University of South Florida

College of Education

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Alumni Spotlight: Suzette Kelly

Suzette Kelly

Suzette Kelly, PhD

Alumna, MA in Early Childhood Education, `07, and PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, `14

Ever since she began teaching Sunday school students, USF Alumna Suzette Kelly, PhD, knew she would eventually pursue a career in education. While an administrator at a preschool in Jamaica, Dr. Kelly learned about USF’s master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and quickly enrolled.

Her studies at USF continued in 2009 when Dr. Kelly enrolled in USF’s PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Early Childhood Education through the Fulbright Scholarship Program for Jamaican Students (LASPAU), a prestigious scholarship awarded to instructors in higher education so they can pursue doctoral studies in the United States.

Today, Dr. Kelly is a full-time lecturer at Shortwood Teacher’s College and an adjunct lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. She serves as an assessment officer for The University Council of Jamaica (UCJ), which involves conducting site visits to institutions applying for their bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education accreditation through the council.

Why were you inspired to pursue a degree in early childhood education?
My inspiration to pursue early childhood education actually started from Sunday school. I taught Sunday school and they gave me the three-year-olds and then I had the six-year-olds, but I was always given children who were younger than 8-years-old to teach. So, I was inspired to learn how to engage with them more because I felt like there was much more I could do.

What made you decide to choose USF for your graduate studies?
My graduate studies with USF started with the master’s program. USF had a master’s program (in partnership) with Shortwood Teacher’s College (in Jamaica) and I had been working as a part-time lecturer at Shortwood. Representatives from USF came to Jamaica and I was invited to a recruitment meeting.

At the time, Dr. Roger Brindley met and explained the program to us, and I was just sold on this idea of studying with an overseas university without having to leave Jamaica. It really piqued my interest because, at the time, I was the administrator for a preschool here in Jamaica as well. So, staying in that position, getting the opportunity to study without taking a leave of absence, and also just getting my master’s degree with an American university was another level of excitement. It was an awesome experience!

Suzette Kelly with class in Jamaica

Suzette Kelly with her class of pre-service teachers and a colleague in Kingston, Jamaica in 2017.

What did engagement look like for you in your master’s degree program?
That engagement involved looking at our early childhood program as a cultural construct and understanding that what we do here in Jamaica should meet the needs of our Jamaican children. So, I started looking at curriculum through a new lens, and even when we talked about developmentally appropriate practices, that culturally appropriateness element became more important to me. There is no universal child. We tend to study child development theories from western theorists and we’re trying to use those theories to understand the Jamaican child. Usually, there’s a disconnect and that is why we often have a gap in transferring theories into practice because we’re looking at our children through the lens of western philosophers, and we need to start looking through our own cultural lens.

What moved you to later pursue a doctoral degree at USF?
I heard about the Fulbright program and all that it had to offer. Also, having done my master’s degree at USF, I thought it would be a great opportunity. So, this was the opportunity to really be on campus at USF and enjoy the benefits of being a (face-to-face) student. The Fulbright program afforded me that opportunity.

What experiences in your doctoral program prepared you for your work in Early Childhood Education?
Part of the preparation in my program included working as a graduate assistant and supervising undergraduates for their field experiences, which I did prior to starting my graduate program in Jamaica, but not in diverse schools in Florida. I [observed] schools in Hillsborough County and that gave me an eye-opener in terms of the approach we take here in Jamaica and the autonomy that the Jamaican teacher has that we often take for granted. Because (in Hillsborough) I realize that the teachers were held to a lot of paperwork, and not that anything is wrong with that, but there’s an autonomy the Jamaican teacher has as it relates to assessment of children’s learning.

Coming back to Jamaica, I definitely emphasized that with my pre-service teachers. Even though we have high-stakes assessments, the pressure is not as intense. So, we have our national assessment program that the children do as four-year-olds then they do another during their entry into first grade, and one in second grade, but the purpose of it is to inform instruction. It’s not to give the children a pass or fail grade, the purpose of it is to inform how we plan our instruction and to help the children manage the curriculum at that grade level.

I worked with some wonderful graduate students, Dr. Patriann Smith was one of the graduate students that I got a chance to work with and also, Barbara Peterson, Dr. Paula da Silva, and my colleague Dr. Carol Long from Jamaica. It was an awesome experience to learn from them. The discourse we had in our courses (involved) unpacking theories of development and looking at early childhood education as a social construct. It was really interesting, and it somehow allowed me to embrace my Jamaican culture even more because it showed me that there’s so much I could do for our children and our pre-service teachers in terms of having them not just take what’s in the textbooks, but encourage them to be researchers, to become reflective of their own practices.

What are your research interests? In what ways did USF allow you to pursue these interests?
My research interests are technology and how we can use technology as a tool of learning. I studied Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the early years with Dr. Ilene Berson and she encouraged me to pursue (topics on technology) for my dissertation. My dissertation looked at perceptions and beliefs about technology in a Jamaican school. That has led me to look at our context here, and even though in this context of remote learning, I realize that our teacher education program needs to look more at ICT in the early years. They do technology in education, but our program needs to look more at how ICT affords learning opportunities for children in the early years and not just technology for education. I am currently working on the IRB for a Jamaican research study with Professor Jaipaul Roopnarine of Syracuse University. This study will investigate family relationships, personal functioning and childhood development in Jamaica.

What makes you passionate about your work?
I’m passionate about my work because anything I get involved in, I’m engulfed by it. I’m passionate because I love children. I don’t have any children of my own, but I’ve been a nanny for my nieces and nephews, and they have been like my children. So, from my Sunday school children to my nieces and nephews, they have inspired me to do better. When I interact with my student teachers, I say, ‘you can become the teacher of one of my nieces and nephews’ and unexpectedly, one of my student teachers had my four-year-old niece in her class. My niece was so inspired by this student teacher that she came to visit me on campus one day and she had me walking around the campus trying to find her. My niece told me, ‘she’s a good teacher!’ and that made me feel good…If I can inspire teachers for my own nieces and nephews to tell me that they are good teachers, I think I’m on the right track in terms of helping to prepare pre-service teachers for the classroom.

What do you aspire to accomplish in the near future?
So, one of the things I want to accomplish is to inspire my undergraduates to publish their action research. They’re asked to do action research in their final practicum and at this point, they’re seeing it more as a stress than as an opportunity. What I want is to help them understand that as teachers they are researchers. Once you put the time into this action research with the children, you should take it to the next stage by sharing it with others through conference presentations or in NAEYC’s (National Association for the Education of Young Children) journal publications. Ultimately, the focus is on using teacher inquiry to improve their classroom practice.

Students at Shortwood Teachers College

Students in the Curriculum for Lower Primary class at Shortwood Teacher’s College conduct model teaching with the 5 E's approach to lesson planning.

In what way do you feel like you’re making a difference for today’s students?
What I help my student teachers understand is that the children are depending on us to do our jobs well. As a teacher educator, I take it seriously because how well I help to prepare the next generation of teachers is going to have a ripple effect on the young children in the classroom. So, I don’t want them to only see this as a job that you get paid for, but to be very passionate about the decisions you make about your lessons, the decisions you make about your instructional materials and the decisions you make about how you interact with children’s families.

Just last week, I started looking at skilled dialogue, a framework for working with diverse families. I started talking about that with my School Family and Community Relations class because even though we’re all Jamaicans, let’s not ignore the fact that we all have differences. So, there’s diversity in our classrooms because the children are from different social and economic backgrounds, your funds of knowledge as a person are informed by all the experiences you’ve had over the years. Sometimes, there’s a clash with that in terms of what you’re sharing with the families and what they are hearing from you. So, when we resume classes next week, we will continue that discussion by looking at skilled dialogue strategies to help us to do better in (three key qualities): respect, reciprocity and responsiveness.

What’s your advice for someone who’d like to pursue a path similar to yours?
One of the things I would encourage is to go for it. I think studying outside of your culture challenges your dogma. It really helps you to see that things are not always black and white, there are shades of grey in-between and a number of things you think you know, you really don’t know. So, don’t be afraid to take on challenges, and don’t be afraid to work with people who have different ideas than your own. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your culture and engage with others, because I think your education truly begins when you start learning from people in other cultures.

USF's Early Childhood Education program prepares students to become knowledgeable, responsive, and innovative professionals who are committed to creating dynamic and stimulating early learning environments with an emphasis on inquiry, creativity and reflectivity. Our program offers a bachelor of science degree and concentrations in USF's Curriculum and Instruction program at the MEd and PhD levels.

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.