By Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.
I pushed the remote that moved my PowerPoint presentation to the final slide, which said, “Thank You.” I exhaled, more than likely audibly. My dissertation defense was complete. I looked at my committee, which comprised three of my professors from the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago. Now, the questions would begin.
Somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes later (I can’t remember exactly) my dissertation chair, Dr. Marla Israel, looked at her colleagues Dr. Janis Fine and Dr. Theresa Fournier. They nodded to Dr. Israel, who asked my family, two dear friends, and me to leave the room. We filed into the hall and waited while these three women discussed my presentation and responses to their questions.
It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. I had poured hours and hours into this work. It was a commitment of our entire family. My Wife would push me downstairs to the basement, immediately after dinner, to my home office. I had promised myself and my children (then four and two) that I would never say, “Daddy can’t play with you now. He has to work on his dissertation.” Thanks to My Wife’s parenting generosity, I kept that promise.
I couldn’t stand still in the hallway. I paced back and forth and, at times, peeked into the room. But I could not see my committee. I hoped the conversation was positive, but I had no way of knowing what they were talking about.
As I continued to pace, I heard someone say, “Dr. Israel is coming,” and sure enough, the door opened, and she walked through it. As she approached me, Dr. Israel extended her right hand to me and said, “Congratulations. Dr. Ricca.” I shook her hand, and she pulled me in for a hug. I passed my dissertation defense!
I passed my dissertation defense. I did not earn a grade. How is that possible?
This was, by far, the most academic work I’ve ever done. I began my coursework in the fall of 2004, well before my graduation date in 2011. For several semesters, the only course listed on my transcript was “Dissertation Supervision” while I was writing chapters. I would write a chapter, or in some cases, part of a chapter, send it to Dr. Israel, and she would send back edits. We would follow this pattern until we both agreed the chapter was complete.
The reason dissertations are a pass/fail endeavor is simple. Despite the years of research, family sacrifice, and effort, it’s about the learning. It’s not about the grade.
As presented to me by Dr. Israel, a dissertation is about standing on the shoulders of others or carving out a niche that others have yet to fully explore. My dissertation examined the relationships between male early elementary educators and their building administrators. As a former first-grade teacher and someone who grew to a leadership position in education, I saw possibilities to explore. Since I was creating a new space for educational research, none of the members of my dissertation committee were experts in this area. I was the expert in the room.
Returning from the winter holiday break, we still have almost 60 percent of our teaching and learning time together this year with our students. I hope that we can prioritize learning over grades. Grades are important and have their place, and I feel we place too much emphasis on them. Get good grades in middle school to be sure you can take the right classes in high school. Get good grades in high school to be sure you can get into a good college. Get good grades in college… finish that sentence?
My report cards are tucked away in a shoebox in my parents’ attic. It took me three tries to get a 1040 on my SAT, back when there were only two sections. I have been happily married for almost 20 years, and I have two children who bring me pride and joy. I have a job that doesn’t feel like work.
It’s not about the grades.
Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.