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Practicing What They Preach: A Record Number of TAS Faculty Pursue Doctoral Degrees

By Lindsey Kundel
Practicing What They Preach:  A Record Number of TAS Faculty Pursue Doctoral Degrees

Taipei American School (TAS) prides itself on hiring a large number of faculty members who have received advanced degrees. In this current school year, 2018–2019, approximately 63 percent of our faculty members possess one master’s degree and another 5.7 percent have two or more master’s degrees. Close to 9 percent of full-time TAS faculty have obtained a doctoral degree, defined by HR as either a PhD, JD, or EdD. This number will go up significantly in the next two academic years. A record number of full-time faculty are currently pursuing doctoral degrees in their spare time. Thirteen faculty members, which is nearly 5 percent of our full-time faculty, are enrolled in an online or part-time doctoral degree. It is important to note that this number does not include the six other faculty members who recently graduated from doctoral programs just last school year. While some of these faculty have just started their studies, some have finished or are nearly finished with coursework, and some will be graduating in a few months, after the grueling process of defending a thesis. The 13 faculty members span across all three divisions, including administrators, teachers, and counselors. While their formal titles may vary, they are all teacher-leaders. This surge in doctoral degrees at TAS aligns with recent information regarding the prevalence of doctoral degrees in the United States. According to the National Science Foundation, American universities are awarding doctoral degrees at an accelerating pace, up nearly 3.5 percent from 2013 and up nearly 8 percent from 2011. However, TAS teachers have outpaced those statistics, since nearly 5 percent of our faculty are currently seeking a professional degree beyond a master’s. For middle school EAL teacher Tim Sheu, pursuing a doctoral degree was the next logical step in his career. “I’m a lifelong learner and for a number of years I felt like I needed to look into a new degree in order to grow professionally,” Sheu said. He is currently in his third and final year of the program at Johns Hopkins, studying how to build teachers’ efficacy and expertise in teaching writing across the curriculum. Andrew Lowman agrees with this “idealist” sentiment about why he first applied, but he thinks that there is a more practical reason as well. “I would hope that as educators we all see ourselves as lifelong learners,” Lowman said. “But the thing is that we also all have some gaps in our professional backgrounds that we should try to address, because we all come into education from different places.” For Lowman, this meant that because his master’s degree focused more on counseling and positive psychology, he knew that he needed to learn more about school leadership in order to “round out” his experiences before accepting a new administrative role within the school. For other faculty members like Lori Richardson Garcia and Evelyn Chen, the motivation to pursue a doctorate was similarly focused on broadening their understanding of how schools function. Richardson Garcia said that she was interested in exploring other areas of leadership beyond her work as a middle school counselor. “I [wanted] to be able to see what we do for students through multiple lenses,” Richardson Garcia said, “and working on my doctorate [would give] me exposure to many different aspects of school leadership.” Chen similarly said that she got the “itch” to pursue this degree because she wanted to be involved in “different conversations” around the school beyond those of her science classroom. Her goal was to feel like her contribution to the school was part of a greater picture. She compared it to the analogy of a frog inside a well seeing only a small part of the sky. “I think that’s how I felt because in our classes... there’s just really no time for you to establish that holistic picture of what kids are learning [in different classes].” Instead of working towards a career goal, Kevin Held has been working to rectify a lack of research in his particular field: technical theater. “I noticed a lack of any literature about why we do what we do behind the scenes,” Held said. “Everything focuses on how to use the latest gadget, but not why it enhances our art form. I also noticed that the rhetoric about robotics and engineering focused on the team process, iterations, and returning to the design until you get something that works.” Many of the faculty members interviewed said that they had been thinking of pursuing a doctorate for several years before applying or beginning their coursework. One faculty member, Chris Hoffman, has a different story. This is his second attempt at pursuing doctoral studies because he was deployed to Afghanistan in the middle of his first degree. He took a break from his studies upon returning to the U.S. and, after moving to and living in Taiwan for several years, he finally decided to return to his research. For Hoffman, studying leadership at the doctoral level has been about “standing on the shoulders” of those leaders who inspired him, both from the military and from the other schools he has worked in. He decided to continue his studies because he wanted to become what he calls a “public intellectual,” a person who is consulted and trusted by others when they face challenging problems in education. Juliana Martinez was also interested in continuing her studies based on the leaders she had learned from in the past, including her advisor at St. Paul’s School, our current Head of School, Dr. Sharon Hennessy. “She has been in my life for a very long time,” said Martinez. “And she’s very impressive. Back when I met her in high school, she already had multiple degrees. Since that time, I have always wanted to pursue a higher degree.” For Leanne Rainbow, the opportunity to be a role model is on her mind as she finishes her degree. “I think it’s a good message for our students to have a female doctor in STEM present in their life at an early age. It’s powerful for all of our students as an example to look up to, but it’s even more powerful for our young girls.” Within her own family, she’s proud that her daughters see her work through the joys and challenges of study. “It’s not always pretty,” she said, “but I like studying alongside my girls and I’m glad that they get to see me working hard on something that’s really important to me.” Each of these TAS faculty members has a different story about why they are pursuing this degree now, but all agree on the sacrifices that must be made in order to achieve it. Every one of these doctoral candidates works full- time (or beyond) at TAS. They have families, children, and other outside responsibilities, including taking care of pets, coaching duties, and attempting to live a balanced life. However, they all echoed the same sentiment about pursuing a doctoral degree: something’s got to give. Chris Hoffman wakes up between 3:30 and 3:45 every morning to read, write, and study before coming to work. He does this, he said, so that he can be fully present both at work and at home with his family. Lori Richardson Garcia often keeps a similar schedule to Hoffman’s. “At one point, when I was writing my literature review, I was going to bed at 7:00 PM and waking up at 3:00 AM.” She spoke about the importance of being strategic with work time, but also scheduling in protected time for yourself and your loved ones. “We carve out time on Mondays because [my husband] is off. Monday is our date night [because] the other nights we’re both working.” Several of the other candidates said that they prefer to work mostly on evenings or weekends. Jeff Neill said that he often wakes up early to work out, but prefers to save all work for after his children go to bed. “Thankfully, my kids go to bed early,” said Neill. “One of the promises that I made when I started the doctoral program was that I wouldn’t allow it to interfere with family.” He said the things that he has sacrificed the most are sleep and reading for pleasure instead of for classes. For Evelyn Chen, she said that the thing she has had to sacrifice most is her social life. “Every weekend I try to do one great thing for me. Whether that is yoga or having dinner dates with friends, I definitely make sure to do something for me,” she said. “But the rest of the weekend is for work.” Juliana Martinez is enrolled in a British program that has a much different schedule than the other American universities; as such, she has a much different work schedule than the other candidates. She attends classes in person in the U.K. each summer, then works independently during the school year on research and synthesis papers that reflect her knowledge of the course content. She said the biggest thing she has had to sacrifice is vacation time. She and her husband have not yet taken a vacation during the school year since her studies got under way. “You definitely need someone at home who believes in you. My husband has been the one who has really supported me through this process, discussing my ideas and helping me to organize them,” Martinez said. TAS actively encourages and supports faculty members who are pursuing graduate work. Whether it is offering on-campus graduate credit workshops, partnering with outside online educational groups such as Certificate of Educational Technology and Information Literacy (COETAIL), State University of New York at Buffalo, or The College of New Jersey, or encouraging teachers to work on graduate credits that relate to the school’s Strategic Plan, professional development continues to be both supported and expected. All of the faculty members interviewed encouraged their colleagues to pursue the more difficult option—a doctoral degree—over a second master’s degree, albeit for different reasons. For some, like Juliana Martinez, a doctoral degree is superior because of what the title symbolizes. “If I’m going to do all the work of forty credits and a thesis, I want a title,” said Martinez. “One that says I really understand that subject.” Chris Hoffman and Tim Sheu agree with Martinez. Both describe being a doctor as entering into a club of public intellectualism, where other people might look to you for ideas and answers to difficult problems. This is not a theoretical claim. As a result of nearly completing his doctoral degree, one faculty member, Jeff Neill, has already been asked to consult on his area of research for a professional journal. These 13 faculty members are a compelling testament to TAS’s continued support and encouragement of professional development for its faculty. They have made the difficult and time-consuming decision to prioritize their own learning, which will benefit not only the students under their immediate care but the entire culture of learning at TAS.

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