SPT: What was the driving force or inspiration to pursue your Ph.D. (which is the highest academic degree a person can earn in the USA)?
Chelsea: In first grade, I knew wanted to be a teacher. After high school, I went to Valdosta State University and earned a bachelor’s in early childhood education.
I then went on to work on a master’s degree in early childhood education at The University of Georgia. Before completing my final coursework, I decided to follow my heart and pursue my career in special education by attending Vanderbilt University. After applying, I found out that if I were a research assistant, I could earn my master’s degree in early childhood special education for free. And so, I did! During my coursework, I had the opportunity to participate in a few research projects. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed research and knew this passion would eventually lead me to a doctorate program. But I also knew I needed teaching experience before I could apply.
After graduation, I spent the next five years working as a special education teacher. During the spring of 2020 I realized that the time had come for me to apply to a doctorate program to earn my Ph.D. I was accepted at Georgia State University in 2020 and recently completed a Doctor of Philosophy – Ph.D., Education of Children with Exceptionalities, specializing in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and teacher preparation.
SPT: Who were your top supporters on “Team Chelsea” while you were working on your doctorate studies?
Chelsea: My husband, Tony, has always been my biggest supporter. He pushed me out the door for the interview and never wavered in giving me his 100% support. Even when I had moments of doubt about completing the program and taking a break from a paying job, he never doubted our decisions. Kinley, our three-year-old daughter, was also an amazing team member. Since most of our classes were virtual, she was in her infant seat and then nearby through most of the classes. My classmates watched her grow from infancy to toddlerhood on Zoom. Kinley was screaming with excitement and pumping her little fists at the graduation ceremony.
My parents, Steve and Cindy Jennings always supported me to pursue my dreams. They instilled a strong work ethic in me and my sisters. They encouraged us to work hard and aim high. Of course, my sisters, Jessica and Shelby both listened to me during the tough times and celebrated with me during the good times.
My in-laws, Kathy and Joe Marelle, were super supportive with childcare when needed. They even let us borrow their car on occasion since Tony and I had decided to only maintain one car until I was working again. And last, but far from least, were my classmates and countless friends who listened and cheered me on. Everyone who was there for me played an important part in my success and have my heartfelt gratitude.
SPT: What was the topic of your dissertation? Why did you choose this topic?
Chelsea: The unofficial version of my dissertation topic is “Special Ed Teacher Preparation Using Simulation Technology.” What this means is that I want to train and better equip “preservice” special education teachers in classroom management skills. By using a virtual classroom with students who have different personalities and varying levels of behavior, the preservice teachers can practice their classroom management skills in a realistic setting. And the best part is that when they mess up or do not use the “correct” technique, there are no serious setbacks or consequences because it is a controlled environment.
Here is the official version:
Using Simulation Technology to Train Preservice Teachers in Classroom Management
Abstract: This study used a multiple baseline across behaviors design to analyze the effects of didactic training plus simulated rehearsal and feedback on a preservice teacher’s implementation of behavior management skills (i.e., opportunities to respond, behavior specific praise, token reward system) with students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Results indicate a functional relation between the intervention package and increased fidelity of implementation for all three behavior management skills. Participants reported positive perceptions and experiences of the use of simulated classroom environments like TeachLivE as a training component. Implications for future research and practice are provided.
SPT: What are some of life’s simple pleasures you will be enjoying again now that you have earned your Ph.D.?
Chelsea: Well, I recently went to Target and bought two books to read for pleasure. I am looking forward to reading them while we are on our upcoming family vacation to celebrate our six-year wedding anniversary. We love spending time at the beach and so that is where we are headed! And, yes, I will be leaving the laptop at home.
SPT: What are your career plans now?
Chelsea: I am going through the interview process to become a university faculty to teach and continue in my line of research. I am passionate about improving special education teacher preparation while they are completing their university programs and before they are in a “live” classroom. It was my own struggle that inspired me to pursue ways to give preservice teachers realistic practice opportunities in a forgiving environment. Once they become teachers and are teaching in an actual classroom, this is no time to practice classroom management skills. It is too late and can lead to frustration for the teacher, their students, and parents.
SPT: How have you grown as a person during your special education career and studies?
Chelsea: After my two years at Vanderbilt University, I was hired as a special education teacher. I spent five years teaching and quickly discovered that my students were resilient even though the odds were stacked against them. Every day they broke down barriers. To be honest, I was not a great teacher at the start. I struggled to find my way and to find my own identity as a teacher. I was shown a lot of grace from students, their parents, and my coworkers in the early years. My students showed me unconditional love even on the hard days. I learned to give myself grace, too. I had to learn that I do not need to be perfect to still make a positive impact.
When I was teaching in Little Rock, Arkansas, I had the same ten children for two and a half years covering kindergarten to third/fourth grade. I will always cherish the memories of my time with this group of students. It was during this time I truly felt like I was making an impact. My students accomplished goals inside and outside of the classroom that were beyond the expectations originally placed upon them. For example, doctors told the parents of one student he would never be able to learn how to read. I’ll never forget the moment we got to tell his mom he had learned his first 10 sight words. She was brought to tears and overjoyed by his accomplishment, but I knew that was only the beginning for that student and for all of my students. Their potential to succeed in the classroom was off the charts and I enjoyed the opportunity of supporting them to reach that success.
I knew I was passionate about research, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it! I realized that while I will be teaching teachers, I am being given the chance to have a greater impact and reach. I am not just teaching future special education teachers about classroom management, but better preparing them to be their best for their students for however many lives they will touch over the course of their careers.
My life motto is “Always walk through the open door.” I have used this as a motto my entire life. If I had not walked through the open door at Vanderbilt, I would have never received an education from the top special education program in the country. If I had not walked through the door at Otter Creek Elementary into a position that I was not sure would be the best fit, I would have never met the ten students who had the biggest impact on my teaching career. I stuck to this motto throughout my PhD program and was blessed with more opportunities to grow and explore topics with world renowned faculty members than I could have ever asked for.
I must add that earning this PhD has not always been easy. There were tough times that my family had to face with our daughter’s health and moments where I second guessed putting my family in a position to have to make the sacrifices we did. Over the past three years, there have been what I call “God winks,” where I found a little sign that confirmed we were on the right track and to keep me pushing forward. For example, my advisor is a rockstar academia mom who has shown me grace and flexibility while also trusting me to work on some big project with her. She has been an amazing role model of how to balance the academia world and still be an incredible mom. My first year, I was a GaLEND fellow which paid for my first year of school and gave me an opportunity to learn more about advocacy for people with disabilities. I have also had the opportunity to travel to multiple conferences across the country to present my research and network with other researchers.
How do your academic achievements and experiences help shape your leadership role with Special Pops Tennis (SPT)?
As mentioned before, I am a GaLEND alumni, which is a one-year interdisciplinary training experience that prepares tomorrow’s leaders to provide coordinated, culturally competent, and family-centered care to children and their families. Through this experience I learned a lot about advocacy. This experience impacted my leadership role with SPT because I now have a passion for advocating for our Athletes to have a voice and a “seat at the table.” I have used my voice for advocacy by sharing monthly features of our Athletes on social media and highlighting events all year round. It is important for me to show the world that our Athletes are amazing individuals and are accomplishing great things on and off the court.