In which programs do you teach at Carson-Newman University? What drew you to this field of study? What keeps you excited about it?
I teach in the M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction: Reading Specialist PreK-12 Emphasis program, and prior to this semester, I taught literacy methods in the traditional undergraduate program for 14 years. Literacy is a fascinating field because everyone needs to read in order to function. Reading can take us to faraway places, help us escape, and provide self-help. We can’t perform basic day-to-day functions without the ability to read: traffic signs, directions on medications, nutrition labels, and more.
Reading is more than a necessary essential skill. Reading has been called a civil right, and there is even a correlation between literacy and health and well-being. Because reading is complex, there is much debate about the best way to teach it. How do young minds best acquire this complex skill? In my first undergraduate course in the 1980s regarding reading education, a heated discussion ensued—we all seemed to know the best way to teach reading, but we all had different ideas regarding how to go about it. Now, four decades later, the debate continues among literacy scholars.
So this is what keeps me excited—reading is necessary to function; it is an obsession that permeates our culture; it is complex, and teaching it is not an exact science. There is still much to learn, and it is exciting to keep learning and to keep working to find solutions.
How will your program better prepare/equip educators for the current climate we are in?
Our program is designed to meet people where they are and help them grow in their profession. As much as possible, we encourage students to use their own professional contexts to meet course needs. For example, my courses are tied to the Standards for Reading Professionals, which are laid out by the International Literacy Association. In one of my courses, rather than create an assignment for students to complete to demonstrate their mastery of a standard, I allow them to create their own artifact. This could be something they create for their classroom—a learning center, a game, a PowerPoint, a lesson plan, and the list goes on.
During this Pandemic, teachers needed to create new materials for their classrooms, so the thought of taking graduate courses online while teaching full time could be overwhelming. However, I like to think of us as being user-friendly. We made adjustments to our courses during the Pandemic; we wanted to model flexibility for our students, but we also wanted to do what I first said in answering this question—meet people where they are. We were no longer teaching teachers with a traditional teaching job; we were suddenly teaching teachers who were trying to deliver an entire curriculum online plus teach their own children at home in the midst of the chaos. My hope is that we have created space for educators to examine their particular professional situations and grow to be better prepared going forward.
What attracted you to Carson-Newman University? What sets them apart?
Carson-Newman is a special place, and my colleagues are like a family. We have the kind of relationship where we can have tough, honest conversations, and at the end of the day, there is die-hard mutual respect. We fiercely love our students, too, and we will go the extra mile to help them succeed.
Carson-Newman is a Christian university, and our mission is to help our students reach their full potential as educated citizens and worldwide servant-leaders. The faculty model what it means to be a servant leader. I tell students if they truly feel this sense of calling to be a teacher, they are going to find themselves calling on God for strength each day. This “calling” I am referring to is transactional—God has called me to be a teacher, and because I have answered this calling, God will give me the strength and wisdom, not just to survive each day, but to make productive decisions each day and make a difference in my part of the world. Carson-Newman is the kind of place where this type of teaching philosophy is not just tolerated; it is embraced.
What is your professional background as an educator?
Before coming to Carson-Newman University, I taught elementary and middle school in both Texas and Tennessee. My B.S. in Elementary Education, and M.S. in Education degrees are both from Baylor University in Texas. My Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration is from the University of Tennessee.
Currently, I am actively involved in educator preparation at the state level in several different capacities. I am president-elect of the Tennessee Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges of Teacher Education and a member of the executive board for the Tennessee Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. These two important organizations provide space for leaders of educator preparation programs across the state come together to share and promote best practices in preparing the next generation of teachers.
In addition, I am a member of two committees of the Tennessee Department of Education—the Educator Preparation Working Group and the Advisory Council on Educator Preparation. The EPWG reviews policies and makes recommendations to the Tennessee State Board of Education, and the ACEP reviews all educator preparation program (EPP) site visit reports and makes the final recommendation to the Tennessee State Board of Education regarding program approvals. In addition to serving on the EPWG and the ACEP, I previously served on the Advisory Council on the Educator Preparation Report Card to the Tennessee State Board of Education.
Two years ago, I was fortunate to be selected to the fourth cohort of the Impact Academy, a year-long leadership program provided by Deans for Impact, a non-profit organization that brings leaders together for the purpose of improving teacher preparation. In that fourth cohort, there were three deans from Tennessee. Since then, we have come together, along with more deans from across our state, to form the Tennessee Coalition of Deans, and we meet monthly to discuss challenges and opportunities facing educator preparation and the important role leaders play in ensuring all new teachers are ready for the classroom on day one.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why did you become interested in education?
I am a first-generation college student, so I knew nothing about how to “do” college, but I wanted to be a teacher just like Mary Kathryn Corbett, my eighth-grade math teacher. I am fortunate to have had excellent teachers along my education journey. They inspired me, and I wanted to do for others what they were doing for me.
I wanted to be a math teacher just like Mrs. Corbett. I always loved math and was naturally good at it. When I was in Mrs. Corbett’s 8th grade pre-algebra class, I won a math award. It was a little certificate, but to me, it might as well have been the Pulitzer Prize. If I could win an award from this amazing teacher, I could do anything, and my goal was to be a teacher just like her!
My parents did not have money to send me to college, so I cobbled together scholarships, student loans, and several part-time jobs, and away I went. There were some semesters where I couldn’t afford books. Sometimes, I was able to find a copy of a textbook in the library, but sometimes I could not.
You might ask how I got away from math and into literacy. The short answer is I failed; more specifically, I failed Linear Algebra. I didn’t have the textbook, and with three jobs I couldn’t keep up with all of the homework. I had never failed anything in my life, and I had good intentions of re-taking the course the next semester. But after exploring other avenues, I was particularly intrigued by elementary education with a focus in reading. I decided to take this particular fork in the road and that is how I got into literacy.
What is very interesting is how many times I have used that terrible point in my life as a story to help others. A very distraught student came to my office a few years ago. She was a math major who wanted to be a high school math teacher. She failed the same course I had failed, and she was utterly dejected. I asked her if she thought I was a failure. Of course, her answer was “No.” I told her I was in her shoes 30-something years earlier. When she found it unbelievable that I had also failed Linear Algebra, I pulled up a PDF copy of my undergraduate transcript on my computer.
I told her, “This is a defining moment for you, but this moment does not define you. There is an F on my transcript, but it does not define me. It was a defining moment for me. I am not a failure, and you are not a failure either.” The meeting didn’t end there; I asked her if she had ever thought about special education. She started crying because she had lost a cousin with special needs and had toyed with the idea of going into special education. She said she had prayed and asked for a sign, and she just felt like she had received it.
Back in the 1980s, if you had told me that failing Linear Algebra would serve as hope and inspiration to someone in the future, there is no telling what my response would have been. It is humbling to share my failures, but I think it is important to share with students, where appropriate, so they know they are not alone and can rise above their current roadblock, whatever that might be.
What would you tell prospective students considering your program about yourself? What’s something that students and colleagues should know about you?
I always tell students the master’s degree is the easiest degree to earn. I am pretty much an open book; if I were going to tell students something about myself, I would say I expect communication. We have high expectations for our students, but we are real people, and we know that life happens. What we are not is mind readers, so communication is key. If you are experiencing some type of life event that is keeping you from turning in your work, we do not know why your assignments are late or missing unless you tell us. So the thing I would say is that I expect an open line of communication, and I will maintain one as well. Just last week, I was late getting assignments graded. I sent a message to the class telling them why my grading was late but that I was getting it done in the next two days. It didn’t take more than three minutes to communicate with them, but communication is a two-way street.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing their Education degree? How can people stand out in this field?
My first advice is to follow your calling. I believe teaching is the highest calling and is the most difficult job there is. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, we all depend on people in our everyday lives who are good at something, and whatever that “something” is, that person learned it from somewhere—from a teacher! It is not easy, but if you are passionate about teaching and truly feel it is your calling, even though you will face challenges, you will feel a sense of fulfillment on a daily basis.
A second piece of advice I would offer is do more than the minimum. Students who do more than the minimum stand out. For example, if the professor requires you to respond to at least two people on the discussion board, respond to more. If the assignment calls for citing at least two sources, cite more. In addition, read beyond what has been assigned. Use the university library resources, and work to become an expert on the topic. You don’t have to be the smartest one in the class; you might not be the “smartest” one in the class, but you can definitely be the hardest worker.
Finally, I would say work to learn from your mistakes. Notice I didn’t say learn from your failures. In my thinking, failure only happens when you do not learn from a mistake or a shortcoming. I always told the Hawkins children, “It is not bad to make a mistake. It is bad to not learn from that mistake.” We are imperfect beings, and mistakes provide opportunities for learning. Whenever I have a future teacher in my office who has made a choice that provides for such a learning opportunity, I try to remember to have them focus on what they have learned from the choice they made. I tell them I want them to remember how they feel in this moment because they are going to become a teacher, who will be in the position to similarly focus on learning and offer grace to students in the future. I see it as a win-win, pay-it-forward kind of situation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I am often told that faculty are intimidating; just remember that faculty are people, too. We all have real lives with real challenges. We became college faculty because we have a passion for teaching and learning, and we love students.
Talk to your course instructors. Share your thoughts; we love curiosity! Remember, every educational situation is unique; I have had students brainstorm with me about current situations in their classrooms and about current trends in curriculum. John Donne knew long ago that “no man is an island,” so don’t allow yourself to be one; especially don’t be an island whenever you are in graduate school surrounded by an ocean of faculty who care about you and want to help you be successful.