated, then there's a reason." "That's the piece that's so important for me to make sure I articulate," she says, "because we have children who are facing significant barriers when they leave school."
"Right now I really want to take what I've learned and share my knowledge," Hauser says. "In today's schools, it's about test scores, everything's about test scores," she says. Often teachers feel like they don't have the time to form relationships, "but if you take the time to form those relationships, the rest will come," she says.
For Hauser, being a member of the GCS doctoral cohort has allowed her to form valuable relationships as well. "It was a wonderful experience," she says. "Some of the principals I had not really gotten to know because Guilford County is so large, I got an opportunity to spend time with them in class." "We really held each other accountable," she says.
"One of the big advantages of cohorts is you have more of an opportunity to build really strong relationships with other members of the cohort, because you're with them for several years," Reitzug says. "Cohort students now have a group of people who they feel really comfortable with, who are oftentimes in very similar positions as them professionally."
"I appreciate the Guilford County Schools and UNCG and their partnership, because this cohort is really an inspiration for those of us who have that desire to achieve,” Hauser says. "And the UNCG professors are absolutely encouraging and positive, and very supportive,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience in working with them."
Being part of the School of Education means being part of a community of educators, and as that community grows, new perspectives emerge. It is through the unique perspectives of students like Hauser we learn more about our community at large, and hopefully, in turn, understand a bit more about what it means to educate.