Student Spotlight December 2016
Jon received a Bachelor of Business Administration at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. He learned many things about himself at Belmont, not the least of which was that he did not want to be a businessman. Jon’s first job out of college was an assistant to the special education department at a high school South of Nashville. He loved it and knew he wanted to go into special education and work with kids with challenging behaviors. Jon obtained his master’s degree in education and a teaching certificate from Vanderbilt University in 2006 and spent the next 6 years and 2 months trying to positively impact the lives of at-risk students as an elementary, middle, and high school special education teacher. Since then, he has completed a certificate program in applied behavior analysis and is now a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). Jon is currently a 3rd year doctoral student in the department of Special Education at UofL.
It was in those last 2 months as a teacher that I discovered I was not destined for a long career on the front lines of public education. It is often said that it takes a special person to be a special education teacher. I completely agree, but not for the reasons one might assume. The patience needed to be a successful teacher of students with special needs is most often tested by policies and procedures that systematically marginalize an already vulnerable population. It takes a certain measure of tact and social skills to effectively advocate for change on behalf of these students. I, apparently, lack those characteristics; but I do have an abundance of passion and curiosity, both of which serve me well as a graduate student.
I am primarily interested in behavioral interventions for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. I am not so sure that I chose this research as much as it chose me. Post-secondary outcomes for students with behavioral disorders are rather dismal, and if you work with this population you can’t help but dream about ways to improve your practice and consequently improve their outcomes.
I want to work on a therapeutic farm for kids with emotional/behavioral disorders where they will learn functional academic and life skills. We will have two goals: Teach kids to read and to love one another. I have zero career ambition beyond that. It is my life goal.
My kids know that after dinner every night they will get uninterrupted quality time from their mom and dad. Sometimes my son or daughter will tap on my shoulder when I have on my noise-cancelling headphones and I’m working on my dissertation (which they aren’t supposed to do, but I can’t help but reinforce because it’s cute). They excitedly tell me about the game they have picked out for quality time later that day. I’m proud that the crazy life of a doc student has not seemed to impact them for the worse.
Besides procrastination and the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, the greatest challenge I’ve encountered in graduate school is the stark absence of any right answers. I naively assumed that a terminal degree and dissertation necessarily ended with a definitive punctuation mark: a period or exclamation point, perhaps. But no, now that I’ve finished my coursework and I’m close to proposing a dissertation study, I realize that this process is most likely going to end with a giant question mark. The only thing terminal about a terminal degree is that you no longer get student discounts on anything. Or as my mentor frequently tells the doc students in my department: “that light at the end of the tunnel is just a train coming from the other direction. Choo choo!”
This degree is truly a doctorate of philosophy in that I have been forced to wrestle with some fundamental philosophical questions not the least of which is why do southerners call every soft drink Coke? Seriously though, among the social sciences we are asking some of the most important questions, but it often feels as though solutions are forever out of reach. I had a very specific question when I came to UofL - what can be done to improve the outcomes of at-risk students? I am not much further along in answering that question but I feel equipped with a set of strategies that will enable me to join the effort to advance some potential solutions. More importantly in my opinion, the University of Louisville has introduced me to a network of colleagues who have encouraged and inspired me to keep going and certainly will remain a positive influence in my career beyond grad school. My fellow students and the faculty and staff in the special education department are incredible people.
I am accompanied on this journey by my amazing wife Jessica, 7-year-old son Adam, 4-year-old daughter Claire, and embryonic daughter who has yet to be named. My wife likes the name Norah. I prefer Madeline. She’ll be here next March.
Favorite book: Anything by B. F. Skinner
Favorite quote: “The student is always right” - Fred S Keller
If you weren’t in graduate school, what would you be doing now? I’d be looking for a farm on which I plan to raise chickens, grow some veggies, and teach kids how to read and love one another.