Ph.D candidate, Education
Photo courtesy of Jake Ivany
Teacher, Researcher, Scholar and So Much More
by Amelia Hamfelt, August 2014
We hear the statistic everyday-the average person changes careers three times throughout his or her life. This fact has almost become an adage in our contemporary society. Yet, despite its commonality, what remain elusive are the reasons that precipitate such a trend.
Jeff MacCormack, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, asserts that unhappiness or stilted ambitions were not the reasons for his life altering career move. After nine years working as a certified teacher, he still loved his work. He knew teaching was the career for him, only that the job he held could not answer some long lingering questions plaguing his mind.
At the age of four Jeff’s daughter was diagnosed with autism. As a parent he was forced to navigate the educational system to ensure his daughter received the classroom instruction she required. What became evident was that the teaching structures in place for special needs students were in need of improvement. More than that, Jeff witnessed his daughter reduced to a diagnosis whereby her strengths were readily overlooked and her deficiencies became the focus.
Upon realizing these realities of special needs education, Jeff sought to enact change within the system he was already a part of. He took on the role of a special education teacher and found himself re-learning everything he thought he knew about teaching.
“In a classroom with four Educational Assistants and six students who were non-verbal or partially verbal, communication became paramount,” says Jeff. “The challenge was working to create an environment that was inclusive, which meant that every special needs student was meaningfully integrated, not only with their peers in the classroom, but also with the community at large.”
The experience taught Jeff that the problems he sought to address went beyond classroom dynamics, which is why he turned to higher education. Yet, when faced with the decision of which school would be best suited to his post-graduate aspirations, Queen’s was not the obvious choice. In comparison to the University of Toronto and Western, Queen’s appeared quaint and isolated, but as Jeff insists this is part of the university’s charm.
“Queen’s appears as a small university,” says Jeff, “but the institution truly offers the same opportunities as a big university. I feel as though I’ve stumbled into a remote apple orchard with a basket too small to hold all I would like to try. The opportunities are really that numerous.”
The final deciding factor was meeting Dr. John Freeman, his supervisor, whom Jeff describes as “a truly wonderful mind and beautiful person.”
Now that Jeff is settled within the Queen’s community, with a mentor he admires, the changes he has so persistently sought have truly started to take place. His research spans many topics including: social skills interventions for children with autism, emotional well-being and rates of physical activity of school-aged children, the use of interest-based programs to increase motivation and the effect of morphological instruction on elementary aged children. He is a project manager for the Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG), as well as an instructor for the Continuing Teacher Education (CTE) and a research associate at the Centre of Teaching and Learning (CTL).
Jeff’s passion for his work is ceaseless. His desire to improve the lives of school-aged children defies rigid categories that traditionally designate an individual’s field of study. His passion, however, burns brightest when he speaks about the advancements being made in the education of autistic children.
“For years behaviorists asserted that the only way to enable the development of an autistic child was to remove their fixation.” explains Jeff, “What this meant was that the child may have been taken away from an activity that interested him or her and forced to focus his or her attention on subjects chosen by the educator. What we have since learned is that the opposite is true. Allowing an autistic child to learn through their fixation does not hinder them, but fosters motivation and instills in the child a desire to learn.”
What makes Jeff a unique student is that he is not merely a student. He is a father, a teacher, a researcher, and a scholar. The multiple roles he inhabits with ease can be clearly demonstrated by his most recent award. Jeff is the recipient of the Christopher Knapper Award for Teacher Assistant Excellence. He received this recognition for his work in Dr. John Freeman’s PROF 100/101 Critical Issues and Policies.
Jeff’s accomplishments are varied, but all relate to his main goal, which is simply to teach others in the way they are best taught. So when faced with the same question as to why a person changes careers, the simple answer must always be what Jeff embodies, that is, an irrepressible desire to pursue one’s passion.