LU Moment: The Teacher’s Teacher | S3 Ep. 14

Shelly Vitanza:
Welcome to the LU Moment. Thanks for listening. I’m Shelly Vitanza, the director of public affairs at Lamar University. Each week, we showcase the great events, activities, programs, projects and people at Lamar University. This past week, Lamar has announced several new staff positions including the appointment of Dr. Tilisa Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux is the name, the dean of the Reaud Honors College and Texas Academy of Leadership and the Humanities. Thibodeaux is an award-winning educator. She’s a celebrated teacher and a distinguished researcher who joined Lamar University in 2015 as a faculty member. She was an assistant professor in the visual learning and leading Master of Education program and the department of educational leadership in the college of education and human development.

In 2018, Thibodeaux became the coordinator of the program while simultaneously serving as the director of digital literacy for the Reaud Honors College beginning in 2017 and now we are thrilled to have her over these two dynamic and unique Lamar University programs: The Reaud Honors College and the Texas Academy of Leadership and the Humanities. Another appointment, a national search was done, and Dr. Hector Flores has been selected to serve as associate vice president and dean of students in the division of student engagement.

Flores is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he earned a Combat Action ribbon, Iraqi Campaign metal, Global War on Terrorism metal and various other awards. He joined the Lamar University police department in 2014 and has served as the Chief of Police since November of 2014. He was responsible for establishing the Infinite Command System at LU that dealt with hurricane Harvey, Imelda, and Laura and he was responsible for the evacuation of students living in the dorms. During Laura, they evacuated to Texas State University. He has been instrumental in creating and supporting the Hispanic Society student organization which is one of our newest student organizations. Flores has worked with recruitment and their efforts to attract Hispanic Students to attend Lamar University.

Congratulations to Dr. Thibodeaux and Dr. Flores. We’re excited to have them in these new positions. We have another big announcement on the LU campus. In the last few weeks. Dr. Ken Young. associate professor of educational leadership is the recipient of the David J. Beck. Teaching Excellence Award. Lamar University President, Ken Evans extended the award which comes with a $25,000 check virtually by interrupting one of Dr. Young’s classes which is kind of fun. In the past, of course, Dr. Evans has interrupted classes in person, but because of our current situation, he interrupted via Zoom or whatever platform. Dr. Young joins us today. Welcome!

Ken Young:
Hey! Good morning. Before we get started, Shelly, I feel honored to be listed with the folks that you were talking about being new hires or new positions at Lamar. I’ve had the privilege of being a coworker with Dr. Thibodeaux. She is a phenomenal hire for that position and Dr. Flores was one of our students in the program. Brilliant, brilliant man and I have no doubt he will do a phenomenal job at his new position.

Shelly Vitanza:       
I agree. I think these are just really incredible people and they are going to do amazing things at Lamar, but you’re the one who’s won the highest teaching honor at Lamar University, so congratulations. We’re so proud of everything that you do and not only on the Lamar University campus, but really across the state and nation. Let’s talk about that teaching award first. What does it mean to you professionally and personally to be recognized for your teaching, for your life career?

Ken Young:
You know, it’s incredibly humbling. As I talked about it before, teachers don’t do these things for the accolades, we do this because we care, because we want to make a difference. There’s a sense of calling with what we do, but I, like everyone else, I like being appreciated, I like being affirmed that I am doing a good job because we have a lot of days where you’re wondering, ‘am I doing anything worthwhile, am I making a difference?’ To have my students nominate me and to be honored this way by the University is just incredibly humbling because I also recognize that I am nothing without the people who have been poured into my life, from my parents to my community in Southest Texas. I’m a Nederland grad, so to have the focus of all of Mid County and all of Jefferson County poured into my life make me who I am. The mentors that I’ve had, you know, the people who have spoken into my life, it’s humbling and I’m thankful that I can honor all those people hopefully by the way that I live out my life in this position.

Shelly Vitanza:
You know, I became acquainted with you through the pandemic. You were really coloring outside the box, I’d say. Last year, about this time, I heard about you and several other teachers who were helping other teachers. You became a teacher’s teacher for just not teachers, but schools, and districts across Texas to help them move online learning. So, let’s talk about that effort. You basically just donated your time to help these folks move to online learning. Let’s talk about that effort, what you did and what’s been the results.

Ken Young:
Well, I’m driven heavily by my theology. It’s about service, it’s about helping, it’s about being there. You combine that with my personality, how I was raised to be a fixer, to do things, to be a problem solver. Just run to where the problems are and work the help. When COVID-19 struck, unfortunately, my colleagues and I are cut from the same cloth because we were having conversations and saying, look, we’ve had the privilege of doing this, and learning from our mistakes and growing as one-line educators for almost ten years now. Knowing what these educators were going to be facing and you know, these are the people we serve, these are the people we teach. These are the people that we love and so, when we just start quickly brainstorming how we can get in the fray and help make that transition from face to face to doing the best they could in online instruction. It was, you know, with the help of folks at Lamar, some of the people behind the scenes helping us with the technology, making sure we had a platform for doing that. We started advertising on social media and through our students, emailing them and saying, “if there’s anything we can do, we’re in.” Dr. Hinerman, Dr. Cummings were my colleagues that jumped in there and then we brought in the rest of the faculty. The entire education faculty as well as some outside the college of education. “Whatever you need, let us know.” We just started looking, all hands-on deck. Anyone who had experience with the university that taught online, we want you to, if you are available, and willing to help, we need you, like the faculty at Lamar, that’s just what they did. They jumped right in.

Shelly Vitanza:
It’s just such a great story and I know ya’ll worked with schools and districts really across the state and to the greater nation and it really shows that Lamar exemplifies the saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” because Lamar is doing online education because of the hurricane. We’ve had to move to an online modality way back when we were devastated by hurricanes. I guess we started to realize a need and then along came Katrina and Ike, Harvey, on and on and on. You’ve been teaching in the digital world for two years did you say?

Ken Young:
When I came to Lamar in January of 2009, our master’s program was already online, the master’s in educational leadership. By 2010, we were running both a hybrid model, I think we still had our fully face to face program and launched a fully online program. So yeah, right at the ten, eleven years.

Shelly Vitanza:
So, for these teachers across the country, when they were made to go online, they didn’t have that background except those who had been trained at Lamar University which is really, became so significant last year, about this time. So, what do you think, going forward, everybody wants to know, what does education look like going into the future? What have teachers struggled with? What do you think has changed? I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but look into your crystal ball and tell us, what do you think it’s going to look like going forward?

Ken Young:
You know, there is really no easy answer. I think online, virtual learning will be a part of it, it really kind of depends on the experience with it I think. Because I know there are some schools that are going, “nope, never again.” They see some of the gaps, they see some of the issues, that were created from the crisis mode and I think it’s important to differentiate between crisis mode instructions and fully online instruction, because they look a lot different. When COVID-19 first hit, that was crisis. They were trying to pivot quickly, and I know I focus a lot on P-12, but there were a lot of institutions higher that were doing the same thing. Lamar being one of them, because not every program at Lamar had instructors that experience, and so. Trying to help them pivot, you know, here’s what you do, here’s how you do it, here’s the easy way to do the transition, which is somewhat tongue and cheek, because there is no easy way to do the transition.

Shelly Vitanza:
No easy way!

Ken Young:
I think some schools have recognized, “we can do this.” I really think that will be one of the greater challenges for schools that see the benefit of our technology. There is a benefit. I was probably one of the largest critics when we started looking at moving online, because I was like, there’s absolutely no way were going to be able to replicate what we are going to be doing in a classroom in an online environment. There are some limitations, but I’ve also seen where, you know, you can have effective learning in a virtual setting, in a virtual context. We see it all the time with our students, now, it requires a high-level self-direction and things like that as well as really rethinking your teaching, how you instruct. I think that’s going to be a real challenge for public education, you know pre-K through 12 settings is moving from the mentality of having technology folks.

I mean, you’ve got to have the technology people who can troubleshoot, and help you find tools and things like that. But there’s also the need to shift in understanding how you design a virtual classroom. It’s not as simple as just creating avatars and these cute virtual classrooms. It changes the whole instructional method. What you do, how you do, your assessments, really, if it’s though through well, not only can it enhance people’s educational experiences by creating differentiated ways to learn, but there’s some things that can be learned in the face-to-face environment as well that are applicable and it’s really kind of moving back to some basics of what psychology has taught us about learning for over the last hundred years. I think that’s one of the really great benefits that’s come out of this COVID-19 pandemic is we can kind of throw away or set aside our accountability or the focus on standardized testing as accountability and go back to thinking, “how do we teach?” Which is what’s most important.

Shelly Vitanza:
That’s right! Okay, we’ve got about one minute. I know you’ve got a new thing. I really want you to talk about it in our doctoral program. Tell us what you’re doing with public education and Lamar University.

Ken Young:
Yeah, and I’ll try to do this really quick. One of the things that has really been a critique is higher ed especially in regard to the relationship with public education is this gap. There’s a disconnect. One of the things that I’ve been working towards in the last couple years with my doctoral students is bridging that gap. Some of our alumni who are in leadership in school districts, basically, I contact them and say, “listen, I’ve got a group of students who are needing to do a dissertation with their final product. Can we come to your school; help you address a problem in practice?” Basically, they come in as free consultation teams to the school district. The school district is involved in the process, they help us discover the problems of practice that need to be addressed.

We do all the data collection. We do all the background research. We analyze the data, then provide a report to the district, the school board, whoever wants that information and really trying to create a cycle of improvement. Our students, the benefit they get is novel experiences outside their own school districts. They get these experiences, built in new connections, new networks, new experiences, that they can take back to their school districts. So far, it’s been a phenomenal experience for everyone involved.

Shelly Vitanza:
Yep. It’s a win-win and that’s why you are our David J. Beck teaching excellence award winner, and we appreciate you and everything you do, and I know the teachers, the schools, the districts there across the country appreciate what you are doing too. Thank you, Dr. Young. You make us so proud at Lamar University. And we thank you for listening to the LU Moment. I’m Shelly Vitanza, the director of public affairs at Lamar University, the pride of southeast Texas.