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Interview with Justin Lindsey, Ed.D. on Completing his Ed.D. Dissertation from the University of West Georgia's School Improvement Program

About Justin Lindsey, Ed.D.: Justin Lindsey is the Exceptional Student Services (ESS) Lead Teacher and Career and Technical Instruction (CTI) Coordinator for Calhoun City School District in Georgia. In these roles, Dr. Lindsey provides support to students with disabilities and teachers who specialize in ESS. He also designs, implements, and oversees the efficacy of ESS programs for schools within Calhoun City School District. Through his work, Dr. Lindsey emphasizes community engagement and relationship-building within and outside of the classroom as being crucial to special education success.

As an innovator in ESS education and academic programming, Dr. Lindsey earned his EdD in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia in 2020, through which he investigated the efficacy of support programs for parents of students with autism.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your professional and academic background? How did you first get into special education and student services leadership?

[Dr. Justin Lindsey] I obtained my BS in Ecology and Field Biology at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. My experiences working in community education at Calhoun City Schools, at the Rome YMCA, and in other community programs led me to public education. I began my career as a paraprofessional supporting Students with Disabilities (SWD) and their peers in the inclusion setting. I served as an Exceptional Student Services (ESS) teacher in a resource setting at Calhoun Middle School before transitioning to my current role as Career and Technical Instruction (CTI) Coordinator and Lead ESS Teacher at Calhoun High School.

My primary roles include supporting all SWD in Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) classes and providing additional support to ESS teachers in our department. I have also coached varsity sports for nine consecutive years and understand the many responsibilities teachers juggle on a daily basis. I obtained my initial certification through the Georgia Teacher Academy for Preparation and Pedagogy (GaTAPP) program and my Master’s in Special Education from Walden University. Most recently, I graduated from the University of West Georgia with an EdD in School Improvement in December of 2020.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] 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. Justin Lindsey] The University of West Georgia’s EdD in School Improvement program consistently ranks as one of the best online doctoral programs in the nation. Due to the staff and university, it has a reputation for producing change agents throughout our state and nation. I believe in public education at the local and state level, so it was important for me to attend a public university within the University System of Georgia. As a special education teacher, it was essential to enroll in a program that would enable me to acquire the problem-solving skills needed to influence systematic change for all students. When looking for a doctoral program, it was obvious that the EdD in School Improvement program at UWG would allow me to focus on improving educational experiences for Students with Disabilities (SWD) and their peers.

I am blessed to work in a supportive department within an extraordinary school system that supports student-centered ideas and activities. In my previous role as an Exceptional Student Services (ESS) teacher at Calhoun Middle School, we strived to create a curriculum that fosters community connection through hands-on learning experiences. In addition to this, I did my best to build relationships with students and parents. At its core, education is all about people and relationships. These experiences enabled me to better support my students and their families, while also motivating me to pursue an EdD in School Improvement.

School improvement is a continuous approach that requires relationship building and consistently connecting different resources to areas of need, which led me to pursue and complete the program. In my current role as the Career and Technical Instruction (CTI) Coordinator and ESS Lead, I am able to use my experience from my past positions and the doctoral program to support SWD in CTAE courses, assist with transitions, and help support some of the best teachers in the business change the lives of students. Long term, I know the experience from the EdD program will continue to provide opportunities in which I can positively impact others within my sphere of influence.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your dissertation is entitled Program Evaluation of a Rural Support Group for Parents of Children with Autism. Could you elaborate on how you decided upon this specific topic, and what your central research questions were in this project?

[Dr. Justin Lindsey] Selecting a dissertation topic is one of the most important steps in the process of obtaining your doctoral degree. It involves a substantial amount of research and reflection on the available literature. I considered several topics; however, the gaps in the academic literature related to non-traditional supports for parents of children with ASD demonstrated a need to further explore this topic. Furthermore, my professional work and experience motivated me to select this topic.

As far as research questions, I selected an evaluation question that would be answered by exploring four separate sub-questions. A logic model was also used to guide the program evaluation. This allowed an in-depth investigation of the impact of the autism support group on parental stress, understanding of ASD, familial relationships, and access to resources. The questions below guided the program evaluation and the research:

Evaluation Question

R1: How does the autism support group fulfill its mission of improving the quality of life for those affected by autism?

Sub-questions

R1: How do parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder report stress levels as a result of their involvement with the autism support group?

R2: How do parents with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder report an understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder as a result of their involvement in a support group?

R3: How do parents with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder report that their involvement with the autism support group has impacted familial relationships?

R4: How do parents with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder report that their involvement with the autism support group has impacted access to resources?

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] 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. Justin Lindsey] The purpose of this program evaluation was to determine the extent to which the autism support group improved the quality of life for participants by assessing the support group’s impact on the attendee’s stress levels, the parents’ understanding of ASD, familial relationships, and access to various resources. A sequential explanatory mixed-methods design was used to answer the previously mentioned research questions. Participants completed online surveys. Then, descriptive statistics were used to summarize the results. After this, focus groups were conducted to gather qualitative data. This step allowed for an expansion of the original data and a deeper understanding of the topics surveyed.

A successful doctoral research study will answer the selected research questions and address specific gaps in the literature. At the same time, one would hope that the research could benefit external parties in some capacity. To ensure that the research was successful, I was in constant communication with my advisor and committee. Researchers should cast aside all pride and be open to consistent feedback from the professionals who have dedicated their careers to guiding researchers and doctoral candidates. The feedback from the committee increased the efficiency and effectiveness of our study, while also allowing me to stay organizing as I balanced a full-time teaching job with doctoral research during a pandemic.

We encountered multiple challenges throughout the planning and implementation of the program evaluation; however, the guidance and wisdom from my committee and dissertation chair greatly contributed to the success of the program evaluation and dissertation. Many researchers will change their methods, questions, or even topic at some point in the process. A willingness to receive feedback, pivot, and stay focused on long-term goals makes challenges and change much more manageable.

COVID-19 also presented many challenges to data collection. For example, our focus groups had to be conducted virtually to ensure the safety of our participants. Communication, waivers, and other tasks had to be completed safely and effectively. My committee and chair provided great feedback throughout the process, which made these challenges less of a barrier than it could have been.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What were your findings and conclusions from your research? How have you applied the insights from your dissertation research to your current work, and has your research helped your colleagues in understanding the role of parent support in ESS education?

The findings from this study made several important discoveries and addressed each evaluation question in detail while using the logic model as a guide to determine the impact of the support group. Our research found that parents of children with ASD reported less stress as a result of their involvement with the autism support group. Parents also reported less stress as a result of guest speakers, group discussions, and social gatherings. Participants reported an impact on their understanding of ASD from participating in the group. They also stated that their involvement with the support group impacted their familial relationships; however, most parents reported that their involvement impacted their relationship with their child more than other familial relationships. Overall, most parents reported that their involvement with the support group impacted access to resources.

We currently have not officially built upon these research findings in my current role; however, it has influenced my daily practices. The research process was an eye-opener that demonstrated the importance of parental support in education. Our system does our best to support our parents and students; therefore, the research served as a reminder to consistently look outside of the box to connect parents to resources. The dissertation process reminded me of the importance of empathy and the need to create equitable opportunities for all students. My hope is that this empathy and understanding will be reflected in my actions, which will then positively impact my colleagues and SWD in our system, state, and country.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] 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. Justin Lindsey] Current and prospective EdD students should be flexible, open-minded, and great communicators. I used my professors, committee, and advisor to guide me through all major decisions at the UWG and would not have finished without their help. Many individuals will compare the process with a marathon; however, I think it is more appropriate to call the process a “marathon of sprints.” There will be moments in which time is crunched, the workload is heavy, and the responsibilities of your personal life will interfere with your academic pursuits. The work will be consistent; however, it will feel like a series of sprints at each major step.

EdD students should take self-care seriously and find a positive outlet for stress. Regardless of the obstacles they encounter, EdD students will be successful if they remain focused on their long-term mission, pursue their research with a purpose, communicate effectively, and remain coachable throughout the process. Everyone has a different journey, but those elements are essential to success for anyone.

[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What have been some of your most rewarding experiences across your career as an educator and education leader? How do you combine community engagement, innovative teaching methods, and partnership building to serve students and parents and optimize learning outcomes?

[Dr. Justin Lindsey] My most rewarding experiences have been those in which I have seen current and past students excel. As an educator, many of our most rewarding experiences are not those that you find on a resume. My most rewarding personal experiences include representing Calhoun City Schools as teacher of the year several years ago and being named a Dennis Washington Leadership Scholar. Engaging teaching methods typically involve strategies that connect the content in the curriculum to the community.

In special education, we strive to offer experiences to our students that take them outside of the four walls and allow them to build life skills, socioemotional skills, and academic skills. I was drawn to special education because I believe that every student can achieve and wanted to help improve learning outcomes through relationships, rigor, and relevance. As stated earlier, I am fortunate to work in a system and state that takes the education of SWD seriously. As we continue on the path to creating equitable opportunities for all, we must address achievement and opportunity gaps by connecting SWD to opportunities outside of the classroom, providing real-life learning experiences, and strengthening the transition process for all students.

Thank you, Dr. Justin Lindsey, for your excellent insight into the EdD dissertation process, as well as your perspectives on impactful special education and exceptional student services programming!