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Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was a graduate student working in an academic lab, and had the unsettling feeling that research was not my “calling.” I felt I lacked the patience and drive for discovery that my lab mates seemed to possess. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the Teacher Assistant (TA) responsibilities that my fellow doctoral students complained about, and actually looked forward to leading study sessions and supervising laboratory courses.

One cold evening over Christmas break, I sat at my fume hood watching a bubbling reaction, and decided I needed to leave. I was not proud of quitting, but knew that I needed to find a career that not only brought me joy, but that also made me feel that I had a talent for what I was doing, day in and day out. Research was not it. Teaching, I decided, would be.

Becoming a teacher

So I left the lab, took a semester of education courses, sat for a PRAXIS exam, and applied for teaching positions. I found it easy to find a job, and told myself that after a few years of experience, I would return to school for a degree in education.

The next few years sped by. During my first four years as a teacher, my husband attended medical school. Soon, he was on to his residency, and then his fellowship. During that time, we lived in three states and had two children. I was perpetually seeking the proper credentials for a “real” (professional) license, and was also encountering new requirements in each state where I lived. I felt limited in my career, and longed for the time when I could fulfill my promise to myself, and go back to school. But our daughters were small, and my partner was busy. It just wasn’t my turn yet.

Finally, Cincinnati became our home for the indefinite future. My husband’s medical training was complete, so I could think about my education again. I was giddy. I studied for the GRE and composed a personal statement explaining my interest in curriculum development and my love of classroom teaching.

Late in 2015, in my 11th year of teaching, I submitted my application for matriculation to a doctoral program in Educational Studies at the University of Cincinnati, and within a few months I received my acceptance. I was going to be a student again! I was 36. Was it too late? Did I own enough three-ring binders for this?

Life as a student and a teacher

The fall of 2016 was my first semester of graduate school. I registered for nine credit hours of coursework, including one online course and two that were held in person. Every Wednesday after teaching, I drove to campus and attended classes from 4 to 10 pm. I learned to write papers again, and read academic articles late into the night. I also learned statistics by watching screencasts while on the sidelines at my daughter’s soccer practice.

All the while, I was grading my students’ assessments and lab reports, washing beakers, laminating card sorts, and attending faculty meetings. I was a nontraditional student, balancing all of life’s responsibilities like so many spinning plates. But I was learning. I loved being a student again, as well as the camaraderie within my cohort. We were of all different ages and backgrounds, but solidarity kept us afloat. And coffee. Plenty of coffee!

During the second semester, I took 10 credit hours and was a TA for a master’s level education class in curriculum theory. This was followed by a summer completing a research project with in-service teachers, and also teaching an online class. My children visited campus with me on a regular basis while my advisor and I worked out research goals and shared thoughts on reading materials. The next few semesters passed in a similar fashion with new classes and teaching responsibilities.

Doing all of this concurrently with teaching high school full-time and raising two children was overwhelming, but I loved being in the thick of a learning community. I certainly had moments of fatigue and doubt. I recall one particularly difficult day as I approached deadlines for end-of-semester papers and projects, when I called my husband from the bathroom and cried, “I can’t do this anymore!” In his own way of comforting me, he simply replied that I didn’t have a choice, and nothing had to be done perfectly, so I should just wrap it up.

It took me two-and-a-half years to complete all of my required doctoral coursework. Then, in the spring of 2019, I took comprehensive exams as the final hurdle before reaching candidacy. Over three weeks — during which I managed to contract the flu — I wrote over 50 pages to answer three research questions and submitted them to my faculty committee. Thankfully, they found my ideas interesting, though I’m sure they had no idea of the number of tissues and ibuprofen required to complete this feat! So, I moved on to the dissertation phase of my graduate work. There was no more scheduling to do, and no more semester-based accountability. I was in an abyss of scholarly research. Oh, dear.

Bringing my research into my classroom 

Figure 1. The author provides analysis of a student drawing to determine if the conservation of atoms was considered in the student’s illustration of the reaction.

In the fall of 2019, I designed an empirical study for my dissertation which involved collecting data about students’ misconceptions in chemistry. The participants were to be my own students, and I would ask them to draw particulate-level diagrams to describe phenomena they observed in our classroom. I was certain that my project would be completed in one year. (At the risk of spoiling a surprise, it was not.) I convinced administrators at the school where I teach to grant their support for my project, and I submitted a very detailed description of the study to the Institutional Review Board (IRB).

After months of revising my proposal and even calling the IRB office directly to better understand their requests, I was finally granted approval to conduct the study. Because the study was to take place over the course of several months, there was not enough time to collect data from my students during the 2019-20 school year. Although I was quite disappointed by this at first, the closing of schools in March 2020 due to COVID meant that I could not have completed my study that year, anyway. So, in the quiet of lockdown, I began to write the introduction to my dissertation, and waited for whatever the fall would bring.

Luckily, the school where I teach re-opened for in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year. After settling into a classroom with spread-out desks and students in masks, I distributed youth assent forms and parent consent forms, hoping to collect data from all of my students. Now in my eighth semester of graduate school, I dutifully explained my research goals to my 16-year-old students and asked them for help. I gathered drawings from student participants, learned how to conduct qualitative research by coding drawings, and tried to make sense of what my students did or did not understand about the particulate nature of matter.

Nearly every day, I had the haunting feeling that I did not know what I was doing, and did not deserve the degree I was seeking. I felt like an imposter, a simple teacher who had no business doing academic research — but somehow I kept working. I did so partly because my advisor and my committee told me to push forward, and partly because my family had supported me for so long, that I couldn’t imagine giving up at that point.

The final stretch

I spent the summer of 2021 at the community pool with my children, then 11 and 8, where they could swim and eat ice cream while I analyzed data in the sunshine. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

As summer became fall, I met weekly with my advisor to examine my writing and make revisions. My dissertation was full of red and purple revisions and comments in the margins. My home office floor was covered in piles of journal articles. My walls were collages of sticky notes. But the end was in sight.

As I reflect back on the experience, one thing I learned is how important it is to have an advisor who is knowledgeable and supportive, especially in the dissertation writing process. As I grew tired, my advisor encouraged me to keep going. “Write more,” she would say, each and every time we met. I wrote more.

In the spring of 2022, I set a date for my dissertation defense, and began my application for graduation. In the week leading up to my defense, I oscillated between feelings of relief and nausea. I was excited to celebrate the end of years of hard work and learning, but I was also terrified of failing, and that that other people would know that I had failed. How could I face my students who allowed me to study their work? How could I explain it to my school administrators, who allowed me such freedom, that it had been for nothing? And how could I face my family, who picked up the pieces of our life that I had left scattered about, because I was so busy and tired and wrapped up in my own endeavor?

On the day of my defense, I found myself sitting in a conference room with not only my committee, but also my husband and several of my teaching colleagues. I can’t imagine they wanted to know more about student misconceptions regarding the particulate nature of matter; rather, they were simply there to support me. The people I was most afraid of disappointing wanted me to know that they believed that I would succeed.

I babbled on in front of my committee for an hour about what I had learned from my students (who, by the way, never once complained about why they had to do extra work!). I answered questions posed by my committee (as well as my husband and work friends), and then sat in the hallway to await a decision about the legitimacy of what I had spent the last six years working toward. There was a click and a swing of the door, and my advisor appeared with a smile. I was finally done, and it was surreal.

One-and-a-half years later, I look back at my experience in graduate school with many emotions. I wonder if I spent enough time with my children during those six years, but hope I set an example for them about the importance of education and hard work. I also wonder if I was a good partner, a good teacher, a good person. But I think that through this journey, I proved to myself that I could complete a difficult task. I think I also inspired other teachers to pursue their own advanced education.

And, above all, I think that my husband and I became closer during the process of working toward something that was certainly not only my achievement, but rather the culmination of the work and support of my loved ones as well.

So, what would I recommend to my fellow educators? If you dream of earning another degree, even if you are a veteran teacher with many responsibilities in your life, go for it!! Establish your support system, invest in a home espresso machine, and then do it. You won’t regret investing in yourself!

Don Warner

Shannon M. Smith
AACT High School Ambassador