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City High School’s Director of College Access and one of the school’s co-founders, Eve Rifkin, graduated in May with a Doctorate of Education Leadership and Policy from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. I interviewed Eve recently about the intense three-year program and her experiences as a student – and the insights she gained as an educator.

How did it feel to be a learner again?

Eve: It was incredibly energizing. The opportunity to have time and space devoted to thinking in deep and critical ways about what I’ve been doing for the past 20-plus years as a practitioner was profound. I was fortunate to be able to learn from some of the most accomplished scholars in the country about teaching and learning, educational policy, improvement science, and school leadership and culture. It was a real privilege. I am not exaggerating when I say that I loved every minute!

What are you most proud of in terms of your accomplishment of completing the program and earning your doctorate?

Eve: I’m most proud of how devoted I was as a learner. I didn’t used to be the kind of student who went the extra mile. My approach had always been about “getting it done.” That all changed for me during this program. I was motivated to read every page; write and rewrite until I couldn’t get it any better; and engage in the deepest levels of reflection and inquiry. I’m also proud that I was able to maintain a high degree of commitment to my job and to my family. It was not an easy juggling act, but I never lost site of my most important work: to be a mom, a partner, a teacher, and a guide for students as they explored their post-secondary options.

What ‘ahas’ did you have as far as relating to your students and their journeys navigating the world of school?

Eve: I had many aha moments but the one that sticks out the most is my statistics class during the second year. It was, far and away, the single most challenging class I have ever experienced. I loved what I was learning, but the pace was quick and the professor was attempting to cover months of content in three weekends. I cried during the first weekend. It felt like I was watching a train pull out of the station that I was supposed to be on but had missed.

This feeling recurred over and over again during the first few classes – and then I got fiercely determined. I thought, “I am investing a ton of time, money, and energy into this. This knowledge is meant to be mine. I am getting on that train!” I tripled my commitment to studying, went to office hours, and frequently emailed the professor for help. It started to click. I began to notice the patterns. And eventually I earned an A in the class!

Through this experience I developed an enormous amount of empathy for kids who don’t always get things the first (or second or third) time around. It’s demoralizing to watch your peers follow along while you struggle to keep your head above water. When our students start to slip, they are suffering. It’s painful for them. I think it’s important that we reframe conversations about student success. The burden is not just on the kids and them needing to try harder. The burden is also on us – to check in more frequently, to slow down sometimes, to change up what we are doing, and to make sure all of our students are with us. How can we help our students truly own their learning? When they feel the train pulling out of the station, we want them to shout, “Stop! That’s MY train!”

Did your years as a teacher and school leader give you a unique perspective compared with your peers?

Eve: Absolutely. I believe my years as a school-based practitioner gave me an advantage in some ways. I was able to grapple with topics and readings from an authentic place of experience. Almost nothing was hypothetical. And when I engaged in debate with my peers and professors, my stance was rooted in deep conviction. I was also able to change my mind about certain aspects of leadership and school improvement. It’s one thing to form an opinion for the first time; it’s quite another to have a deep-seated belief based on experience and have that opinion challenged and changed. There is something physical that happens in your brain when this happens and it’s thrilling.

I’m glad to have pursued this degree at this particular time in my life, when I’ve had so many years of teaching and leading to draw from. In every course, I was able to leverage my career experience to learn at the deepest levels.

Congratulations to Eve for her successful completion of this rigorous and innovative program for education professionals. In addition to her earning her doctorate, Eve was awarded the prestigious Arville Wheeler prize, given each year to a top scholar in the EdD program and is chosen by the faculty. Clearly, the person leading the charge on college access for all of our students has a fresh perspective and real world experience when it comes to taking on a major academic challenge and excelling and thriving!