Stephanie Hareld, a 5th grade humanities teacher at the Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, NH, always knew she wanted to get her Masters Degree in Education, but between being a full time educator, a full time mom of two, and the general responsibilities of life, it didn’t work out. 


Then came the summer of 2020, when the police killing of George Floyd sparked national conversations about racial inequities pervasive in the U.S. These conversations were happening in schools, too, including at Ray School, where educators and school leaders were working together to understand what it means to make students feel welcome, validated, and affirmed. These conversations took place formally during professional development sessions, and more informally, as teachers and staff passed each other in the hallway. These topics were familiar to Stephanie, who had been incorporating them into her own teaching for years.


In 2021 Stephanie made two decisions: she decided to apply for a sabbatical, which allowed her to step out of the classroom and dedicate herself to exploring this work full time; and she applied for admittance to UVEI’s MEd in Teacher Leadership program, which provided her the structure and flexibility needed to support her sabbatical work. Finally, it had all come together: the work she had been doing in her own classroom, the work the district was supporting, and her desire to push herself into a teacher leadership role in order to dig deep on topics around supporting teachers in developing culturally relevant and responsive instructional units.


UVEI Masters Components: Teacher Leadership and Action Research

MEd in Teacher Leadership through UVEI
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Over the course of the year, Stephanie worked with faculty and a cohort of peers at UVEI to first explore the principles of teacher leadership, which helped push her thinking about collaboration and problem solving, and then to put that thinking into practice. Much of what she learned through the Advanced Leadership portion of the MEd degree reinforced what she already knew while deepening her thinking. “It made me think about how I used my time, and how I can make my work truly collaborative. Creating something alongside someone can be done without relational trust,” she said, but establishing that trust allows you to go farther and deeper. 


In her Action Research project, also a prerequisite to earning the MEd, Stephanie worked to identify a problem of practice in her leadership before beginning to think about what to do about it. This is something that shows up in her work to this day. “UVEI taught me to examine what we do, why things are the way they are, and what the problem really is before getting to the solution; before jumping to changing them.”


“It’s easy to jump to conclusions about why things have played out the way they’ve played out, or why someone said something the way they did. Instead, we should try to be mindful and not jump to conclusions about why something is the way it is. I want to find my actionable space to do something, rather than jumping to the next thing that seems larger than I can tackle at any given time. There is a whole process to work through a problem of practice. We can have grand ideas but can’t do anything with them unless you start with the first piece.”


Steph’s Action Research Project


The problem of practice Stephanie worked on in her Action Research was identifying best professional development principles to support educators in implementing culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy, both in teaching practice and in curriculum development. Working with a third grade team, she put together a series of professional development sessions to lead them through understanding culturally relevant and responsive education (CRRE), and then applying that to a unit they would modify and then teach their classes. 

“UVEI taught me to examine what we do, why things are the way they are, and what the problem really is before getting to the solution; before jumping to changing them.”

When we spoke, she shared that one of the most rewarding aspects of this time was working with a group of people who were really invested in making changes. “After the PD work I did with them (during the 2022-2023 school year), they were really able to see why that work was important. And then knowing that as we finished the work on one unit, they knew how to implement the ideas for future units. They have made a lot of changes this year, including adopting units that weren’t in their curriculum, adopting new things but also supplementing ideas to make their teaching more in line with culturally relevant practices.”


Of course, this work wasn’t without its obstacles. The plan was for the group to meet regularly, all together, but finding time for collaboration when there aren’t formal structures in place proved to be challenging. For any educator reading this, this is a familiar scenario. And, we know that team-based collaboration and professional development sustains educators and helps them thrive in their work. So what to do when time is limited? As Stephanie moves forward in her leadership work this year, “knowing that we have a lack of time, it’s important to be mindful about how we use our time to collaborate. It’s easy for teachers to become siloed, so we have to make the time and effort. Sometimes we need to make it happen even if it’s not in our schedule because otherwise we’re not moving forward.”


There were also major turning points in her action research project, both in the work the team was doing together and in Stephanie’s own leadership development. “I had in my head the order I would provide PD. But as we continued to work together, and I would recognize for example that they needed more time to feel comfortable with certain aspects of the content, I realized that they needed to lead the process; they guided and shaped what they needed. That was a big A-ha moment for me.” This contrasts sharply to other PD Stephanie has been a part of: “I’ve had experiences when I felt like the content wasn’t relevant to what I needed, and I really wanted to keep that in mind. Even though I had all the things I wanted to do with them, I changed them around” based on emerging needs as their work together progressed. 


Rewards and Impacts


Besides working with such an invested group of teachers, Stephanie says that the most rewarding part of her work was being able to take this large idea and boil it down to a paper; make a concept that is immediately useful to others, something that is readable and hopefully can be used in the future.


Which, it already is. The group of teachers she worked with were able to see the value in backwards planning, rewriting the essential questions for the unit in order to propel them forward. They were able to reflect on the purpose of everything they did together last year, and apply that to new and modified units this year.

“Knowing that we have a lack of time, it’s important to be mindful about how we use our time to collaborate. It’s easy for teachers to become siloed, so we have to make the time and effort.”

As for Stephanie, she is collaborating with the school librarian and ELA coordinator on PD, looking at text selection with diverse learners in mind. They are able to look at what’s happening and understand the problem in front of them from different angles: the librarian knows what teachers are checking out and what’s not being used, and is intentionally adding diverse texts to the classroom libraries as well as recommending great books that help reach the goals of educators and students; the ELA coordinator is an expert in understanding how to support learners in reaching the standards; and Stephanie is asking questions around bringing in books that are more diverse while meeting the reading objectives and needs of students. 


In her own classroom space, she is using a lot of the structures and protocols that were used at UVEI during seminars, with her 5th graders. “It’s important to recognize and know that students can take these structures and use them, and really benefit from them.”


Stephanie is also a mentor for a current UVEI candidate, another full time 5th grade teacher. This is a direct application of the instructional coaching skills that she practiced through the MEd program. Working with this teacher, “knowing she’s just coming into this role, it’s been great to have to find the words to explain to someone else about the choices I’m making, while getting her input about other aspects I might not be thinking about.”


“I learn a lot too. Often when I have to structure a mentor conversation, I’m simultaneously  learning about myself and asking questions to her that I should also be asking myself. So it’s a reflective process for me too. During our triad meetings (with the faculty coach), I get to hear what others are doing, or provide ideas to my mentee. And I will try the thing I just suggested to her. I’m learning alongside her.” 


Monica Nachemja-Bunton, MS, UVEI Program Faculty

Note from the author: Stephanie has joined the ranks of many at the Ray School with ties to UVEI: both administrators and at least four teachers are alumni or former UVEI staff members, and countless other educators have participated in our professional education coursework or mentored teacher candidates over the years. This year there are two other teachers serving as UVEI mentors, and the ELA coordinator (one of Stephanie’s collaborators) has participated in our professional education inquiry into curricular leadership. Our goal in all programs is to encourage and inspire these educators to continue their work in collaboration with others, and to bring in research based practices as they do so. Stephanie’s story is one example of how this can happen and we look forward to hearing how she and the other Ray School educators continue in their efforts to better serve their students.