Cultural shift fuels graduate's fire
Dionne Cross Francis came to the United States from Jamaica to teach high school mathematics, but she quickly learned that teaching is not a universal art.
In her new job, she realized she had more questions than answers -- what makes kids not want to come to school? How do you teach a class that is performing on a lower level than it should be? To help answer these questions, Cross Francis (Ph.D. '07) found her way to the doctoral program in the University of Georgia College of Education's educational psychology department. During her studies in applied cognition and development, she found a focus for her research and continues her work as an associate professor of mathematics education at Indiana University.
"I work mostly with teachers and trying to figure out what are the factors that influence how they teach and what motivates their instructional decisions," she says. "It starts with what are the struggles the students are having in school and how does that relate to teacher practice. What can we do better to address their needs?"
Through her research at UGA, Cross Francis says she investigated ways different learning environments support learning, and the ways a teacher's beliefs or preconceived notions affected what and how he or she was teaching. For example, sometimes a teacher is intimidated by the expectations of high- quality teaching, or simply lacks confidence. All these factors influence how material is taught, and therefore how students learn.
"So through my research I realized it's not one set of beliefs, it's a range of beliefs, as well as other factors that shape the teacher," says Cross Francis. This could include the relationship between the teacher and the principal, the influence of parents on the instructional process, and the community's perception and expectations of the school and the students.
One of her mentors at the College of Education was Denise Spangler, an associate dean for faculty and student services and a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education. Spangler says she enjoyed Cross Francis' enthusiasm and willingness to work as a team to get things done.
"Dionne is a thoughtful scholar who brings her teaching experience and her research knowledge to bear on problems of practice," Spangler says. "She is an incredible collaborator as she is willing to lead, to follow, to pick up the slack, to motivate the team, and make sure things get done. And she has a lively personality that makes her fun to be around."
One aspect Cross Francis particularly enjoys about her research is the ability to blend education, research and service. She has two research projects in the works that are heavily based in professional development, engaging teachers in video discussions that provide a window into their practice, specifically how they interact with their students and support them through the learning process. The videos are also shown to her students -- pre-service teachers -- who get a glimpse of real-life issues that come up in the classrooms.
"The pre-service teachers are learning about the problems of practice, and it gives them a better sense of what teaching might be like," she says. "We show them practices that aren't very supportive of learning, and those that are."