So Many Hats: How an Educational Researcher Sees Their Child’s School

Sarah L. Woulfin, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Connecticut

Each time I step into T’s school building, chat with his teacher, or open his take-home folder, I analyze the structures, systems, and practices of our education system. It is unavoidable for me to couple my parenting of an elementary schooler with my work as an academic. As a scholar mama in the field of education policy, I wear multiple hats while engaging with my child’s public school.

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In the winter of 2000, I was a kindergarten teacher in East Palo Alto, and I am now the mom of a kindergartener in Connecticut as well as an associate professor of Educational Leadership. My scholarship uses organizational theory to understand the implementation of instructional policy. My dissertation research involved data collection in first and third grade classrooms with particular attention to how teachers adopted the district’s new literacy program. More recently, I’ve conducted multiple studies on district and school leaders’ role in school reform. I carry and apply knowledge from the literature and from my own research on teachers’ work, policy implementation, and institutional theory to each touchpoint with T’s school.

While serving as T’s mom, I see policy, organizational theory, and equity. In terms of education policy, I notice the formal regulations sent home by the school district and announced by the principal at events. I am also aware of the policies tied to transportation, funding, safety (including active shooter drills, grrrzzzxxxzzz), and special education. During the school’s curriculum night, I heard T’s teacher describe the school’s relatively new literacy and math programs and imagined teachers’ professional learning opportunities on those programs.

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In addition to noticing the policies shaping T’s experiences in school, I detect several strands of organizational theory. First, it has become clear that in T’s school there is plenty of communication and high degrees of trust among teachers, staff, and administrators. That is, there is a tight social network among educators in the building. Second, the working conditions and collaborative culture at the school look and feel different than those in many schools which I’ve studied. Third, the principal of T’s school is a clear and compelling communicator to teachers, staff, students, and families of messages on the school’s culture and goals. I’ve written several publications applying framing theory and perceive how this particular principal engages in strategic framing to a range of stakeholders.

Finally, my parental-lens sharply focuses on equity issues. The majority of my research and my own elementary teaching experience occurred in the context of underserved urban schools; however, T attends a well-resourced, small-town school. The majority of T’s classmates are white. T’s school does not seem to be pushing to meet strict goals on standardized tests. T experiences art, music, and science class with specialized teachers using an array of materials. I note that T has these privileges and simultaneously want all children to have these opportunities. While connecting with T’s school, I see how schools can function as one of many contexts in which children can learn to thrive. I’ve also gained new questions about how schools operate and how to support teachers in their work with diverse students and families.