Dr. Mary Brownell


UF Department of Special Education

2009-2010 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

In every art beginners must start with models of those who have practiced the same art before them. And it is not only a matter of looking at the drawings, paintings, musical compositions, and poems that have been and are being created; it is a matter of being drawn into the individual work of art, of realizing that it has been made by a real human being, and trying to discover the secret of its creation. – Ruth Whitman

Much of what Ruth Whitman (a renown poet) says about beginning artists is applicable and fundamental to becoming a researcher and teacher educator. Excelling in any art form requires both technique and an “aesthetic sense” that enables the artist to inspire their audience. In much the same way, teaching others and systematic inquiry requires pedagogical knowledge and research skills (technique) as well as the instincts (aesthetic sense) needed to design “cutting-edge” research and inspire their audience, teacher education students, to learn. Like novice artists, education doctoral students need repeated opportunities to work with faculty who can provide models of quality research and teaching. Such opportunities enable students to develop knowledge and skills needed for generating their own research and developing quality teacher education experiences.

For many doctoral students, however, becoming a teacher educator seems more familiar and comfortable than the acquiring the skills and mindset necessary for conducting research. Many students enter education doctoral programs with prior knowledge about classroom teaching and they are comfortable with the demands of teaching. More often than not, my doctoral students have been accomplished and committed teachers, and are familiar with a context that demands action and quick paced decision-making. Becoming a successful doctoral student, however, draws on a much different skill set. Doctoral work demands careful deliberation about scholarly literature and an ability to integrate theory, research, and practice to design novel research projects. Thus, the transition from classroom teacher to doctoral student requires a paradigm shift — a shift not easily made by beginning students and they can become apprehensive.

Helping students overcome this apprehension while simultaneously enabling them to develop the mindset, emotional resilience, and skills they need to evolve into outstanding researchers and teacher educators is often developed through an influential and satisfying relationships with faculty. These faculty members are not only excellent researchers and teacher educators, but they also realize how to set up structured situations in which students can be mentored to tackle increasingly difficult tasks. Just as opportunities to be coached by an experienced artist enable the novice artist to be drawn into an individual work or art and discover the secret of its creation, is through these structured mentoring situations that students can be drawn into the research and teaching process in ways that allow them to integrate the “art” of doing this work with the “science.”

Crafting successful mentoring situations, however, is far from simple. Successful mentors must be able to generate the types of opportunities that enable students to acquire the skills they need; otherwise, how can students be drawn into the individual work of art. Then, mentors must have the insight to recognize the skill set that students bring to the table and support them in developing their strengths while attending to some of their needs. Successful mentors must also have courage to hold students to high standards and recognize that they do not act alone in assisting students. A mentor’s success also depends on partnerships with other faculty who can compliment or extend the mentor’s skill set (Levine, 2007) as well as the mentee’s investment in the process.

To establish structured opportunities and group mentoring relationships, I have worked with colleagues to secure federal research and doctoral leadership grants, including two national centers. These grants provide the financial support students need and opportunities required to become quality researchers and teacher educators. Studies examining the propensity of doctoral students to enter higher education and feel prepared as researchers depend on the financial support they received as doctoral students as well as they opportunities they had to work as research assistants (Levine, 2007). Over the past 18 years, through grant opportunities, my colleagues and I have supported the doctoral studies of 39 students in Educational Psychology, School Psychology, Special Education, and Teaching and Learning. Working on these collaborative research and leadership grants has allowed doctoral students opportunities to benefit from a team approach to mentoring, involving established scholars at the University of Florida and other universities. Specifically, students participate in team research meetings and work with senior researchers on projects, presentations, and research papers. I have noticed how collaborative work with researchers, in turn, fosters professional interactions between doctoral students. My doctoral students work on collaborative research projects they have developed and present findings at national conferences. More senior doctoral students have invite novice doctoral students to join them in these efforts. These collaborations have enabled senior doctoral students to take leadership roles and learn to mentor each other.

Additionally, I have worked closely with students to develop courses and teaching skills. Under my guidance, students have developed four different courses offered at the undergraduate and graduate level. For each course, students assisted in conceptualizing the course, developing materials, teaching classes with my support and then alone, and evaluating assignments. Recently, one of my students developed, independently, an online version of a class we taught together. In addition to working with me, doctoral students supported through leadership grants have opportunities to teach with other project faculty, expanding their opportunities to be exposed to different teaching approaches and points of view.

Opportunities I structure combined with students’ initiative and willingness to push themselves result in successful outcomes. Together, students and I have published 7 book chapters as well as 17 refereed or invited journal articles. We have also made 37 presentations at prestigious national conferences, such as the American Educational Research Association and Council for Exceptional Children. My colleagues and I have also engaged doctoral students in writing research and leadership grants, one of which is large, multi-million dollar federally funded center. These experiences have enabled my students to be successful in their careers. Most recently, one of my former doctoral students won the Council for Exceptional Children, Division for Research Qualitative Dissertation Award and the Teacher Education Division Dissertation Award. A second student won a statewide teacher education award from the Council for Exceptional Children. Another student has written a well-regarded textbook with one of special education’s most well established authors. These accomplishments suggest that I am capable of working with colleagues to create opportunities for students or present the “model” as well as help students see opportunities to fruition or draw them into “the individual work of art."