By TIFFANY STOIBER
UNK Graduate Studies
KEARNEY – Aprille Phillips comes from a long line of teachers.
Her great-grandfather was a teacher and principal. Her grandmother was a teacher and so was her mother.
So, Phillips went to college certain that, “I’m not going to do that.”
Decades later, Phillips has proven herself wrong.
Today, she is an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, with experience teaching in multiple states, in a second country, and now researching how Nebraska might be able to solve the problem of people not wanting to be teachers.
Phillips ended up adding a major in education toward the end of her undergraduate career, pairing it with her English major and Spanish minor “just in case.” She didn’t end up using it right away, working several years in jobs outside the classroom at first.
Then came an opportunity to teach English in the Dominican Republic, so Phillips packed her bags and headed to the Caribbean.
While teaching in another country came with challenges, Phillips found she loved working with students.
“It’s just always so unpredictable. The things that they bring to you are so creative and sometimes challenging. There’s never a dull moment. I’ve never been bored in the field of education,” Phillips said. “And then getting to see students over time grow and develop and learn things. And the long-term relationships. I’ll get a message from a student out of the blue that I had 15 years ago. That ability to build relationships and a community in a classroom is my favorite part.”
When Phillips returned to the U.S., she took a job teaching at Bryan High School in Omaha. She was able to take some of the skills she learned from being a non-native Spanish speaker in a Spanish-speaking country and apply them as an English as a second language teacher.
That experience made her even more curious about how students develop language proficiency and how schools might better support students who are not only learning content such as math and science, but a new language and culture on top of it.
“I had questions around the ways that students experience school in more than one country, and how that impacted their overall educational achievement and their educational identities,” Phillips explained. “I had questions around how teachers could be better equipped to work with trans-national students and how educational systems could be better equipped.”
That’s part of why Phillips started pursuing a master’s degree: to find answers to those questions.
Ten years after graduating from Hastings College, Phillips earned her Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 2017, she got her Ph.D.
Propelled through school by one question leading to the next, Phillips hasn’t stopped asking about how schools can better teach students and how educational policy can set schools up for success in those endeavors.
“When you look at my research, you can trace it back to experience or practice. Things I was doing in my jobs. Most of my questions, as a researcher, have been out of questions I had while I was teaching. It was even my whole purpose in pursuing graduate work,” Phillips said.
Phillips is soon to release a book that summarizes 10 years of research examining how Nebraska’s state interventions played out at the Santee Sioux Reservation.
“It highlights not only some of the challenges that we face in policymaking, especially policy that’s intended to support students on our Native American reservations, but it also talks about what’s possible. Like what would it look like if we had more culturally responsible policymaking? … How do we design those and take into account cultures and backgrounds that shape those people groups?’” Phillips explained.
While Phillips’ research explores a multitude of different subjects, this theme is at the core of her research: How does legislation from the government impact what happens in schools?
Then, more importantly, Phillips strives to make recommendations when there is a disconnect between that policy at the highest levels and how that policy is carried out, or not, in the classroom.
That’s the challenge her research targets to solve: How do we make it fit?
“I love when there’s an opportunity to take what we’ve learned with implementation and then to be able to have a conversation with a legislator, to share information back to the state boards, at least to give that opportunity to make it feel like we can make policy better,” she said.
NEW TEACHER SUPPORT
Much of Phillips’ research involves sitting in classrooms, observing how policies are enacted, as well as interviewing school faculty. She also sits in on many school board meetings, at the local and state levels, to see the whole process from top to bottom.
She has made several recommendations to the state school board, education commissioner and Nebraska Legislature.
While policy changes are often slow, someday she hopes to see the process come “full circle.”
One of her projects that may come full circle sooner rather than later is related to the Nebraska teacher shortage.
Phillips, along with UNK faculty Chandra Diaz, Janet Eckerson and Chelsea Feusner, is currently working with a cohort of new teachers, along with local school districts and the local Educational Service Unit, to determine what systems are needed to help new teachers stay in the profession.
This work is funded by a grant through the Nebraska Department of Education, as the teacher shortage is such a pressing issue in the state. For the 2022-23 school year, survey data from NDE showed that more than 750 positions were unfilled with fully qualified personnel, with more than 200 left vacant entirely.
“Anecdotally, what we hear is that when teachers feel like they’re part of a strong school community and they have the support of their principal, that can make a really big difference because they feel like they are integrated as a part of that community,” she said. “Even when things can be challenging, as they have been post-COVID, they have support around them, and they feel like they are immersed in that community.”
While the research project is only in the early stages, Phillips looks forward to the solutions they may uncover to help Nebraska keep its teachers.
“Hopefully we’ll have some really good things to share,” she said.
Title: Associate Professor, Educational Administration
Education: Ph.D. in educational studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2017; Master of Arts in education, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2011; Bachelor’s degree in English and education, Hastings College, 2001.
Years at UNK: Two
Areas of Research/Specialization: Intersection of theory and practice in the following areas: Education Policy, American Indian Education, Transnationalism and Education, Constructions of Space in Educational Anthropology
Courses Taught: Current Issues in Education, Supervision of Instruction, Legal Basis of Education, The Principalship, Field Study, School Improvement
Recent Published Articles: “Agency in Constrained Academic Contexts: Explorations of Space in Educational Anthropology,” Lexington Press, 2021. “Misguided Assumptions of Students’ Geographic Stability and the Educational Consequences,” Journal of American Indian Education, 2022. “Linguistically Responsive Leaders: Responding to Multilingual Students and Their Families,” Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 2022.
PHOTOS BY ANA SALAZAR, UNK GRADUATE STUDIES