Graduate Student Spotlight: Award Recipient & Recent Graduate Donna Kozak

Our 2019 Doctoral Studies Outstanding Dissertation Award recipient is Donna Kozak with her dissertation on Parents with teachers re-authoring the home-school interface: a critical participatory action research study.

A familiar face around UBCO, Donna Kozak (or Dr. Donna Kozak we can officially say!) has been an adjunct professor co-teaching a literacy course for our Bachelor of Education students for seven years – and prior to that had been teaching a language and literacy course for our year one Elementary Teacher Education Program  (ETEP) students from 2008-2011.

In 2012, Donna was approached to develop a Central Okanagan School District/UBCO partnership to create a Learning Centre focused on language arts and literacy for the then ETEP – and now Bachelor of Education students. It may have been hard to believe back then that that partnership would lead her to inspiring change in parent-teacher partnerships. Her journey to pursuing her PhD through Interdisciplinary Studies at the Okanagan School of Education is one that she calls a “gift.”

When Donna began her PhD, her initial research sought to answer a question she had reflected on for nearly her entire three decade career.

“In all my years as a teacher, I wondered about how we position ourselves with parents as partners, because there’s the assumption that we’re partners in children’s education. So my wonder led to let’s figure out historically why parents and teachers, home and school, are positioned the way they are.”

Following the completion of her initial research, Donna asked herself, “Now that I understand why this relationship exists the way it does, could my research disrupt that? Could it suggest to the profession that there is another way for parents and teachers to interact and what it might take for that to happen.”

Thinking outside of the traditional research box, Donna engaged in critical participatory action research for her dissertation.

She approached teachers from Kindergarten to grade four and asked them to invite one or two parents per classroom during that academic year to join a committee. A total of twenty-five teachers and parents then co-created a learning community that met on five occasions over four months. Through guiding questions, they shared their stories, experiences, and knowledge which led them to better understand each other’s perspectives. Ultimately this transformative research experience had them disrupt how parent-teacher relationships have been historically and unquestioningly defined.

While reflecting on her experience, Donna remarked that her highlight was being true to participatory research by taking a step into the unknown and trusting the process.

“The unpredictability of it and how well it turned out. That was a highlight,” she says with a laugh and further explains that her theoretical framework was the concept of third space, where combined diverse voices resulted in a new hybrid form of knowledge. “Everyone brings a different perspective and out of that diversity, something new is born.”

She has two pieces of advice for prospective graduate students:

One, find a supervisor that really believes in you and supports you, and is on the same page as you.

“Know your people that are surrounding you. If your people aren’t aligned with you it can cause some heartache and problems. So surround yourself with people that really understand and support you and that you connect with. “

Two, have patience and be kind to your self.

“I really chunked the journey. There are definable steps that you take within the PhD program so I always took it one step a time and that was more manageable because to think of the overall big picture was really scary,” says Donna. “Find what works for you – a study schedule, setting short term goals and celebrating the goals when you’ve achieved them. It’s on your mind 24/7 so I found I worked best in chunks of time and gave myself a rest – or tried to give myself a rest.”

Donna crossed her last milestone off her list after she crossed the stage in June, 2019.

You can read her thesis on Parents with teachers re-authoring the home-school interface: a critical participatory action research study online.