Sarah Woulfin

Woulfin Returns After International Sabbatical Trip to Belgium

Sarah Woulfin with the research group at KU Leuven
Dr. Sarah Woulfin with the research group at KU Leuven, fall 2019

Dr. Sarah Woulfin, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, talks about her sabbatical abroad and the relationship between education policy and instruction across the globe.

Q: How did you decide where to spend your first international scholarly visit?

My research on implementation has intersected with that of scholars at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU) Leuven in Belgium for almost 10 years! While in graduate school at UC Berkeley, Virginie März was a doctoral exchange student in my policy implementation research group. She attended KU Leuven, studying with Professor Geert Kelchtermans, a scholar in the area of teacher professionalism and how teachers respond to reform efforts in Belgium. März highly recommended visiting Belgium and Kelchtermans encouraged us to visit KU's campus.

Over time, the three of us have met at American Educational Research Association (AERA) and repeatedly noticed overlap in our scholarly interests, especially our use of institutional theory to study consistency and change in schools. Specifically, Kelchtermans, März , and I use structure agency theory and concepts of micropolitics to study educators' responses to policies.  Based on these interests and connections, we planned my trip.

Q: How long were you abroad and where did you stay?

I spent 12 days in Belgium and was intentionally based in Leuven, to be close to KU Leuven's campus, which was founded in 1425. Leuven, which is about 20 miles away from Brussels is a lovely, fascinating city with cobblestone streets. I greatly appreciated the architecture and public art. I found that Belgium was a nation with great contrasts; that is, medieval buildings plus modern, thoughtful approaches to public transportation and eco-friendly recycling. I enjoyed walking almost everywhere while in Leuven and discovered some excellent coffee shops and local foods, including fries and waffles.

Q: What did you do that related to your research interests?

I had the opportunity to give a lecture, 'The Wild Side: Applying structure-agency theory and micropolitics to understand leaders' enactment of evaluation.' In this talk, I explained key concepts from structure-agency theory and how micropolitics provides new lenses for examining issues of agency. I also discussed major findings from two papers written with UConn's Dr. Morgaen Donaldson and University of Edinburgh's Dr. Sarah Galey. It was necessary to share details on teacher evaluation systems in the U.S. since there are multiple differences in Belgian schools.

Sarah Woulfin giving a lecture on principals' work in implementing evaluation
My presentation on 'The Wild Side: Applying structure-agency theory and micropolitics to understand leaders' enactment of evaluation.'

I also presented my work-in-progress on infrastructure to support the enactment of inclusion reform at a research seminar. Faculty, post-docs, and students gave me beneficial feedback on my methods and conceptual framework. They also made interesting comparisons between the U.S. and Flemish education systems.

I had the pleasure of meeting with graduate students in Education at KU Leuven. We had terrific conversations about their use of qualitative methods and how to link their scholarly interests with issues in the U.S. context.

Finally, I observed a masters-level class on Education Policy, which was covering issues of privatization in the education system. It was fascinating to hear about charter school issues from the European vantage point.

Q: What were the key lessons that you took away from this experience?

My biggest takeaway from my time at KU Leuven was that people are people! That is, although there are significant macro-level differences between the US and Flemish education systems, there are shocking similarities in the on-the-ground work and interactions of educators. For instance, novice teachers across settings may worry about how to work with their coach or principal to improve.

I learned that it's important to carefully define many terms, or jargon, in our education research.

I also learned that cultural differences influence several aspects of the research process, including qualitative data collection techniques like interviewing and observing.

Finally, I unearthed some of my taken-for-granted assumptions about schools, education policy, and scholarship - which was both enlightening and humbling.

Q: How do you plan to use this experience to inform your future research?

I plan to continue applying the structure-agency framework in my research and will apply several insights from this visit. I aim to write a paper on engaging in qualitative research across contexts with Dr. März.

Q: Personally, what was your favorite aspect of this experience?

I enjoyed informal conversations with new collaborators and my favorite part was figuring out how to translate terms and phrases into Dutch or English. It was fascinating to reflect on the connotations of different words and phrases that scholars commonly use. In certain cases, there is not a precise way to translate words, so things are lost in translation.

Sarah Woulfin exploring Ghent, Belgium
"One of my travel rules was to try things that I couldn't do at UConn/in the U.S."

Q: What are your sabbatical goals and how are they coming along?

I feel like I'm making very good progress on several sabbatical goals, though the time is flying by! I was able to do a great deal of reading on organizational learning theory, which helped me better understand district-level change. My current goal is to continue data analysis for one paper on changes over time in a coaching system.

Q: What advice would you give to other faculty interested in a similar experience?

I highly recommend international visits during a sabbatical to notice new things about your work. It was great to engage with people using similar methods and frameworks even if studying different topics, policies, and contexts. I recommend taking the time to absorb different aspects of the University.

Q: What do you want your students and colleagues to know about your experience?

It's refreshing and enriching to work in a very new and different setting. It was rejuvenating, as well as sobering, to carry and present ideas on U.S. education policy implementation. The experience forced me to confront some of the negative aspects of our current approaches to schooling but it also energized me to think about how and why to translate and broadcast elements of my work.  It was a really valuable experience and now I'm noodling about where to go next!

RESEARCH Series: Research to Practice

Research to Practice: "There's a great deal of work being done to improve schools, to make sure that every child has access to positive educational opportunities every day.  I want to make that all more feasible" - Quote by Dr. Sarah Woulfin

For Dr. Sarah Woulfin, the bridge between research and practice is well-traveled. Now in her fifth year of collecting data as part of a research-practice partnership (RPP) with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin says creating an open dialogue between research and practice is at the core of her work.

“I want to try to answer questions that people in the field really care about, questions grounded in real-world issues,” she says. “There’s a great deal of work being done to improve schools, to make sure that every child has access to positive educational opportunities every day. I want to make that all more feasible. Increasing and understanding the doability of reform, preventing overload: those are the big picture goals.” – Dr. Sarah Woulfin

Dr. Sarah Woulfin headshot
Dr. Sarah Woulfin

Broadly, Woulfin’s current research seeks to understand implementation of reforms in educational systems, especially within urban districts. As school districts work to improve, they often use many levers: updating curricula, meeting state accountability goals, implementing new attendance policies and teacher evaluation methods, and more. Woulfin’s research asks: how do both district and school leaders cope with this mixture of reform pressures? How do districts support teachers in the midst of these reforms? How can districts avoid what Woulfin calls the “too-muchness” of reform?

In her partnership with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin is able to explore these questions in real time and from many different angles. RPPs are necessarily dynamic, says Woulfin, and her role is continually shifting. Early in the partnership, for example, she was interested in understanding how Hartford was implementing Common Core standards, a national educational initiative that was adopted by Connecticut in 2010. She learned that the district was mostly using instructional coaches for implementation, so she started researching instructional coaches’ roles and responsibilities in Hartford Public Schools – what kinds of support they received, where they were struggling, and so on. Soon, Woulfin started sitting in on professional development sessions for teachers, offering an extra set of hands and and quick-cycle feedback for the coaches. “It’s an interesting dance,” says Woulfin. “I don’t have authority in that sphere, so what I can do is increase access to useful materials, share my experience from other districts, and be a transporter for different techniques.”

Woulfin’s data collection focuses on the instructional coaches and teachers who are experiencing the reforms and the professional development activities: how they experience the reforms and professional development, what they find challenging, and how the daily realities in their school buildings make it easier or harder to take on the tasks that are expected of them. Within the framework of the RPP, Woulfin is able to put her findings in practice in a streamlined way. In addition to working with coaches and teachers, she also advises district leaders. “It gives me a good sense of what the more macro priorities are,” says Woulfin. “Each role in a district faces a different set of pressures.”

Woulfin’s commitment to bridging the gaps between research and practice comes from her own past; before she returned to school and earned her Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley, she was a teacher and a reading coach herself. When she was deciding to pursue her Ph.D., the research-practice partnership model was still a relatively new concept. Nevertheless, Woulfin found herself drawn to it, ending up in RPP-style projects before she even fully realized how to classify them. For her doctoral dissertation, for example, she conducted a one-year study of a school district; although not originally designed as such, it soon became an informal RPP. “I kept hearing, ‘you’re back?’” says Woulfin. “There’s something unique about becoming fully embedded in a district instead of dipping in for a shorter period of time. People realize ‘oh, she’s really here.’”

Recently, Woulfin had an experience that exemplifies the uniqueness of the RPP model. “I’ve been working with the math coaching team in Hartford, and recently they created team t-shirts for a Hartford schools event,” she says. “After the event, someone emailed me and said ‘we got you a t-shirt, we’ll give it to you next time!’ I had tears of researcher joy in my eyes. It was a huge moment for me: I truly felt like a part of their community.”

Looking ahead, Woulfin is excited to continue her work in Hartford and also to expand a second RPP with Bristol Public Schools. She is also in the conceptual stages of a project that would bring together urban district administrators from across Connecticut in a “community of practice.” On top of her research-practice work, Woulfin teaches in a multitude of Department of Educational Leadership programs: the Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP), the Ed.D. program, the Ph.D. in LLEP program, and the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates (TCPCG). She credits her students, many of whom are school and district leaders themselves, with helping her broker and continue these partnerships. The Department of Educational Leadership is proud of Dr. Woulfin’s outstanding efforts to integrate research and practice in education.