Dr. Stephen W. Smith


UF School of Special Education, School Psychology & Early Childhood Studies

2013-2014 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

I believe the most critical aspect of the educational enterprise is the development of independent learners. The need to help students acquire an independent and personalized professional identity as a teacher educator and scholar becomes most pronounced at the doctoral level where the mentor/student relationship begins to foster collegial relationships and the creation of a research agenda. It is within the teaching and research enterprise at the university level that I find mentoring, advising, and supporting doctoral students in their work the most challenging and satisfying part of my professorial duties. Through the mentor/student relationship, doctoral students learn how to interact, acquire, interpret, and apply knowledge to everyday situations in their professional life. The quality of that relationship and the opportunities afforded can make a profound difference for doctoral students and have a meaningful influence on their individual development. From my experience, the students I have worked with come to the university as committed and accomplished special education teachers equipped with considerable prior knowledge about classroom teaching and are accustomed to a context that requires action and quick paced decision-making. Engaging in the doctoral program successfully, however, requires a much different skill set. The demand of high quality doctoral work requires methodical deliberation of scholarly literature and an ability to embrace complex theoretical positions and attendant research. Students then must translate this knowledge into novel research projects. Thus, a life-altering shift from the classroom profession to doctoral studies is required which, while it can vary from student to student, may not be easily accomplished and self-doubt can be overwhelming.

Helping students overcome self doubt while, at the same time, supporting and inspiring them to develop emotional resilience and requisite skills to evolve into promising teacher educators and researchers is often the result of an influential and satisfying relationship with a faculty mentor. Crafting successful mentoring situations, however, is not simple. Successful mentors must be able to generate opportunities that enable students to acquire the skills they need; otherwise, how can students develop their individual and personalized professional identities? 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 the courage to hold students to high standards so they can begin to recognize that they have the knowledge and skills to engage in the demanding work required of a faculty member. A mentor’s success also depends on partnerships with other faculty who can compliment or extend the mentor’s skill set as well as the mentee’s investment in the process, and set an expectation for working successfully as faculty on research teams.

To provide the supportive and intellectually demanding context students need, I work from the start to make the learning enterprise cooperative and collegial, raising levels of trust and comfort, providing support and motivation for learning the conceptual and technical aspects of teaching and conducting research. I try to focus always on the fact that we all share the same goal of successful learning. Over the years, I have involved my students in cooperative problem-solving tasks, wherein they must discover the uniqueness of a problem, formulate a range of solutions, and select those solutions that they think are viable. Whether it be a manuscript or book chapter development, achieving research grant objectives, or preparing for professional presentations to the special education field, I provide guidance through the problem-solving process by asking higher order questions that require students to evaluate and justify their thinking. As part of the problem-solving process, I encourage students to link theory to practice and to become acquainted with literature from fields outside of education. When using various knowledge sets, students become divergent rather than convergent thinkers allowing them to understand better how concepts and ideas fit within a broad context. By doing so, students acquire the type of skills essential to be effective problem solvers with colleagues in their future work.

To establish structured opportunities and group mentoring relationships, I have worked with colleagues to secure $8 million dollars of research and development grants over the last 20+ years. These grants provide financial support for students as Research Assistants (RA) to become quality researchers and critical thinkers. Education researchers explain how students who want to enter doctoral programs to emerge as teacher educators, scholars, and researchers depend on the financial support they received as well as the opportunities they have to work as RAs. Over the years, my colleagues and I have supported the doctoral studies of28 students in Special Education, Educational Psychology, School Psychology, Counselor Education, Developmental Psychology, and Teaching and Learning. Working on collaborative research and development grants has allowed these doctoral students opportunities to benefit from a team approach to mentoring, involving a multitude of established scholars at UF and consultants from other universities. The doctoral students that I have worked with over the years participate in team research meetings and work with senior researchers on novel projects, presentations, and research papers. I have noticed how collaborative work with researchers, in tum, fosters professional interactions among doctoral students. On more than several occasions, these collaborations have enabled senior doctoral students to take leadership roles and learn to mentor each other.

The individual accolades a number of my students have received are the direct result of collaborative mentoring opportunities they had as RAs on my research grants. For example, Libby Hardman received funding for her dissertation from the Florida Educational Research Council and support in the form of a Research Fellowship from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Spencer Foundation, two large, nationally recognized educational organizations. Few who apply are awarded these most prestigious opportunities. Dr. Hardman’s dissertation was selected as UF’s nominee in the social sciences for the 2002 Council of Graduate Schools/University Microfilms International Distinguished Dissertation Award. This is by no means insignificant because the University selected only one dissertation from areas such as economics, psychology, and political science. One of my recent doctoral students, Brian Barber, received an award for excellence in research from the Social/Emotional Learning Special Interest Group – AERA and I believe strongly that his dissertation is worthy of recognition, so much so, that I have nominated him for a Student Research Award from the Division for Research, Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

My colleagues and I have also engaged doctoral students in writing for external funding from the college, university, and from federal sources. Three of my doctoral students received dissertation research awards of $20,000 from the Student-Initiated Grant competition, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. DOE. The opportunities I structured combined with students’ initiative and willingness to push themselves resulted in successful outcomes. Together, students and I have published 6 book chapters as well as 20 refereed and 11 invited journal articles. I have also included doctoral students in 10 invited national presentations, 12 national refereed paper presentations, and 37 international and national refereed presentations at prestigious national conferences such as AERA, Institute of Education Sciences, and CEC. These accomplishments suggest that I am capable of creating opportunities for students to be drawn into the research and teaching process to allow them to integrate the vast array of complex variables that make up a demanding and fulfilling doctoral experience.