The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Finding a Good Fit Meant Staying in Motion


February 20, 2019

Malcom Birnell, who graduated from Chinook High School in 1990 and whom many will likely remember as Willie Birnell, is poised to earn his doctoral degree. When the process is finalized, which he hopes will happen by April of this year, he will be Dr. Birnell, with a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership with a specialization in Curriculum and Instruction.

Birnell updated his chair and committee members in January, and one of them conducted a review of his dissertation and edited his front matter, after which the document was submitted for final review from the University of Phoenix (UOPX) Library.

Before a doctoral student can apply to graduate, the UOPX requires a dissertation to be accepted by the library's Assistant Dean of Operations and then published. Birnell has successfully defended his dissertation and his committee has approved it, but now he has to endure the wait. Often, the process will involve questions and suggestions for revision or refinement, since the dissertation process is anything but smooth and easy.

Originally Birnell started his doctoral journey because he believed a doctorate would help demonstrate a solid background and knowledge in curriculum and instruction so that he could be a better administrator and instructional coach. "I wanted to demonstrate to other teachers that I had a level of knowledge in education beyond a Health and Enhancement undergraduate degree and a master's in Education Administration Leadership. I also have to admit I wanted to prove I could actually do it. This degree journey really was more for me than anything else," he said.

Birnell will apply his degree in the education field as Building Principal, Curriculum Coach, and Curriculum Specialist at the district or state level. In time he may teach at the university level. "I have several ideas that I have been toying around with: 1) start my own charter school, 2) co-author a book on teaching interventions for students with disabilities, and 3) develop a service that teaches school administrators how to work with law enforcement on school discipline-related issues. Time will tell, I guess," he said.

"As my degree has pushed my thought process, I have begun to view problems differently and to understand data and the drive to dig deeper to discover why something is occurring. It really has allowed me to make data more user-friendly for other teachers and to help drive change to improve student learning and their school experiences," Birnell added.

When asked about the most challenging or daunting aspects of acquiring a doctoral degree, Birnell responded: "My biggest challenges have been time management and balancing grad school with my personal life. I never seemed to have enough time to write while completing course work. Probably the biggest challenge was telling my family that I could not join them on trips and vacations as the writing of the dissertation consumed a huge amount of time in my day to day life."

But he laughed and was quick to celebrate the rewards: "My most rewarding aspect is that I actually did it, and I must say, I like the sound of Dr. Birnell!"

While a high school student, Birnell doubted his intelligence because he I struggled. "I didn't think I was smart enough to actually graduate with any college degrees, let alone a doctorate. I had a lot of friends that seemed like learning was easy for them, and at times my struggle frustrated me. I know it sounds somewhat irrational, but I had an IEP for reading in elementary and middle school and struggled with reading. I opted out of these accommodations by eighth grade and I had to find ways to keep up in classes like English and History, which required a lot of reading," he reported.

Those early experiences have made him a more empathetic teacher. "I taught my students who struggled in class the same skills I used to overcome barriers and watched their confidence grow," skills like finding key words in questions, consulting the index, skimming, searching for key terms. One of my favorites is using a tool in Word-the readability statistics. This helps students work on vocabulary and sentence structure to strengthen their writing.

I wish that tool had been available when I was in high school. I was pretty insecure with my writing, Birnell said.

To anyone else who may be seeking an advanced degree, Birnell offers this advice: "There will be a ton of roadblocks, but you will create the biggest ones unless you are patient. You also have to believe in yourself and take all feedback as constructive to strengthen your research and writing as well as to motivate and push you."

Birnell lived out that advice himself, as his previous educational experiences and his circuitous route to arrive where he is today weren't exactly idyllic. After graduating from high school, Birnell had a track scholarship to the University of Montana, but he didn't follow through on that path. Instead, he worked various jobs, ranging from a grocery store clerk to an oil rig roughneck.

In 1992, he joined the Navy on a two year active, six year reserve enlistment and was stationed at what was then the Naval Auxiliary Air Station Miramar in San Diego. While on active duty in Fallon, Nevada, Birnell met Karen Shobe, who returned to Montana with him at the end of his active duty in February of 1994.

With his mother Nancy Birnell still living in Chinook, his younger sister Peggy Nault living in Havre with her husband John Nault, and additional family members in Billings, Helena, Missoula, and Hamilton, a return to Montana seemed natural.

Birnell enrolled at MSU-Northern that same year, and the couple was married in 1996. Eventually, they had four children: Zac, Calli, Gage, and Shane. Birnell served in the National Guard until December of 1998 when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education and Health, which is now referred to as Health Enhancement.

In August of 1999, he began his first teaching position as a physical education and health teacher in Lolo, Montana, where he taught seventh and eighth grade physical education and health as well as coached track and boys' and girls' basketball. During that time, he enrolled in a master's program in Education and Supervision through the University of Phoenix so as to earn the credits required to recertify his teaching license. He completed that degree in 2005. Although the couple divorced in the 2004 and Karen moved to Arizona in 2005 with the children, Birnell remained in Lolo until 2007.

"The agreement was that the children would come to stay with me in the summers because I was coaching multiple sports and, sadly, I was a workaholic," Birnell lamented.

Because being away from his children was intolerable, Birnell moved to Arizona, where he again worked as a middle school and high school teacher in the physical education and health departments with Florence Unified School District for two years. While living in Tucson, Birnell roomed with Aaron Johnson and socialized with Scott MacKenzie, two former Chinook High School mates.

Birnell began his doctoral journey in 2007, but that lasted for only a year. He stopped out because at Florence High School, he was building the high school track program from the ground up, a process that ranged from designing the track and ordering equipment to coaching athletes.

Because that project was consuming all of his free time, in 2009 he decided to apply his master's degree and took an Assistant Principal and Athletic Director position for Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby, Montana, a position which lasted a year. The isolation of a small town and an uncooperative board prompted a move back to Arizona where Birnell accepted a position as Dean of Students and Athletic Director for Indian Oasis School District in Sells, Arizona, for two years.

By 2012, Birnell was somewhat disillusioned and chose to leave education and become a corporate trainer. He was later promoted to corporate recruiter for Kroger, currently #17 on the Fortune 500 List but then #23. During that time, Birnell met his current wife, Staci Hobson, and decided to return to education because he considered the corporate world unfulfilling.

He resumed his doctorate program and moved from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Kansas City in 2015, a move that was in part prompted by proximity to his wife's family. He spent his first year in Kansas City as a Health Science Teacher. A year later, he applied for and was hired as the Dean of Students for a high school in Kansas City, Kansas, Public School District (KCKPS) 500. In May of 2019, he will have been employed with KCKPS for four years.

Although his journey has been a colorful one, Birnell has served in the education profession for over 16 years as an educator and school administrator, and he continues to enjoy working with teachers and students to develop quality classroom instruction. These passions led to his dissertation research, which involved his conducting a quantitative correlation study to determine if there is a relationship between student achievement and the year students were assessed pre- and post-Common Core State Standard (CCSS) implementation.

His research is important to education because school districts and teachers are held accountable for all student achievement. Because much of the research that has been conducted on curriculum alignment primarily focuses on instructional content delivered in the general education setting, the roughly 15 percent of the student population that receives special education services has gone unaccounted for. However, under the CCSS assessment guidelines, these students will now spend most of their learning experience in the general education setting and must demonstrate knowledge on state assessments. Although Birnell's hypothesis was that special education students are not exposed to nor have they received adequate instruction with a regular education curriculum to be successful on state assessments, the major findings of his study revealed a significant correlation between the implementation of CCSS and eleventh grade student achievement scores for students with learning disabilities.

With his study, Birnell hopes to encourage education professionals to begin discussions about instructional practices and curriculum alignment for students that fall on the fringes of the learner spectrum while still meeting rigorous grade level standards.

Birnell claims that his doctoral experience not only taught him to analyze student data and to interpret it but gave him some strategies for sharing that data with colleagues and teachers. Armed with data, teachers can develop instructional strategies and sound classroom practices that promote student learning.

Along with helping others in his school setting, Birnell began to view things differently himself. Looking at situations through an investigation lens enables him to identify what might be the reason something is happening. He also sharpened his ability to self-reflect and is more comfortable receiving and giving critical feedback to colleagues and education administration to help improve both student learning and the learning environment.

"The dissertation and research process have opened my eyes to multiple issues in education. For example, much of the current research focuses on the middle of the bell curve, leaving opportunities that need to be addressed on each end. If educators truly want to close the educational gap and increase student achievement, we must focus on all students throughout the learning spectrum while utilizing research-based instruction practices," Birnell concluded.

"As I moved around, I was looking for the school that fit my educational philosophy and personality. I enjoyed the diverse experiences that working in different districts provided me. Moving to Kansas, I was fortunate enough to find a high school that feels like family and a position that allows me to work with and help guide students. Unfortunately, with my doctorate, remaining a Dean doesn't fit the degree or my desire to grow professionally, so I may need to look outside my school and district for my next opportunity," Birnell said.


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