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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘I Really Like Working With In-service Teachers Because I Remember Being There,’ Says Vance Kite ’18MED, ’21PHD

The first time Vance Kite’s career in education intersected with NC State University was when he was a science teacher in Durham Public Schools. Kite was selected to take part in the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, which provides professional development for educators by connecting them with STEM industries. 

He remembers driving out to the program’s weeklong retreat in Cullowhee, North Carolina, wondering if he really wanted to devote a week of his summer to talking about education. When he arrived, however, he discovered an opportunity for professional development unlike anything he had previously experienced. 

“What I realized is, I had found my people,” Kite said. “I had been around teachers, but being around the fellows, who were some of the best teachers in the state, was inspiring and motivating in a way I had not experienced before.”

The experience encouraged him to experiment with a flipped classroom and 3D printing, which led to him being featured in The News & Observer and being nominated for North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

A few years later, a conversation with College of Education alumna Rebecca Hite ’16PHD at a Kenan Fellows alumni event inspired Kite to pursue his doctoral degree and, in 2021, he became a graduate of the Ph.D. in Learning and Teaching in STEM science education program area of study and received an Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award.

Kite’s work with the Kenan Fellows has now come full circle. This summer, he was named the program’s director, and he is looking forward to providing the same professional development to in-service teachers that he first experienced that summer in Cullowhee. 

“Almost everything good and exciting that happened over the course of my career, I can track back to the Kenan Fellows,” Kite said. “That really put me where I am today. And so, for me, it’s super exciting and super humbling to have the opportunity to lead the organization.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

I didn’t choose education. Education chose me. My mom was a teacher. My mom’s been a teacher all my life. My grandfather was a community college teacher. My little sister is currently a high school choir teacher. I come from a long line of teachers. 

I got my degree in biology in Colorado. Immediately after I was done with undergrad — I  had been working at the Denver Zoo, and I thought I was going to work with primates — I took an internship at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, doing animal nutrition. I did that for six months. Then I was pretty involved with a church down there, so for the next six months, I moved to Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. Then I came back, and I worked at the church for two more years and then, right in the middle of the 2008 recession, I got laid off from the church.

I had a friend of mine who was getting ready to leave his teaching position in Orlando, and he said, “Oh, you’ve got a degree in biology. You’ve worked with students a lot. Would you consider doing this?” I said, “All right, yeah, let’s give it a go.” And so I started my teaching career. The first year of teaching is hard for any teacher, but it was a fit. I really enjoyed the students; I loved writing curriculum; I loved engaging students in really rich learning experiences. I did not go through a traditional educator preparation program. I actually didn’t even start taking educator preparation classes until my second year of teaching. In a lot of ways, I got to develop my own teaching style. So I fell into it, and it was a fantastic fit, and I have stayed with it ever since. 

How Education Has Shaped Me:

At this point, I can’t think of my identity as being separate from education. It is what I do. While I was teaching, most of my free thought space was around: “How can I provide rich and innovative learning experiences for my students?” 

Then, graduate school was really interesting because I had been doing a ton of innovative stuff in my classroom, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I actually got the names to put to the things that I was doing. That was fascinating. And in grad school, I learned how to research education. So that really shifted me to thinking about education in a different way, looking at it through a different lens and trying to understand different things about education.

That’s also where it really clicked for me that, while my high schoolers were awesome, I really prefer working with pre-service teachers and in-service teachers. I don’t remember a whole lot about high school, but I remember exactly what it’s like to be coming off of summer break as a teacher, terrified that a new school year is about to start. I know what it is to sit through painful, terrible professional development. Those are still very vivid memories for me. 

I was able to teach undergrads last semester, and I loved it. I love working with pre-service teachers, but I also really like working with in-service teachers because I remember being there. Also, I draw a lot of inspiration from them because I hear what they’re doing in their classrooms and the things that they’re doing with their students and the new things that they’re trying out. You’re making a difference in kids’ lives, and you’re inspiring me, and the world will be better for having you in the classroom.

What I Enjoy Most About the College of Education:

There was a lot that I enjoyed. More specifically, I will never have enough good things to say about [Professor] Soonhye Park, my committee chair, and then also [Professor] Eric Wiebe, who was my co-mentor. Soonhye let me learn research by doing research, and she always treated me like a colleague rather than a grad student. Throughout the course of my time, she was incredibly supportive of my academic development and professional development and even my family life. She really supported me all the way through, and she also did a good job of giving me other opportunities, which is how I got hooked up with Eric Wiebe. 

Soonhye, Eric and I started writing together in 2017 or 2018, working on a study that I had started to put together, and the three of us became a fantastic writing team. I really enjoy working with Eric because he’s always thinking outside the box. He, along with Soonhye, was very good about bringing me onto new opportunities for collaboration, whether it was presentations or authorships or things like that. Those two faculty members were the source of so much of the good that happened in my time as a graduate student. I will likely be collaborating with both of them going forward as director of Kenan Fellows. They’re partnerships that I hope to maintain going forward. 

I also made some fantastic friendships at the College of Education. [Assistant Teaching Professor] Matt Reynolds is a good friend of mine and Dorothy Holley ’21PHD, who was in a ton of my classes, is actually in the cohort of Kenan Fellows for this year. Not many people understand the weird world of academia, much less education and academia, so it’s nice to have some people that you can sit down and commiserate with around long writing deadlines, or data analysis or odd education nerdy stuff. So it’s really cool to have that. Then, I can say that throughout the four years of courses I took, all of my professors in their own ways were top notch. I found something unique and inspiring and thought provoking about each of them. I don’t feel like I had a bad professor in four years, which is nice to be able to say that at the end of your grad school career.

What Others Should Know About the NC State College of Education:

The College of Education is very forward-looking toward what is next in educational research. I also found it to be a highly collaborative space. Anytime I had a question, I could reach out and all of my professors did a really great job saying, “Hey, you should talk to X, or you should collaborate with Y, or you should go to this conference, or I’ll help you secure funding to go to that conference.” 

For undergraduate students, it really is one of the top-notch education preparation programs in the state. Those classes are fantastic. I can only speak personally to the science education program because that’s where I’ve worked and what I know, but Matt Reynolds has really grown that program, and there are a lot of people really excited about the work that is being done with the undergraduate students. Really that’s the front lines — if I were to think about the things that I am excited about that are going on in the College of Education right now, it’s around what they’re doing with pre-service teachers. 

The Last Thing I Experienced That Inspired Me:

We had that week in Cullowhee this summer, and it was the first time I was at an event as the to-be director of the Kenan Fellows. Getting to spend that week with the incoming cohort of 24 fellows, hearing about what they were doing in their classrooms or the ways they were finding to overcome challenges around tech or learning loss from the pandemic or all of the social issues that have crashed in on schools was very inspiring. 

Usually, when you do professional development, if you’ve got a weeklong program, the slope of energy is negative over the course of the week. To watch, over the course of that week, the slope of these educators’ energy and inspiration be positive, as the educators built their networks within their cohorts, as they were exposed to new and innovative ideas that they hadn’t interacted with before, as they received new ideas from other teachers — to see the way that networking with like-minded, highly motivated teachers could inspire educators was incredibly inspiring to me.