Teacher earns doctorate to pursue dream of helping students excel in math

Rising Up at KUEC: In this Q&A series, outstanding 2021 KU graduates share how the KU Edwards Campus has helped them start, advance or change their career. Meet Sarah Stevens.

Sarah Stevens, Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, poses with her family

To students struggling to learn English, algebra itself can seem like a foreign language, but a dedicated teacher can make all the difference. For May graduate Sarah Stevens, teaching math to newly immigrated students is both a career and a passion.

“After school, I drive home determined that tomorrow will be the day I master 100% engagement,” said Stevens.

A full-time teacher and mother of six, Stevens worked to balance school with her work and home life throughout her time at KU. When she and her family moved from Wichita, Kansas, to Irving, Texas, in the middle of earning her degree, it was the program’s flexibility that encouraged Stevens to persevere and complete her dissertation.

With her newly earned doctorate in curriculum and instruction, Stevens aspires to start a business writing math curriculum that caters to the English Language Learners (ELL) and Limited English Proficient (LEP) students she serves every day.

Read more about how the doctorate program inspired her teaching practices.

Q: What is a typical day in your life like?

A: I am a teacher, so my typical day revolves around my students. I begin the day with students stopping by my classroom to say hi. After teaching a couple of classes, I work on the committee I co-chair to monitor the progress and paperwork for the ELL/LEP students.

My school day ends at 4:15, and then my after-school activities begin. Students and teachers stop by to talk about the day. I attend a meeting for training or committee work. I usually wrap up the day around 5 or 5:30.

I drive home happy because my day was filled with love and laughter. I drive home worried because we are not progressing fast enough to fill the academic gaps before they leave my classroom. I drive home determined that tomorrow will be the day I master 100% engagement.

Q: What makes you the happiest?

A: When I see my kids (both my family and my students) begin to grow and blossom into the adults they will become. I know it is a cliché, but to see their confidence change as they learn who they are is the kind of bone-deep happiness that carries me through the long days.

Q: What motivates you?

A: MATH! I am motivated by the ever-present need to do better for our struggling learners. By the time a student is in high school, the gap is wide enough to appear insurmountable, but I believe there are unexplored paths to student success. That is what motivates me every day.

Q: Why did you choose KUEC?

A: I chose this campus because of the flexibility of both in-person and online classwork within the Ed.D. program.

Q: How did KUEC meet your personal and/or academic needs?

A: When I began my Ed.D. program, I was working in Wichita. I needed the flexibility offered by the hybrid program. I didn’t know how valuable this type of program would be to me in the future. At the conclusion of my oral and written comprehensive exams, my family moved to Texas. It was because I had chosen the program at KUEC that I was able to continue working on my dissertation virtually.

Q: How has your KU degree prepared you for the future?

A: I love my Ed.D. program. This degree is focused on leadership from within the school system, which is my future focus as well. Throughout my career in education, I independently researched best practices. The Ed.D. program pushed me to explore a wider spectrum of research and to more critically analyze what I found so that I could apply the knowledge with fidelity. These skills are helping me now and will continue to help me throughout the remainder of my career.

Q: What was the most difficult part of earning your college degree and how did you overcome it?

A: Finishing it! After moving to Texas, I found it difficult to find a job. Many school systems were uncertain about hiring a teacher who would soon finish her doctorate program, convinced that meant I was planning to leave the classroom soon. I seriously considered if the value the degree would give me personally would actually harm me professionally, as I have no interest in leaving the classroom anytime soon.

I overcame these anxiety-riddled and possibly irrational thoughts with the help of my support system. They pushed me to pick up the keyboard and begin again. If not for my husband, my ever-supportive advisor, Dr. Gay, and my new friends in Texas, I would have made a decision I deeply regret.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?

A: Besides finishing this degree, my proudest accomplishment is the academic success of my students. Because my students do not speak fluent English and because many of them have academic gaps, they typically do not achieve the same academic success as their peers. However, my students consistently perform better than the school average, and often better than the district average.

I came very close to having 100% of my students pass the high-stakes state Algebra 1 End of Course exam – just two students short. That was my first year teaching newcomers and it is my proudest accomplishment. The virus has thrown off my quest for 100% passing but I look forward to things returning to normal so that I can achieve something that some believe is impossible.

Q: What is your favorite memory of your time at KUEC?

A: A few times, after our Saturday in-person classes, our cohort would go out for lunch. We would laugh and compare notes about our journey. It was great to have the opportunity to relax with friends who were on the same path as myself.

Q: What are your long-term career goals and how do you plan to achieve them?

A: I want to write quality math curriculum for secondary mathematics that will help struggling learners and ELL/LEP students. I also want to help districts think differently about Response to Intervention (RTI) in high school settings. We can do better for these students! To meet these goals, I plan to start a business to provide support to districts. I will continue teaching for the foreseeable future because I believe I can write a better curriculum as a classroom teacher.

Q: What advice would you give others who are thinking of earning a degree, whether a first-time bachelor’s, a second bachelor’s or a master’s?

A: Love the learning process! This is the time to totally geek out about the topics you love and to expand your knowledge into new areas. Learning can be frustrating when the knowledge seems disconnected, but once you see how it all fits together, you will have an amazing moment of understanding. Learning is a fantastical process that can never be taken away from you, so enjoy your journey.

Learn more about the Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at KU Edwards Campus.

Learn more about the Curriculum and Instruction program

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