Growing up in New Orleans, Elzena McVicar (MIT ‘10) was surrounded by a family filled with teachers. Years of family conversations about education convinced McVicar that teaching was not for her.
While working on her bachelor's degree in anthropology, however, McVicar took a work study job as a tutor. Then, after graduating from college, she found herself working in an elementary school as an AmeriCorps volunteer. These two experiences changed McVicar’s perceptions of education, ultimately leading her in a new professional direction.
McVicar set out to find an excellent teacher education program and, after some research, put the University of Washington College of Education at the top of her list. McVicar found herself headed to Seattle despite having never visited.
"The College of Education is unique compared to a lot of other programs in the country because professors are not just teaching content but also are teaching best practices for engaging students in learning, such as understanding where students are starting and creating personalized instruction to move them forward," McVicar said.
Upon completion of her master’s degree, McVicar went on to teach in elementary schools for the next seven years and discovered her passion for teaching mathematics.
“I believe that elementary school is the point when students start deciding if school is or is not for them,” she said. “I’m focused on mathematics because there’s a trend in this country where you are either really good or really bad at math. There’s no in between, no time to think about or appreciate math, so I’m trying to figure out how we can bring a love of math into classrooms.”
In addition to the issues surrounding mathematics, McVicar noticed a lack of connection among teachers, even those in the same school.
“Teaching can be a really isolating profession,” she said. “I’ve worked at schools where we’ve tried our best to plan together, to have professional learning communities and to talk about practice. I also worked at schools where those connections were not being formed.”
In response, McVicar joined fellow teachers in leading the first EduDesign Lab Summer Institute, an innovative form of professional development supported by the College of Education’s INSPIRE initiative. Operating under the motto “For Teachers, By Teachers,” EduDesign Lab brings together practicing teachers from the Seattle area in an immersive, week-long professional development experience in which they co-design and build their teaching practice.
Launched in 2015, EduDesign Labs have focused on building teachers’ proficiency using technology to support instruction, science learning for elementary students, and, this coming summer, exploring social justice issues.
“After the lab, a lot of teachers expressed interest in taking up leadership roles in their building, whether they are sharing the knowledge that they learned with other teachers or they are taking on a mentorship role,” McVicar said. "Also, a number of teachers were able to immediately implement what they had learned in our summer labs at the start of the school year."
In the fall of 2016, McVicar returned to the UW to pursue her PhD in curriculum and instruction, exploring teacher quality and education with a mathematics focus.
In the future, McVicar hopes to continue educating and supporting teachers in ways that will benefit their students. She is interested in providing professional development for both current and future teachers through programs like EduDesign Lab.
“I hope to be working with school districts, discussing how to make this kind of professional development broader. I know it’s hard work because I’m busy as a mom, wife and daughter, but I know that I am doing important work. At the end of all of it, I feel really good about what I am doing in education.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications