Meet Jennifer Bessolo: An ELPS Leader and KU Program Director

Video Transcript

0:00:05.9 Jennifer Bessolo:
Hi, I'm Jennifer Bessolo. My official title is Professor of the Practice. I teach for and coordinate both the master's and doctorate program for educational leadership and policy studies at KU. My start in education came as a teacher, so I was a high school English teacher and coach at both the collegiate level and then at the high school level for coaching. And I just really wanted to expand that into leadership, and so I quickly became assistant principal, principal, and then most recently in the K-12 sector became a district leader. So I had several titles, including director of curriculum, federal programs, title services, and so on. And then meanwhile, I was also finishing and completed my doctorate degree at University of Kansas in Ed Leadership and had been teaching and adjuncting classes for them in the Masters of Educational Administration program. When I got the call that there was an opportunity to apply, and so it was a bucket list opportunity that I was... It was easy to make that transition, although I do miss K-12 leadership. For me, I believe the most meaningful aspect of being a program director is getting to do both of the things I love the most, which is the administration part that comes from my love of organization and leadership at the principal and district leadership level.

0:01:31.0 Jennifer Bessolo:
So I still get to do those administrative tasks and coordination, get to work with a lot of people, and just get to see the fruits of everyone's labors come together. And you mix that with my second love of teaching and reaching others, and I can't think of a better opportunity than to help oversee and lead others who want to be in these similar leadership positions. So for me, it's the best of both worlds. Oh, so for me, the question was relatively easy. I'm what we call a townie and born in Kansas. So I grew up in the same school system that I was most recently a leader at the building and district level. And then I had spent some time away and led and participated in school leadership and teaching in several other states. And we chose to come back home, this being my hometown. But I also received my doctorate degree in educational policy studies here from the University of Kansas. So when we talk about quality or what it's like to be in the program, I often talk very specifically and authentically because I was in that student seat and I know why I chose KU and I know what KU has to offer. So being on the other side of recruitment and even explaining what our program offers, it's a very authentic joy that I bring as I describe the program.

0:02:51.0 Jennifer Bessolo:
For me, this is luckily an area that I really enjoy participating in between the internships that we offer as part of our program. It keeps us really connected to the field as we work with other principals and district leaders as our students are out there participating in these internships. So for me, that's a really great way of keeping connections that I already have as I've been in the field and luckily, fortunately built a network of building leaders. It's also really exciting to see some of our leaders that are local, those leaders I'm able to keep in touch with and perhaps even have other internship students work with our excellent students. So in that way, that's really helpful. In other ways, I still participate in a lot of the state-level and even some national-level conferences. I also participate in some local Kansas-led principal and district leadership meetings. And so I always write my title and program director of just as another way to let people who might not know who I am know that when I'm participating, here's the hat that I'm wearing. So I think it's really important.

0:04:05.4 Jennifer Bessolo:
I also participate in some mentorship with different... Right now is through Greenbush, they have me coming in working with Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, for example, doing some mentoring of principals that are new to the field, maybe their first or second-year positions that have the degree, but they're still navigating what that professional journey looks like. So it's been my pleasure to actually be boots on the ground, as well. And then even my student school, they've had me come in from time to time and talk about scheduling or give them some different ideas based on my background. So it's hard for me to turn down an opportunity to engage in schools, but I feel like that relevant connection is what keeps our program even stronger.

0:04:45.6 Jennifer Bessolo:
I think that's a really good question and a really relevant one. Students are finding the best experience for them. I would say a lot of it comes down to what we offer, which is a really good blend of meaningful asynchronous learning. So we are very much in tune to what a 21st-century graduate student looks like and what those needs are. And a lot of times it really needs a flexible schedule and a very timely on-demand schedule in terms of assignments and feedback. So we do offer that through our asynchronous program, but we also offer top-notch instructors. So for me, it was really important that I was learning from some of the best in the field. And for our master's program, that includes practitioners who have been in the same seats of our students that are pursuing this degree. So we have former principals, we have current superintendents that are teaching these classes that are about as real and relevant and timely as you can get. So when we think about the nationwide scope of our program, we really think about meeting not just the needs in our local and regional area, but what that leadership level looks like. So we do mix that in a blend of some of what makes KU KU, right, being a rich, rigorous program, but the top-notch in terms of some of the research and relevant information, and theories that apply to leadership.

0:06:04.5 Jennifer Bessolo:
So when I think of our program, I think of just a really, really competitive, progressive, and, aware of where our students in the field are right now, as teachers, maybe aspiring leaders. So we're constantly tweaking it to try to make it the most and, I would say the most relevant and the most really progressive for what our students need and want. We want them to brag about our program and be happy that they're there. So one of the things I really love to talk about with our program is we have a very unique simulation and it's called Jayhawkville. And what that is is a school district that is comprised of schools just like any other school district is, but it specifically houses student data, information, demographics, and all relevant pieces that students that are heading into this field will need to use and apply in real life scenarios. And one of the feedback, pieces of feedback we continue to get from our students that they really appreciate and enjoy any kind of case studies or scenarios where they get to be hands-on with a situation, data, or something that's gonna simulate what leadership is actually like in the field. So we've been able to replicate that through Jayhawkville without having people try to divulge too much information perhaps from what they're doing in their current district, and we can all look towards this one data source for very different assignments.

0:07:32.5 Jennifer Bessolo:
So Jayhawkville is something that any of our courses are able to use as they write and utilize assignments, and we continue to add to it. So it has multiple dimensions. So we continue to think about ways to make this real life and as applicable to this next student future leader as possible. We even have personalities of principals that tie into what makes a good leader and different leadership behaviors that we can analyze and synthesize. So all that is really unique to our program, but in addition to that, we are offering an asynchronous program. So we have a lot of flexibility. We have essentially modules built within a one-week time frame. So students have some flexibility within that week to get the assignments in. We have just the on-demand content that's there. So a student may work best at 11 o'clock at night. They may work best at 5:00 AM. So we don't have those time requirements where they're maybe having to give up a coaching job to be a part of our program. So we really try to be sensitive to that as well as a lot of our program participants that might be parents or being... Think about parents who only have a few hours in the evening to spend with their kiddos sometimes.

0:08:45.7 Jennifer Bessolo:
So we offer that flexibility with prompt feedback from our instructors and grading assignments, as well as some live videos and ways that they can engage with their instructor, in addition to office hours and email communication. So we're really proud of that fact of that. We also have kind of a constant evolving of our courses. So as we think about new things that are hitting our future leaders and teachers right now, the pandemic being one of them, making sure that our course content is current so that we're reflecting that. The social justice issues that are happening in schools and it's something that leaders face, we really try to include it all when we think about preparing our future leaders. So for our internship program, we have an opportunity for students to go out in the field and experience several leadership areas. There's nine different leadership areas, including safety, security, social equity issues, general leadership, instructional practice, even budget finance issues. And so they are required to spend a minimum amount of 10 hours in each of these fields, knowing that some opportunities will garner them more hours than others. But essentially they get to work underneath a principal of their choosing or school leader of their choosing and really gain some real-life experience.

0:10:06.1 Jennifer Bessolo:
And so that is just the general foundation towards licensure and towards the program experience that we aim for. Meanwhile, during that internship experience, we allow students to start that when they're just halfway done with the program, or if it's a building certificate, two classes in, which really allows them an opportunity to complete quality opportunities over a longer length of time instead of just one semester. And feedback from students has been really positive that this is something that they feel like is doable on top of working as a full-time teacher or a full-time educator. And so with that, they're able to gain these experiences over time. Some of you have been led summer school opportunities and collect these hours in a non-stressful way. And then they put this all together in a digital portfolio that is also used as a marketing tool for them. So it's essentially kind of a digital resume where they can submit that to any school or school district that they're applying to later on. And it just shows them just that progressive edge that I had referenced earlier of how do we make our graduates stand out. And so they're able to show this beautiful portfolio at the end with all of their experienced reflections, artifacts, pictures, portfolios, and we guide them through that process.

0:11:22.2 Jennifer Bessolo:
In the final leg of this internship, we also support our students through a 16-week course that's part of the program. And that allows constant feedback. They get portfolio feedback from a longtime former principal and those who work with principals now mentoring in the field. So they get very hands-on timely feedback that they're creating that portfolio, I just mentioned, in the best light possible so that they are constantly benchmarking towards their final project. So it's also the culminating activity, so it's a very relevant experience. There's not a big final exam at the end of the program. Their culminating activity is essentially what they've been, an application to what they've been studying through the two years. So we've heard that it's some of the best preparation they've had is they get to just experience things and do so with some choice and some time to get it done. The exciting thing about our program is that it's always evolving. We really rely on student feedback, both informal and formal, to kind of help shape the nature of the program. So what we are looking at from a curriculum lens is just making sure DEIB, so diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging issues are just at the centerfold of who we are and what we do and how we're preparing future leaders because it is such a critical element.

0:12:47.3 Jennifer Bessolo:
So constantly thinking about evolving our course content and thinking about what future leaders need and how they need to be equipped is a really key component of kind of how we're thinking about preparing our future leaders. It's critical for us also to be thinking about the instructors that we put in classes. We want only the best and continue to hire the best. So as we build those networks in the field, even our dean is very invested in the program and will let me know if there's a perhaps a superintendent that we need to pull into a teaching component. We're also doing some exciting things with Grow Your Own Programs where we're working and partnering with school districts in terms of building a way that they can identify their own future leaders, partner with KU for the content and the experience and degree and help with licensure. And then they can essentially kind of build their own leadership team. So that's a very new and exciting partnership we're doing. And then we're continuing to add on to Jayhawkville. So this idea of the simulation and having schools that we can pull information from and have students apply their own thinking and analyzing. We're continuing to build into that. So we're kind of re-envisioning what Jayhawkville can be and what that next dimension of technology could be as we really evolve and improve our program. So the constant tweaking is what makes us, I think, a cut above. And it also keeps it exciting.

0:14:23.9 Jennifer Bessolo:
I think a positive to the way that we offer our program is that there is flexibility built into the program. So we do have some milestones just for prompt feedback and to help keep students on track with the program. But a unique aspect of that is that we have seven-week courses that run one at a time. Excuse me, seven to eight-week courses are about seven and a half weeks long. So with the course link that we offer, it allows for students to one class at a time, but in more depth in a shorter amount of time. And we've heard positive feedback about the way that we schedule those classes. So two classes a semester, and then the seven to eight-week classes built in. So a positive there as well is that the asynchronous feature allows for that flexibility so that they may be able to work on something during their plan time or during... If they're a morning person or afternoon person. So we hear a lot about that, it also enables them to be parents, it enables them to have coaching opportunities or some other maybe family obligations. So that part has been definitely a positive. We continue to think about the time commitment and we do share that. Our modules say this week will take approximately six to seven, eight weeks of... Excuse me, I'll start over.

0:15:39.4 Jennifer Bessolo:
Our content modules will share that the time dedicated to each week is approximately six to eight hours. It just depends on, you know, people's individual reading styles and paces, but the module content is there. So while those are recommended timeframes, I would say some students can get it done in shorter amounts of time. There's usually a paper project every week and then some reading and modules to engage with online. So again, it's all at the pace of the student within that week before content is due. And we build it so that content is due at the end of the weekend, understanding that our graduate students are most likely working full-time as well.

0:16:20.9 Jennifer Bessolo:
Yes. One of my favorite experiences is when I get the email that our former students have landed their first assistant principal job or principal job. I've had a few students phone back, email back, and ask about further experiences. What's your doctorate program like? And this is great. And this is so much... It's even better than what I thought it was gonna be as a master's and graduate student. So I think that's some of the best feedback that we can is that we've built those relationships that not only do they want to share that exciting news with us, but in many cases, they're okay with us sharing it on some of our social media platforms or some of those pieces that we can highlight and celebrate them as well. We've also had some of the best compliments.

0:17:07.0 Jennifer Bessolo:
We recently had a student who just finished recommended. So now his colleague at his high school is in our program as well. And that happens quite often is it's our program just really... There's a lot of word of mouth. So we might have two or three of our program students at the same school, and it might be halfway across the country. So I think that's testament to maybe what KU offers and the quality of the instructors and the content that we offer in a way that's packaged, that it's palatable for working professionals with families or other dynamics and obligations. So those are some of my favorite experiences is hearing back from our students and just the sheer joy of getting that next professional journey, that next promotion in their career.

0:17:52.6 Jennifer Bessolo:
When I think of our program, I truly think about a transformational experience. I think we really talk a lot about that bigger view. So you come in typically as the teacher or educator specialist of some kind, and you have a very experienced but maybe more narrowed focus of what education is. And so if we do our job, which we typically, I think we have in the past, we open up that lens. So we think about the organizational view and this transformational experience about what it's like to be a leader, and not only to view our leaders with critical eyes, but also practice those leadership theories, those leadership behaviors, and put them into practice.

0:18:40.1 Jennifer Bessolo:
And so one of my favorite things is when I hear back from students after their internship that this is harder than I thought, but this is really cool. I can make impact. And so that to me is when we've done our jobs, is when students come out of our program with a different lens, a different perspective. And often, I would say, we come out a more humbled version of ourselves because leadership is hard, and to do it well is difficult, and it's working with a lot of stakeholders. So if we have anyone that may come in thinking that leadership might be authoritative or a position of power, I think that transformational experience helps really kind of shift their thinking into more servant leadership and how do you make impact and how do you inspire and motivate because it's just a different time to lead right now. So if we do our job right, transformational experience.

0:19:36.5 Jennifer Bessolo:
Anyone considering our program, I would at least give us a call, email, talk to some of our former alumni that we can put you in touch with. But if there is any inclination of... Or desire to perhaps start, I would say at least give it a try, talk to us, we can answer questions. One thing that I hear a lot is, "Well, I'm too young, I have to wait." Or, "I don't know if I could do that," or, "I see what my principal does, and I don't think I have the stomach for that." But I would... If there's a remote interest, I would really look into that and explore that and maybe we can help explore what might make you interested and help go in that direction. Our program also doesn't mean you have to become a principal. There's some other components to the program that we could talk through about like a non-licensure component. So if there's any interest, I would say it's a good organizational leadership program as well. So we would be happy to talk to you. We're a very friendly bunch, very approachable. So I would encourage any conversation, any interest, anytime.

0:20:44.8 Jennifer Bessolo:
My name is Jennifer Bessolo. My title is Program Coordinator and Professor of Practice for the Educational Leadership Programs at the master and doctorate level at the University of Kansas. And my credentials include a bachelor's degree in English, a master's degree in educational administration, and an educational doctorate degree in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Kansas.