Learning is all about play. With so much importance placed on testing and structured education methodology, we sometimes lose our sense of play but students learn best when the objective requirements of teaching are balanced with their individual learning paths.
Coming from a long lineage of educators, Kathryn McCurdy demonstrates her own sense of play with a sparkly smile and a fast percolating but focused energy. She talks about her childhood years as a daily current of home conversation peppered with classroom stories, school board guidelines, and education policies.
“These childhood memories of teaching experiences shared with the family have shaped my professional thinking. It took me a while to realize it but I now view these memories as little pearls of wisdom that I adapt to current context to share with as a teacher and mentor.”
Kathryn McCurdy earned her Ph.D. in education at UNH in 2016 and subsequently joined the faculty as a Clinical Professor in the Education Department. Although she holds a Master’s Degree of Education from the University of Michigan, teaching was not her first choice. As a teenager attending space camp at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, she discovered a love of mathematics and decided to pursue physics and astronomy as a career. Returning as a camp counselor during her undergraduate years, she realized that teaching was her “happy place”, pivoted her educational studies, and accepted a post-graduate position as a middle school mathematics teacher in Roxbury, MA.
Raised in a tiny town in Kansas, McCurdy knew every student’s family and their connections within the community. The connection between community and education prompted her to apply to the UNH doctoral program with its focus on teacher mentoring and professional development aimed at fostering excellence in the profession. Graduate assistant work with state boards and education committees developed a deep understanding of how schools communicate and collaborate, and she touts the flexibility of the UNH curriculum with its well-structured instructor frameworks.
According to McCurdy, current research shows a troubling national trend over the past twenty years with 50% of teachers leaving the profession within five years, a pattern that inspired her to focus on teacher induction, performance, and retention as a way to stem the tide. One influencing factor is the current career structure that encourages teachers to seek advancement by following the path of school administration, thereby creating an ongoing drain of experienced instructors. McCurdy would like to see professional growth for “master teachers” valued for their expertise and provide a pipeline mentorship for those new to the classroom.
As Director of Mentoring and Induction for Teacher Residency for Rural Education (TRRE) at UNH, Kathryn works with a program that supports graduates through their first two years of teaching with a combination of mentorship, virtual networks, and professional development.
Novice teachers are apprentices in their field who require a multiplicity of support for at least two years to build the confidence required to embrace teaching long-term. Providing mentorship should be a national priority as a way to build a cadre of high-performing teachers in the country. If we want our teachers to be successful in our communities, we need to provide them adequate support to achieve it.
During the public health crisis of 2020-2021, student teachers faced unique challenges from an abrupt shift to online learning, isolation that negatively impacted children, and a complete upending of the usual internship experience. This unprecedented circumstance required a high level of committed mentorship.
"Our students needed a lot of emotional sustenance to help them support their students, families, and colleagues. I am proud of their accomplishments in the face of a global crisis."
Many education professionals who work outside the classroom setting enroll in the UNH Online Master of Educational Studies (MEd) program because it offers a broad reach with multi-faceted career avenues. Because of the online modality, Kathryn emphasizes that ongoing communication between instructors and students is vitally important to success for those using the distance learning model.
The students we know best are those with whom we have open and frequent lines of communication. With ongoing communication, we know when we’re on the same page and when they need help. The greater the communication level, the greater the students’ success.
McCurdy looks ahead to taking on the mantle of Director of Teacher Education at UNH. Drawing fuel from prior experience, she reflects on her mathematics classroom when she first realized that learning is best served by playing with ideas. “Math is about playing with numbers, logic, and number sense. It helps us understand the world we live in, applying a concrete language that builds on children’s natural instincts.”
The belief in playfulness as a critical part of the education process led Kathryn to declare, “I am determined that my children will one day attend the Cosmosphere space camp where they, too, can learn by playing with big ideas.”
Written by Gwendolyn Goguelet