Youngest Ed.D. sets privilege aside to tackle 21st-century teaching
Walk into Sneha Sharma’s Colton High School English class and you might be hard pressed to find the teacher.
It’s not just because Sharma, a petite 25-year-old and reportedly the youngest person to complete Brandman’s Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership program, could easily be mistaken for one of the students.
It’s also because the classroom is very much 21st century and abuzz with students perched at high interlocking tables strewn with Chromebook computers and textbooks.
A student is as likely to be talking as Sharma even as she walks them through the beginning of a drama unit. Make that students, because they could be discussing answers among themselves. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, students were trying out different scenarios for saying “Hi Mom and Dad, I’m home”: a bad grade, a forgotten birthday, a new car in the driveway.
She’s not in Irvine any more
Sharma grew up in Southern California but not Colton. She moved to Irvine with her family when she was 12, and, like so many other Irvine families, the decision to move there was based on finding good schools.
“I was a pretty slow learner all the way up to the end of high school,” said Sharma. “I had very little self-confidence.”
Still, she was a strong enough student to get admitted to UC Riverside and it was there, she said, that she realized she had “always lived in a bubble.”
“I started to think about why do I have this privilege – an upper-middle-class family, educated parents, all these resources. I kept questioning my own privilege. I didn’t earn it,” said Sharma.
That questioning and a strong desire to give back drew her to teaching. She finished her bachelor’s degree at UCR in three years then enrolled in the university’s master’s and credential program. The Colton school district hired her to teach English at its oldest school.
Unlike Irvine, which went from being a single-owner agricultural town to a bastion of planned communities, Colton was born with the coming of the railroads in 1875. “The Hub City,” as it is known, remains a crossroad for both railroads and freeways. And while Colton has more than doubled in size to a population of about 55,000 since the ‘70s, Irvine is 20 times as large as it once was with a university and median household income of nearly $100,000 compared to $38,000 in Colton.
None of that made Colton less appealing to Sharma, although she admitted she didn’t know It existed before she began working there three and a half years ago. She was attracted to the small town feel of the city, but the adjustment wasn’t without a few difficulties.
“This is totally different than where I want to high school. The families aren’t that affluent. School isn’t always a priority. Parents are working three jobs, and there all sorts of issues,” said Sharma, adding, “I really love what I do. I think what I love most are the students, even on their bad days.”
Outstanding in more than one way
That answer doesn’t surprise Jonathan Greenberg, her cohort mentor in the Brandman Ed.D. program.
“She really wants kids to be successful. She’s not willing to give up on any student,” he said.
While Greenberg enjoys telling people he mentored the program’s youngest graduate, he’s equally proud of the growth he saw in Sharma, not just academically but in her ability to work with other people to create change.
“This program is about developing transformational leaders. You can’t be that by yourself,” said Greenberg. Her ability to accept students where they are and as they are sets her apart from many others, he said.
“I became much more conscious of how I make other people feel. I started to value connections more,” she said. “I’m not so much in my own head.”
A few minutes of watching her in her classroom confirms that. She roams from table to table, smiling at a student’s sarcastic remark and then redirecting him to the assignment. She offers words of encouragement while simultaneously reminding another to take his headphones off.
She credits the program’s emphasis on emotional intelligence and the requirement of working with a cohort for her growth. “When it comes to working with people, I feel like I’m so much better at that. It introduced the whole idea of being able to stand your ground but still be respectful to disagree without being disrespectful. I found my voice.”
Sharma says she loves being in the classroom. She is putting what she learned both from her dissertation topic (How teachers develop positive relationships with their students in partnership with 21st-century learning in exemplary schools) to work in her own classroom and to help other teachers adjust to new teaching methods at Colton High School.
“When you’re in the classroom and doing staff development, you’re taken more seriously. Teacher leadership is really important,” she said.
Greenberg said that while many of those currently in the Ed.D. program who are teachers have their sights set on becoming school administrators, he thinks Sharma is destined for an even wider net when it comes to educational policy.
“I can see her working in D.C.,” he said.
Sharma said completing her dissertation was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Coursework for the Ed.D. ended in June and by December, she was defending her dissertation. For the moment, she’s enjoying a renewed sense of energy thanks to the gym membership she promised herself as her incentive to finish. But the learning never stops.
“I still love reading. I’m spending a lot more time educating myself about education,” said Sharma. “I never forget that I am super privileged.”
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