Moving abroad was a spontaneous decision that was meant to be temporary. The first year was fascinating as I navigated my first year as a teacher while learning about the cultural differences and approaches to education in China. It also hit me like a punch in the face while learning to communicate effectively with parents across language barriers and cultivate a safe classroom environment for my 32 little preschoolers. Culturally, I adjusted to vast quantities of rice, bony fish, long naps, and an incessant need to drink more (hot) water. The more you contribute to a school community, the longer you want to be a part of it. Two became four, then eight. The most significant moments of my career at 3e International School revolved around problem-solving long-standing issues.
Through the courses I have taken as part of the Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program, I have gained the skills and mindsets needed to improve my classroom, inspire fellow colleagues, and shape school policies. My first two summers in the overseas cohort set the trajectory for my career. The summer format was critical to my learning because it took place in a neutral environment, free from many of the stresses of daily life. I was able to eat, sleep, and breathe MAET; however, coursework was viewed within the lens of daily life and I would like to share some of the life situations (in italics) that surrounded my learning and ultimately were impacted positively by my learning.
Diving Deep in Technology, Pedagogy, and Content Knowledge
Perhaps its normal to look for an escape when times get tough, but 2018 was the toughest year of my career; therefore, the one in which I decided to begin a master’s degree. As I applied to the program, I added additional responsibilities at work. At the time, I was the Academic Assistant and becoming increasingly responsible for evaluating teachers, recruiting, government documentation, and taking part in senior leadership meetings. When the Director of Curriculum and Research went on maternity leave and the Principal began transitioning to a new school, I stepped into the role of Assistant Principal. When I reached Ireland in June 2018, I was suddenly the only administrator on campus with 35 teachers. It was singlehandedly the most exciting and terrifying moment of my career.
As I began my first summer, it was CEP 812: Applying Educational Technology to Issues of Practice that had the greatest influence. The wicked problem project came at a moment when I was a new Assistant Principal and every moment of life felt like a Wicked Problem. Within this project, I explored the problem of Sustaining Innovation through Leadership Changes- a topic that I was grappling with as all of the other senior leaders in my school moved to new jobs, which left me with the task of leading a school through the process of growth and change, while retaining the innovative qualities of the program. A monumental task.
This course left me with new skills that were immediately applied in my context. Most importantly, I left the summer with an awareness of the importance of asking questions and looking at issues deeply. Prior to the summer, I prided myself on being an intent listener, hearing all the voices in the room before making a decision and hoping that decision would reflect the best interests of all. However, this course helped me understand that great listeners do not necessarily have a full understanding of a situation. The ability to think creatively about a problem and to come to an innovative solution is the core of the design thinking process. Great designers start with asking questions, seeking out information from others, and dive deep into the problem from all perspectives during the Empathize and Ideate steps. The same was true in the Wicked Problem project. As my partner and I tackled Sustaining Innovation through Leadership Changes, we asked questions from all perspectives- teacher, student, parent, administrator, community member, custodian, state and local officials, and more. The more perspectives we took on, the more questions we asked. Did we solve our wicked problem? Of course not, but we brainstormed and thought critically about it, reached some new conclusions, and identified some possible steps for improving the situation. I stepped into my Assistant Principal role knowing that my world is full of wicked problems and that I won’t be able to solve them all, but I can ask questions, gather information, innovate within my context, and address at least some of the factors in any problem that comes my way.
Becoming an Innovator
While Academic Assistant, my interest in technology integration allowed me to lead several projects in the school. Opportunities to communicate and share student progress with parents across language barriers improved as we invested in a new school website, parent portal, and authentic assessment app, ChildFolio. These advancements required the purchase of an iPad for each classroom and I managed those devices, learning as I went. At the end of the 2017/18 school year, I sat staring at 20 iPads that had been used solely for ChildFolio and wondered if we should be giving teachers an extensive range of digital tools and what impact it might have on learning.
CEP 811 Introduced the maker movement to me. In this course, I learned to distinguish between using digital tools and harnessing the affordances of a tool to take learning to a new level. This class shaped my understanding of technology as a tool and helped me cultivate a mindset for applying these tools to learning through the Technology, Pedagogy, and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework. This framework made so much sense to me and closed a number of gaps in my understanding of quality teaching. As my vocabulary around pedagogy expanded, I could see places in my own teaching where I was making decisions that didn’t match my pedagogical approach. Part of this course involved a special interest project And I chose to complete my project on developmentally appropriate practices in technology for the early years. This tied to my personal experience and future career as Assistant Principal. I presented my research in my first poster session and was proud of the level of research that I was able to communicate. Additionally, this project was directly related to my situation and left me excited to share this information with others in my context.
When I returned back to China one of the first things I did was prepare for orientation. I made sure to address the school’s pedagogy more clearly so that teachers would not have the same gaps in knowledge that I had prior to the summer. As we moved through technology trainings I emphasized the importance of using the iPad as a tool for assessing children and not as a gimmick for entertaining children. However, it wasn’t until later that year when I moved to Wuxi that I realized just how many early educators lack any training or experience with technology integration in early education and that my knowledge was worth sharing. When an opportunity came up to present at the ACAMIS conference in Shanghai, I put forth a proposal to speak about developmentally appropriate practices in technology in hopes that other educators could benefit from my knowledge. I was worried that my proposal was too simple and that other educators would come who were far more experienced than I, but with my proposal accepted I took the leap and went forward with the presentation. To prepare for the conference I also led professional development in my school on the same topic focusing on the school’s resources, how these tools worked, and then how to apply them to the school’s curriculum. Along the way, I focused on technology as a tool for supporting other domains rather than as it as a standalone domain. While CEP 811 sparked my initial understanding of technology integration, it has been the application of that knowledge to my own context that has resulted in the most growth. What began with a CEP811 poster session ignited an interest in sharing my knowledge with others.
I arrived in Galway in June 2019 for my second summer of MAET classes excited to reconnect with the cohort face-to-face. It had been a stressful year and I reflected on this often during the summer program. During the school year, I had been placed in a leadership role that lacked support at a time when teachers were unhappy about some major shifts in the school mission and vision. From June to October, it felt as though every conversation and task was critically important and balancing the demands for my time was exhausting. I was rarely a part of a team and constantly the target of angry teachers with demands I wanted to meet, but lacked the resources to do so. I spent a lot of time worried that I was going to miss a critical deadline, or an oversight would cause harm or frustrations for others. I spent the rest of the school year questioning decisions and wondering about what might have been.
CEP 822: Approaches to Educational Research was the course that had the most profound effect on me. When I began teaching at 3e International School in 2011, it was the site of ongoing research in language acquisition for Dr. Anne Soderman, a visiting researcher from Michigan State University. Working in that environment sparked interest in contributing to research and innovation in the field which has grown throughout my MSU coursework. CEP 822 was my first introduction to descriptive, qualitative, and quantitative research methods. As a cohort, we took a look at audio recordings of individuals sharing their thoughts on how they cultivate creativity in the classroom. Together, we transcribed the audio recordings, coded the data, and looked for trends.
What immediately stood out to me was how many different ways there are to interpret data and that it has so much to do with your own experiences. I would guess that we came up with more than 200 key words before narrowing our focus down to six main categories for how teachers have identified what they do to cultivate curiosity. Throughout the process, an idea that stood out was that something as simple as an audio response to a single question could provide so much information about the landscape of viewpoints in the teaching community. With that information in hand, you could dive into further research in a specific area or use it as a catalyst for making changes in schools.
This was the course that I did not want to end. My instructor, Liz Owens Boltz’ eyes lit up as she talked about various affordances and constraints of research and shared snippets from her own research that helped me see the value of seeking out research to inform my decision-making in school. Reflecting on the frustrating moments of my year, I wondered how some of those moments might have looked differently if I had approached those months by seeking out relevant research, or by conducting my own research rather than relying on my own opinions and experiences to get me through the tough times. As the summer ended and moved into fall, I continued to learn more about quantitative and qualitative methods on my own and to seek out my peers who have been engaged in research in the past. I strive to learn more about research methods and to find opportunities to contribute to academia.
These are just three of the courses that had an immense impact on my job and career goals, but every class in the MAET program has expanded my understanding of teaching, pedagogy, technology, and leadership. I’m thankful for the passion, leadership, and mentorship of each MAET instructor. I have learned far more than just the course content from their model of respectful, encouraging, sensitive, and bold leadership. The format of the overseas cohort provided a safe place to be a leader and a learner in the summers and build up a professional learning network of international educators from whom I could seek support during the school year and will continue to learn from for years to come.