Advice for students: anchor education research in theory and practice
Tom Owenby’01 talks about the importance of teachers being intentional in what and how they teach their students, from his experience as a teacher and a researcher focusing on elementary and secondary education.
Graduating from Beloit College in 2001, Tom Owenby, a history and education double major, was a campus leader and an active member of many organizations. During his time as a student, he enjoyed varsity (football, track and field, and basketball) and intramural (soccer, basketball, ultimate frisbee) athletics. He was a part of Black Students United (BSU), dance, and Student Radio (WBCR 90.3FM), as well as serving as a Resident Assistant. In addition, studying abroad in South Africa made him realize his interest in working with youth and that teachers could work alongside with students to critically engage with the world around them.
Tom’s study abroad in South Africa helped him to understand the necessity of interrogating his own positionality in relation to the context in which he was teaching. Preparing to teach South African history in a township school brought to the fore his identity as a white, cis-gendered male with the privilege of a U.S. passport. Tom knew he needed to do work around understanding his own identity so that he could then work to decenter himself and reposition as a learner in order to address the blind spots that he had in regard to understanding the lived experiences of his students in Cape Town. It was only through this process that Tom began to engage with teaching and learning in a truly critical, constructivist, democratic, and relational fashion.
For people who are interested in education, especially the research aspect of this field, Tom’s story is full of valuable insights. Right after Beloit, Tom became deeply involved with teaching through different opportunities. During his first semester post-graduation, Tom did some substitute teaching and soccer coaching in Beloit where he met the wonderful educators and families. Later on, he attended a job fair at Northern Illinois University and got a first job as a high school social studies teacher and soccer coach in Perris, California. After a year in California, he moved to South Korea to teach ESL. Tom earned a master’s degree in political science from Kyung Hee University, and taught AP U.S. History and AP World History. He then returned to Beloit to serve as assistant director of the Help Yourself Pre-College Programs at Beloit College.
Having had a lot of experience working closely with the youth, Tom went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December 2018. His dissertation was titled, Navigating Borders: Immigration Teaching and Learning in K-12 Settings. In this study, he worked with a four teachers (4th, 8th, and 10th grade) and their students to learn about the intended, enacted, and experienced curricula of immigration studies. Some important findings emerging from this research include that teachers’ political views condition how they teach about immigration, and how and what gets taught about immigration represents the ways students are positioned to participate in a democracy.
Here is some advice Tom would like to share to people who would like to follow his path to become an education researcher:
“I think that the most powerful and impactful education research has a basis in both theory and practice. I would urge current Beloit College students who are interested in educational research to leverage the liberal arts environment to gain experience and expertise through internships and volunteering while they work to develop their theoretical understanding alongside field-based and college-based scholars.”