Heather Olson Beal is an assistant professor of education at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She blogs at Doves and Serpents. (Dr Olson Beal is the seventh academic profiled in the “Women in the Academy” series, which Elizabeth Pinborough started in February 2010.)
BA – Spanish with a minor in sociology from BYU
MA – Modern Language (Spanish) – Texas A & M University
Ph.D. – Curriculum and Instruction – Louisiana State University
How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?
After an absurdly terrible student teaching experience in Orem and West Jordan, UT, I vowed never to teach a day in my life. Then reality set in and I needed a job, so I decided to give teaching one more shot, hoping that if I could set up my classroom the way I wanted it (as opposed to the way my student teaching “mentors” wanted it), then I might like it. So I did and I loved it. I loved the subject area (Spanish) and my high school kids. They were aggravating, energetic, myopic, winsome, egocentric, and funny (so funny). I laughed more as a high school teacher than probably ever before—and that’s saying something because I laugh a lot! I enjoyed teaching high school, but moved on after I had my second daughter because I foolishly thought I would try my hand at being a full-time stay-at-home-mom (ah, the naivete of youth!) and because I wanted something more flexible.
I taught Spanish at LSU for three years. Being an instructor at a university was great in many ways. I probably worked 25 hours a week, which was perfect as I was juggling my job with an infant and a toddler. It stretched my knowledge and skills, which can be both enjoyable and painful. It was also really crummy in other ways. Instructors were never asked what we wanted to teach and were not allowed to teach anything other than the first 3 Spanish courses in the sequence. The tenured (or tenure-track) faculty didn’t even bother to learn the names of the instructors and adjuncts. I started to get the sense that second-class citizenship would wear on me after a while.
Geography dictated my choices at that point. Because my husband was a faculty member at LSU and because we were happy there, LSU was the only option I considered. So I gave birth to our third child in February and started the Ph.D. program in June. Thanks to a lot of help from my husband, a lot of work on my part, and an unknown amount of luck, I completed a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction in 2008. I ended up settling on a dissertation topic that merged all my interests: a case study of a Spanish/French foreign language immersion magnet program that was all wrapped up in school desegregation efforts and school choice.
What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects (papers, books, dissertations, etc.)?
I’m in my third year as an assistant professor, so I am still working on milking my dissertation for all it’s worth (and then some?). I have gotten a few publications in (not) competitive outlets, but since I’m at a teaching school, that’s okay. This year, my goal is to re-tool my dissertation and get a book proposal out and see if I can get it picked up.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?
Largely because of the discipline I am in (education), my experience as a woman in the academy has been great. I have heard horror stories from women in the hard sciences, though. For me, my research and teaching interests are very intertwined with my family life. I have three little lab rats (ages 7, 10, and 14) who go out into the schools every day and report to me at the end of every day. I share my kids’ experiences with my students every day, which I think helps them see that what we are doing in class is very pertinent and real—and it is. Any of my students could graduate and become my son’s 6th grade English teacher or my daughter’s 9th grade algebra teacher. So I take it very personally.
My children are welcome in my building. Sometimes I bring them up to my office when they are sick and set them up with a blanket and a movie. I have brought them to class with me as well. That’s not my favorite thing to do (by a long shot), but I’ve done it because I had no other choice. My 5 year old was once watching Shrek with headphones in the corner of our classroom. My students were amused because although he wasn’t talking (which I had forbade him to do), he wasn’t stifling his laughter, so we kept hearing audible laughs from the back corner during the funny parts.
I am able to—within reason—request class days and times that work well with my kids’ schedule. I am now teaching a couple of online classes, which gives me even more flexibility to work after the kids are in bed, etc.
In your field who are some women (living or dead) you admire? Why?
This is a tough question. There are many people whose work I admire. Here are a few:
Deborah Meier – Meier has done a lot of really good work in creating small schools in urban areas with low-income students that many others have dismissed or deemed to be “uneducable.” Not only has she written about this topic, she was the principal of one such school (Mission Hill) for eight years. She also writes an interesting weekly blog with Diane Ravitch in which they offer a point/counterpoint on current educational issues. Both of them write in a very accessible, enjoyable way without sacrificing the meat of their opinions.
Annette Lareau – Lareau is a sociologist who focuses on the ways in which social stratification influences the educational process for children. She has published numerous studies and several books that compare and contrast the ways in which low-income versus middle/higher-income families negotiate their children’s school experiences. Her work is fascinating and eye-opening to me.
For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books you would recommend on the subject?
- Jonathan Kozol – anything and everything! His seminal work is probably Savage Inequalities. I have read it several times. It never fails to madden, disappoint, and sadden me.
- Deborah Meier – The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem and In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (This is a great read!)
- Annette Lareau – Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life and Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education
- Diane Ravitch – Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education
- David Labaree – Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling (haven’t read this yet, but want to!)
- **Larry Cuban & Dorothy Shipps – Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable American Dilemmas
- Carl Bankston & Stephen Caldas – A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana
- Kluger, Richard – Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality
- Levine, Ellen – Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories