The College of Education, Health and Human Sciences’ 2018 Educators Hall of Honor Scholarship Recipient is Cassie Kay Norvell, a PhD student in Reading Education and Literacy Studies in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education. The scholarship program generates an endowed scholarship fund to assist students who are in the process of becoming teachers.
Enjoy Cassie’s acceptance speech as she was presented the 2018 recipient of the Educators Hall of Honor Scholarship.
I am a fourth-year doctoral student in Reading Education and Literacy Studies at The University of Tennessee Knoxville. I am currently writing chapter 5 of my dissertation, and my husband and I are expecting our first child. This whole year has felt like a race to see who arrives first, my finished dissertation or our new baby girl. It looks like she is going to get the priority! She is Due April 29th! The completion of my dissertation and my PHD program will be my third degree from The University of Tennessee Knoxville. And I am proud to be a third-time Tennessee Volunteer. Before I returned to UT, I spent three years teaching in Sevier County, mostly as a 4th grade teacher.
Why did I choose education and how I got to here?
In the middle of my undergraduate career, I took a course that changed my life path. Dr. Robert Kronick’s service learning course included a tutoring component at an area full service community school. He introduced me to systems theory and the idea that there are a variety of influences that impact each student’s situation helping me see that problems such as poverty were not to be frivolously considered any one person’s fault. Along with learning these new ideas, I worked with students who did not share my same background or culture. I provided homework help, taught an enrichment course in ballet, and built relationships with students that had me eager to build a career around working with people. I knew what I wanted to help people learn and grow and teaching appeared to be a great environment for me to do just that.
A few years later, when I entered the classroom on my own I knew I was well prepared; however, I am not sure there is anything that can truly prepare you for the overwhelming responsibility of caring for, nurturing, teaching, engaging, motivating, disciplining, and advocating for 20 or so 10 year olds. While also communicating well with their families so they can be informed and involved; completing all the necessary administrative tasks to make sure you can safely have three field trips a year, competitively fund-raise, and participate in school wide activities like the spring fling and fun run; as well as, documenting all behavior issues and any discrepancies in student’s abilities to ensure you are meeting each student’s needs. I say all of this to illustrate how teaching is a very complex job that requires a lot of balance and decision making, moment by moment.
As a new 4th grade teacher, I had to make lots of decisions. And not all of those decisions turned out as I would have liked. By the end of my first year, I was less than impressed with my reading instruction. And the new TVAAS system agreed that it wasn’t’ “rock solid”. My principal was very encouraging to me, telling me how scores aren’t all teaching is about. And good teachers do more than make good scores. But I was really taken aback by the whole thing. So I decided I needed to change up my reading instruction. Over the summer I reached out to Dr. Broemmel, from the University of Tennessee Knoxville for some suggested readings on how to revamp my literacy instruction. I spent the summer reading professional development books, asking questions of my new teacher friends from my school, and making dreamy plans for my upcoming classroom. That year, I hit the ground running with the reading workshop model. I used small group instruction to provide my students with more appropriate texts and instruction than the basal text provided. I also incorporated model texts to facilitate my reading and writing instruction. Even with all of my preparation and changes, I found that I still was unable to meet every child’s individual literacy need. I just did not know how best to help some of my students become better readers. So I decided to go back to school for a PHD in Reading Education and literacy and a reading specialist license so that I could become a better reading teacher.
My dissertation like many others is born out of my experience and what has already been done by other researchers in the field. During my time as a classroom teacher, I found the current professional development, though informative, was not exactly meeting my needs as a teacher. I decided to change the way I thought about professional development. Instead of the workshop model I experienced, I wanted to find something that truly allowed teachers to transform their instruction, to become life-long learners if you will. So with my dissertation I planned a study that created space for teachers to learn about themselves as learners, and set their own learning goals. Then I worked to provide them with the support they needed to create lasting changes to their practices and to the way they understand their experience. I cannot tell my story without acknowledging the role that God has played in it. When I kept wondering why I was putting myself through all of this, and I kept asking God, what is it you want me to do? I heard him call to me and say, I want you to care for my teachers. So though I went back to school to become a better teacher myself, I realize that I have been given many gifts along the way. And yes I plan to continue learning how to be a better reading teacher, but I also plan to help other teachers become better reading teachers.