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“We are all their advocates”: Q&A with Debra Harper, EdD ’17

By Kara Wyman, MEd April 9, 2018

Making a difference for students sometimes means avoiding a confrontational relationship between parents and schools. Debra Harper’s EdD in Transformational Leadership has given her a broader scope of understanding to help facilitate those relationships.

What inspired you to work in education?

I was on my way to start a fast-track for a bachelor’s degree in nursing while substituting in a small school district. And I kept getting called back, then called for long-term positions in special education. One day the director said, “I know you’re going into nursing, but have you ever thought about teaching in special education? You’re a natural at this. You’re really good.” It felt at that moment like God was playing a very cruel joke on me. I knew then, even though I had never contemplated it before, that I was supposed to do this. I had no idea how to get certified. I had no idea about any of that. It was a very decisive moment.

I chose Concordia because I earned my master’s at Concordia University Texas. And I loved the rigor. I loved the Christian ethics that were the foundation of everything. And I loved everything about my master’s program. So, I really wanted to stay with Concordia for my doctorate because of the quality and the Christian-based education. And Concordia University-Portland is very open, accepting and progressive in terms of staying relevant with what teachers need, as well as recognizing that we come from all walks of life.

How has your educational advancement benefited your practice as a consultant?

I’ve had some teaching experience, and then mid-management, and central administration, but this has given me a better scope of the reasons behind how decisions are made. And that’s one of the things that I talk to parents about. I share the understanding I’ve gained from understanding organizational development in my Transformational Leadership program so that the understanding can help build a bond between parents and schools and districts.

What specific challenges does your area face and how have you tried to address them?

I had a recent client who began by saying, “I want to contract you, to work with you… but a friend of mine told me that advocates will create conflict with the school.” And that’s what some people fear. I had to tell her that while there can be a lot of truth to that, I have a different philosophy. I want to educate you. I want you to know what the school’s doing behind the scenes–not come between you. And, that’s part of what my EdD did for me. It taught me what’s going on in the organization from that side–which I wasn’t exposed to before.

It’s a challenge to help parents to get in a different frame of mind, to not begin by fighting–because the dispute isn’t what brings really good results for their kiddos. And they’re what keep me motivated to keep working in special education. We are all their advocates. And anything positive is moving in the right direction. Any positive outcome, any positive conversation, any parent that’s enlightened—all of that directly affects the student. And all of the positivity possible in the relationship between the parents and the educators positively affects the kids. It trickles down. Every time.

Tell us about a rewarding moment with a student or progress you’ve made.

There have been a lot of big deals. I’ve had multiple kids I work with get into Project Search, an internship program after high school. Kids have to have special needs and start out as interns but something like 90% of them are hired afterward. And they start out with full benefits, full-time, and like $14 an hour-ish. And that’s amazing.

I also have a really funny story. One student with high-functioning autism had huge issues with starting conversations. Yet one day he came into the classroom at the beginning of the day and said, “Miss Harper?” And I said, “yes?” And he said, “Did you work out last night?” I said, “I did.” I had just started the gym about two or three weeks before that. And he said, “That’s great.” Then he added, “Did you work out hard?” I said, “I did.” He said, “Hmm.” And then he looked at me. He looked down and he looked back up and he said, “It’s not working out very well for you, is it?” I wanted to laugh out loud. He started a conversation! But he has autism and honesty is definitely his forte. It was the greatest thing ever. It was so awesome.

I have many celebrations. They might seem small. But they’re not small. Not to my students.

Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and a MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She is now the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland.

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