Affiliated Faculty: Inside the Mind of Dr. Olga Jarret
Dr. Olga Jarrett is a professor of Early Childhood and Elementary Education in the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State University. The Crim Center’s Director, Dr. Brian A. Williams, sat down with the award winning professor to discuss her research, issues impacting urban education, and her ideas about the solutions to some of the critical challenges facing educators today.
Brian: You’ve had a really successful career in education. Can you talk about how you came to be in this place at this moment in time?
Olga: Oh my. That’s a long story. I started out in history and political science at Penn State. I wanted to do something that was going to be significant in improving the world and decided that learning about government policy and politics was the way to do that. Then I joined the Civil Rights movement, and spent a year working in the South in 1963. After that, I went back and finished my Masters, and taught at one of the Penn State campuses. Then, I got married and moved abroad.
Our family moved to Barbados for four years, and Belize for two. I decided that a specialty in politics with an American slant was not helpful in the international world. Our kids were young at that time, so I started doing volunteer work in childcare centers. I ended up directing a daycare center. I came back to the United States and decided to work on my doctorate in Early Childhood and Elementary Education here at Georgia State.
We then moved to Germany for eight years and I taught with Boston University’s overseas program. During that time, I became more and more interested in science education. When we moved to Illinois, I started taking science classes. I’d taken some science classes, but not subjects like Geology, Physics, or Biology. Later, when my husband was transferred back to Atlanta, I applied for a faculty position here at GSU. I have been here since 1994.
B: So you’ve seen Georgia State change.
O: Yes, it has grown tremendously. I’ve seen a lot of changes.
B: One of the things I admire about you is just how broad your interests are. You’ve been involved in a number of research areas and fields. Can you take me through the list?
O: Well, I’m a rock hound. I’ve gotten involved in puppetry. I was doing pottery making for a while. None of those led to research interests. [Laughs] Many of my research interests are related to play. That was my major interest in my doctoral work. I was interested in the parts of scientists’ backgrounds that help them become interested in science. I was looking at the play-science connection. I’ve also done research on the importance of recess and what happens when children do or do not have access to recess. Those have been my two major research interest.
Out of my work with the Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, especially my work with preparing teachers to work in high poverty schools, I’ve gotten very interested in how to empower both teachers and children. I’ve been doing a project with my students called the problem-solution project. That work has become a book. I’ve also done research on bullying. This research is connected to the research on play in various ways. Many of the people who are doing research on recess have become interested in bullying research because the playground is one place where bullying sometimes occurs.
B: For some people this idea of having all these different interests, even though they’re connected, seems unfocused. For you, I feel that there is some purpose behind this. What is encouraging you?
O: I tend to follow both my concerns and my interests. Some of this comes out of my personal interests and curiosity. I’m still trying to make the world a better place, and I’ve decided education is the place to do that; especially science education. I think that’s a way to get kids really interested in learning.
When I applied to be full time professor, I was told that it is helpful to have a real research focus. As I moved through my career, I realized that these research areas really do fit together. Play is an important part of development. It is also critical in learning science. If you’re in a school that doesn’t have recess then you’re missing out on an opportunity for both physical play and socialization. When kids don’t have a chance to play, then bullying takes place in other places such as the bathroom where teachers are less likely to be supervising closely. You see, a lot of these things are connected to each other.
B: Another thing I’ve noticed about your work is that there seems to be this theme of social justice, fairness, and equity that connects everything that you do from your teaching to your research. I’m interested in knowing where your passion for that particular area comes from?
O: I’ve been interested in it for a long, long time. It goes back to my childhood. I lived in a downtown area where there was typically, if not white flight, more socio-economic flight from the downtown area. I went to a school that was considered high poverty. It served a lot of immigrant children. The school was about half Black and half White, so I grew up with a lot of diversity. In high school, I was concerned about fairness. In college, I participated in my first demonstration which was picketing a barbershop that wouldn’t cut black students’ hair at Penn State. I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening in the middle of Pennsylvania.” Now, I have a mind to write a book on play and social justice because I think there is a social justice issue with who is getting good play opportunities. Social justice is a long deep seeded concern of mine.
B: You were actually honored this year with the MLK Torch of Peace Faculty Award for your work with social justice, right?
O: Yes, I was. That is one of the most important things that has happened to me. I really appreciated that.
B: The last thing I would like to ask you.. The people who work in the field of urban education are very passionate about it. What do you think are some of the critical issues right now in urban education?
O: The tendency for teachers in urban schools to be less experienced. I think experienced teachers are definitely needed in urban schools. The focus on testing, which I think kills curiosity and interest in learning. The tendency to make learning paper and pencil. If you think of the kids who are in high poverty schools, they tend to be kids whose families have not had money to take them to museums, travel, and do other things that would increase one’s vocabulary and view of the world. More money needs to be spent on field trips and experiences for kids instead of more paper and pencil task and memorization for the test.
B: How would you change things?
O: Oh boy! At a very fundamental level instead of getting fewer resources, these schools need to be given major resources to counterbalance the whole history of inequality. That’s a big place where I would start. I remember when we had the war on poverty. Somehow that dissipated without a truce. No peace treaty. It just faded. I think society needs to take much more seriously the inequities of the past and try to do something about that. Another area that I am concerned about is the school to prison pipeline. I think the prison system has become big business and we need to change our policies about non-violent crime and do more to facilitate positive involvement in neighborhoods instead of locking people up.
Support the work of Dr. Olga Jarret by purchasing her most recent book, In the Service of Learning and Empowerment, also co-authored by Vera L. Stenhouse, Dr. Rhina M. Fernandes Williams, and Dr. E. Namisi Chilungu. Purchase a copy here: Service Learning Empowerment .