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Interview with John McNaught, Ed.D. from James Madison University on Completing his Ed.D. Dissertation from the University of West Georgia's School Improvement Program

About John McNaught, Ed.D.: John McNaught is Co-Director of the Training and Technical Assistance Center at James Madison University. He is also a Founding Member and the Principal Investigator for the I’m Determined Project, which is an initiative that supports students with disabilities in collaboration with Virginia’s Department of Education. As an advocate for at-risk students and students with special needs throughout his career, Dr. McNaught was one of the first education professionals in Virginia to push for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that were directed by the students themselves, so that students’ voices, desires, and needs were at the forefront of their own plan for educational and personal development.

Prior to his work at James Madison University, Dr. McNaught worked in public secondary education as a special education teacher, where he supervised multiple work-study programs that integrated community work and engagement into the curriculum. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, his Master’s in Education with a focus on Special Education from James Madison University, and his Ed.D. in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia.

Interview Questions

[] Could you provide a brief overview of your current responsibilities now as co-director for the Training Technical Assistance Center, and also your work and co-founding and serving as a principal investigator for the Virginia Department of Education’s, the I’m Determined Project?

[Dr. John McNaught] For the Training and Technical Assistance Centers (TTACs), there are seven centers across Virginia, all at state universities. The mission of the centers is to improve outcomes for students with disabilities in Virginia, and we are all broken up into regions. Our particular region has 20 school divisions in a pretty large geographic area. It is approximately a two-hour driving radius outside of James Madison University.

We work with teachers and students with disabilities directly – from Pre-K through high school. It depends on what the particular need is for each of our students, but we work on transition, self-determination, classroom management behavior, and instruction. Inclusion and co-teaching are a large part of it. I have been a director since 2013.

Another role of mine is the Principal Investigator for I’m Determined, which started in 2006. I was part of a team of three or four folks from other universities and one lady from the Department of Education. We found that the employment rates were very low for individuals with disabilities in Virginia. The enrollment in any kind of post-secondary education was also very low, and we were trying to figure out how could we change that. We had to stop approaching the problem from the same lens because it was obviously not working.

We basically looked at the problem, did a bunch of research, and found that students with disabilities in Virginia did not really know what their disability was. They could not talk about it or tell what they were good at. They did not know any of their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). We realized that they were not getting any services, so it is no wonder that the outcomes were so poor. They had no control over their education.

Through literature reviews and extensive reading, we settled on the idea of self-determination. We created I’m Determined in a span of six months. We started with nine schools in Virginia during our pilot year. Today, almost all the school divisions in Virginia are participating, which is well over 100. I do work with almost 40 states across the country, and several different countries work with us as well.

The growth has been exponential. We learned pretty quickly that the best way to change things and expand our impact is through storytelling. We went out early and just took a lot of video footage of kids with disabilities, their parents, and their teachers. We shared their stories and their strategies to overcome barriers. This has been the formula for the past 15 years, to reach more students with disabilities and connect them to resources and TTAC services as we continue to grow.

[] Why did you decide to pursue an EdD in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia? What were your career goals and how did you see the EdD as helping you to achieve these goals?

[Dr. John McNaught] A lot of my work at that time was transitioning into this lens of school improvement. My colleagues and I were looking at schools, visions, and systems change. I quickly realized that I did not know a lot about that. All my work was on an individual or classroom level, and not at the division-level or state-level, in terms of systems change.

My previous experience with the Department of Education, before my doctorate, was really focused on what I’d call “Band-Aid” solutions to problems—solutions that never actually fixed the system. I did not want to just come up with a quick and easy solution that would work for a year and then have to come back to the drawing board to develop another short-term, reactive solution (as opposed to a proactive, long-term approach). I had been in the field for a long time, approximately 19 years, so I had seen many things come and go.

I wanted to learn more about how to either fix the system or dismantle it and create a better one. There wasn’t really anyone at the Department of Education or at my university with that kind of experience. It is much more valuable to learn from someone who has actually been through that kind of research-intensive, systems-oriented change leadership, so I decided I wanted to go back to school and learn more.

I was on a couple listservs, and I saw that University of West Georgia had won several awards for the best online EdD program in the nation, by several metrics that were meaningful to me. I wanted something from a brick and mortar institution, and I wanted an established program. I did some more research on University of West Georgia along with five or six other universities. I was accepted to University of West Georgia and ultimately, I went for it.

[] Could you take us through the steps of your research process, from the design of the research study to the collection and analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data? What challenges did you encounter during the research process, and how did you overcome them? How did your committee and dissertation chair support your work?

[Dr. John McNaught] My first research question was: “How, if it all, do students with a learning disability, who participated in the I’m Determined Project as youth leaders, perceive their experiences in the program as contributing to their enrollment in higher education?” We were looking at factors that led to enrollment in higher education for youth leaders with learning disabilities. The second research question was: “What barriers, if any, did they encounter along the way?” We were hoping to determine if I’m Determined provided them any kind of strategies to address the barriers. I spent a lot of time deciding on my methodology and did a lot of research on just qualitative methodology.

The I’m Determined Project was effective due to its ability to tell a compelling story. Everyone’s story is different, and I’m Determined celebrates that diversity and portrays it as a source of empowerment for students. I settled on narrative inquiry as the methodology because it is all about the story. It is also easy to manage research or biases when the focus is on the individual story. It is not about my story or what I think happened. It is about each individual participant’s experience.

I crafted all of my interview questions based on the narrative inquiry methodology, and gathered a ton of data. I did a lot of coding, and the result was a story through three episodic timeframes: before I’m Determined, during I’m Determined, and after I’m Determined. I further coded the stories into specific themes. Then I tied it all back to my theorical framework, which was self-determination theory. In the end, it all fit together rather nicely, but it was a process because coding is messy and takes a long time.

In terms of challenges I encountered, the main one was managing burnout. Sometimes you just need a mental break to see things because you are eating, drinking, and sleeping your research. Taking a break of two to three days, to stop thinking for a second, can help clarify your thoughts and refresh you so you can move forward.

[] What were your findings and conclusions from your research? How have you applied the insights from your dissertation research to your current work, both at JMU and for the I’m Determined Youth Leader Project? How has your research positively influenced other education leaders?

[Dr. John McNaught] As mentioned earlier, I looked at experiences before, experiences during, and experiences after participation in the I’m Determined Project. The experiences before I’m Determined centered around the idea of struggle. Participants were struggling in school. They did not have any kind of awareness of their disability.

Their stories were very similar in the sense that nobody ever really told them they had a disability. Nobody used that word. They started getting pulled out of general education classes, and they did not understand why. There was a lot of confusion around what was happening. Some of the barriers they faced at the time was this feeling of low expectations once they were identified as having a disability, because of the idea that they were broken and did not know how to learn.

For almost all of them, reading was one of their primary areas of struggle. They experienced the feeling of watching other kids just pick it up naturally while they did not know why they were not. They did not know that they had dyslexia because no one told them. They were feeling broken and awful. They were missing grade level content. School was a place that was not accepting of them.

When they came to the I’m Determined Project, the central theme was the idea of community. Students showed up thinking they are the only person in the world with a learning disability. Then they come to the I’m Determined Project, and all of sudden, there are 50 other kids who fit their exact learner profile. They start understanding their disability and putting a name to it. Importantly, they understand what they are good at and cultivate the idea that they have strengths. This acknowledgement leads to advocacy. Now they know how to tell folks what their disability is and how people can help them.

The I’m Determined Project provided them with a safe place to practice strategies and to learn how to advocate, to problem solve, and to set a goal. Having a safe place to practice those skills led to their willingness or motivation to try those skills at their home school. The opportunity to practice in a safe place was huge, and this led to the idea that “I can be successful in school.” Once students started getting some accommodations and reframed their goals, things slowly began to change. A lot of these teenagers see some of our older leaders who have the same disability but are now in college. They realize that it could be them, which is super powerful.

The experiences after the I’m Determined Project had the central theme of being resilient. Many of our students had the mindset that, “Once I get through high school, I will be fine because the learning disability will go away.” However, they soon realize that this is not true. However, they now have skills and know how to advocate for themselves. Their self-esteem has also increased so they can overcome these barriers. They know how to ask for help when they need to, and they know their rights. While barriers will always exist, they have a toolbox now from the I’m Determined Project to deal with these barriers. They know how to stand up for themselves even when no one else will.

Students have to learn about their disability, learn about what they are good at, and be able to communicate that with confidence. It is all tied to the idea of self-determination theory, which looks at autonomy as the ability to make your own choices and feeling that you have the skills needed to succeed in a certain situation. The I’m Determined Project supported autonomy, competence, and relatedness and tried to build these tenets into the program’s environment to foster the students’ motivation to act self-determined once they learned some strategies.

The I’m Determined Project proves that we can produce an environment that encourages self-determined behaviors. For the past year with my work in Virginia and several other states, I have been connecting specific actions and examples to autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We can create an environment that is going to lead to the success of all students. This is basic motivation theory. Any kind of at-risk learner is going benefit from this kind of environment.

[] What results have you seen so far from integrating I’m Determined themes and the takeaways from your dissertation research into the classroom?

[Dr. John McNaught] We are seeing a strong connection between I’m Determined and the importance of social emotional learning (SEL). Social emotional learning is a hot topic right now because a lot of kids are experiencing mental health needs due to the pandemic. SEL fits almost hand-in-glove with self-determination. We have seen a huge desire to dig into this work because the entire focus right now is on supportive classroom environments. Ten years ago, it would have taken me forever to get two schools bought into what I am talking about. Now, I have been literally all over the United States to talk about SEL and its role in self-determination.

The current focus is on building supportive environments for all kids because that is what they need right now. There is a bigger push for inclusion, which is broader than students with disabilities. We need to be including, not isolating. This push towards inclusion and changing what we do as the professional to meet the kid is exciting because previously it was about “fixing” the kid, not the teacher or the environment. Hopefully in two or three years, we have even more outcome data to work with to continue improving.

When I first started this work, I really did not want to build a program that was labeled as being in the “special education world,” because when you do that, it gets the Scarlet Letter of, “This is only for special education.” The reality is everybody needs self-determination. This has been our opportunity to separate supportive environments from special education and say that it is for all kids. You do not usually get these opportunities to rebrand something, but we have jumped on that wholeheartedly. And it’s been great.

[] What advice do you have for current and prospective EdD students who want to know how they can succeed in their dissertation, from choosing the right research topic to staying organized and on track with their research?

[Dr. John McNaught] The I’m Determined Project has experienced a tremendous amount of success, but we did not really know the answer to the question of why it works. The question for me was whether the success had anything to do with what we were doing. For the dissertation, I wanted to know what worked and what did not. For a dissertation, you have to love the topic. If you are not truly interested in a topic, I think it becomes much harder to successfully finish it.

I think people get excited and dive into a topic before they think about their research questions. Despite my work with the I’m Determined Project, it took me a long time to figure out what I specifically wanted to know. I was originally going to study every I’m Determined leader that came through, regardless of disability. My chair told me that I was asking very broad questions and that I needed to narrow the topic down a little bit. Through discussions with my chair, we concluded that I should research learning disabilities and post-school outcomes because that is where we experienced the most success. I also knew that using a qualitative methodology would result in a lot of data, so I did not want 15 research questions. I ultimately narrowed my research questions in order to craft the study around getting the answers to two specific research questions.

I think the difference between master’s level and doctoral level work is with doctoral level work, you ask a question and you read 15 books to come up with your own answer. At the master’s level, you ask a question, and they give you the answer. There were certainly times where I just wanted an answer, but I learned much more by reading and coming up with my own answer. You have to be really interested in your topic because you will be doing a lot of reading. You should also pick a methodology that you are interested in. For instance, do not pick quantitative methodology because you think it is going to be less writing. Pick the methodologies you are interested in that will answer your questions.

Doctoral work is completely self-directed. Do not be afraid to ask questions and know that you will not get an answer as much as you will get ten things to read. I definitely have some classmates who thought they had dumb questions and did not want to ask them. In contrast, I had the mentality that if I already knew everything, I would not be part of this program. I am here to learn, and I am not going to waste my time by not asking questions.

It is also important to have a good relationship with your chair. In the beginning, we expressed our expectations for each other, which I thought was very helpful. My chair pushed me to outline my entire dissertation in detail, which was one of the best things I did, though I hated every second of it. It was a total nightmare, but it gave me the road map I needed. Every time I got lost in the weeds, I would refer to the outline, which prevented me from going down too many tangents.

Figuring out what type of learner you are is also key. I am very tactile, so I need to touch and highlight my work in order to connect the dots. I also wrote my entire dissertation between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. because I cannot write after 12:00 noon. I spent many nights just wasting time reading and writing, which was terrible because I am a morning person. I would almost always forget what I read and throw out what I wrote.

I also recommend having an outlet, which for me was running and biking. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically. If you are in a relationship with somebody, there needs to be some discussion about what you are about to get into because it is a huge commitment. It is definitely going to encroach on family time. If that is an issue, you need to be able to talk about it ahead of time. It was super helpful to have a supportive spouse and a supportive employer. They definitely played a role in my success.

Ultimately, it is all about perseverance. You are becoming an expert in a little tiny area of something, but in order to get there, you do a lot of reading and thinking. I always took my iPhone on runs because I might have a thought, and I would do a voice memo in those instances. Having smaller goals is important because finishing your dissertation cannot be your first goal. Writing your dissertation is going to be a lot of work, you need to celebrate the steps along the way to the final product—otherwise, the journey will be a lot of work with no celebrating.

I would encourage people to pursue a doctorate. Although it was a scary decision, it was definitely the best thing I ever did. It was a ton of work, but absolutely worth it. If you want to push any kind of major change, having the letters after your name makes a really big difference in a lot of areas. All of a sudden, people are going to listen to you when they would not have before. I am also a better professional for it. I learned more from the dissertation process than I probably learned during my entire master’s degree. Spend some time researching where you want to go because for me, it is all about relationships and support.

[] What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as an educator and education leader? What challenges and opportunities were the most formative across your career? Having worked in special education, youth empowerment through education, and community improvement for over a decade, how have you seen public education evolve over the past few years?

[Dr. John McNaught] The most rewarding experiences for me were the individual successes of the students I worked with – watching them struggle, become self-determined, and then attain a goal. In the past couple of years, what excites me about public education is this idea that we have more diverse learners coming in every day, and we have to create environments to support all these kids. We cannot just build a high school classroom that looks like the same classroom from 1920 and expect that we are going to reach all these different kids. We have to do things differently.

I have high hopes that we are going to move to a more inclusive model, and technology is one way to help us get there. Frankly, the pandemic and moving people online has made people my age realize that you can adapt, learn technology, and still be effective. I am not saying online learning is the way to go by any means, but it gave educators an opportunity to do things differently. We can take lessons from that and apply it.

All the work I do is through the lens of inclusion. In the past where you might take a struggling learner out and stick him in a class with other struggling learners, research now says that this is not the way to go. Inclusion is necessary. I really believe—and research supports it—that we have to educate individuals with disabilities in the classrooms with their peers, where they can be taught by a content specialist. A special education teacher is not a math teacher. We need students with learning disabilities to have a math teacher. We need to re-envision special education services even when people push back.

Thank you, Dr. McNaught, for your excellent insight into the I’m Determined Project, as well as your discussion of your dissertation experience and advice for prospective Ed.D. students!