Women in Academia with Katherine Movassaghi

In our 43rd episode, Sofie is joined by Dr. Katherine Movassaghi, the Head of Upper School at the Episcopal School of Acadiana, to discuss the role of women in academia. Drawing on her 28 years of experience in education, Dr. Katherine addresses some of the challenges that adolescents face in the classroom. Throughout the episode, she also offers advice to women who want to work in education and shares memorable moments from her career.

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About the Guest

Katherine Movassaghi

Dr. Katherine Movassaghi is the Head of Upper School at the Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, Louisiana, which is about 2 ½ hours southwest of New Orleans. Kat has been in education for 28 years as an English, public speaking, and theatre teacher, performing arts department chair and now administration, teaching both middle- and high school-aged students and serving on various committees and teams in all aspects of school life. Kat’s dissertation in educational leadership, received at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette in 2020, entitled “A Phenomenological Study: Intentional Elements of a Landscaped School Campus Reduce Stress in Adolescents,” focused on the benefits of natural landscaping in the reduction of adolescent stress and anxiety. Kat also serves on the National Leadership Team of Kappa Delta Sorority as an Alumnae Experience Specialist. She is married with two daughters.

Website: https://www.esacadiana.com/


Sofie: Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the empowerment podcast. I’m your host, Sofie, and for this episode, we are joined by Dr. Katherine Movassaghi to discuss women in academia. Dr. Katherine Movassaghi is the head of Upper School at the Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cape, Louisiana. With a 28 year career in education, Katherine’s journey has been characterized by a diverse range of roles, from being an English teacher, to public speaking and theater teacher, to now serving as an esteemed administrator. Katherine’s dedication to the field of education is evident not only in her vast teaching experience, but also in her passion for research. Her doctoral dissertation, a feminological study, intentional elements of a landscape school campus reduced stress in adolescence, delved into the positive effects of natural landscaping on the reduction of adolescent stress and anxiety. Katherine has taught both middle school and high school students and served on various committees and teams in all aspects of school life. For young women considering an oath in education, Katherine has an empowering message and tips to share, drawing from her extensive experiences as a teacher, mentor, and administrator. Please welcome Dr. Katherine Movassaghi, everyone. Thanks so much for being with us today, Katherine.

Katherine Movassaghi: Thank you for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

Sofie: It is such a pleasure to have you on. I’d love to start our conversation off with hearing a little bit about your journey and in education your journey has spanned over 28 impressive years and you’ve held so many different roles throughout your career. So I’d love to know what drew you to the field of education and inspired you to pursue that path in academia.

Katherine Movassaghi: So my mother is a teacher, and I grew up in a family of educators. And so, of course, when I was younger, I said, I’m never going to be a teacher. I’m going to go on and do these other things. I had big plans, and then in college I had some different life experiences, and in particular, I staffed a retreat of high school students. And there was some AHA moment in staffing that retreat where I realized I really want to work with young people, adolescents in particular, in that high school age. And so I shifted gears in college toward education, English education in particular, and started traveling down that path and really never looked back. It was always a goal of mine to get a terminal degree at some point. And so I realized that about eight years ago it was time to move on with research in the field of education.

Sofie: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you for sharing your story there. I think that it’s important for people to see the background and essentially setting up that context for everyone there. And so thank you for sharing that. And speaking of especially pursuing your doctoral degree, I’m really curious about your dissertation and what led you to pursue that research topic of the benefits of natural landscaping and reducing stress for adolescents. It’s so fascinating to me.

Katherine Movassaghi: So I work on a very unique campus landscape. We are in a rural area outside of a larger metropolis. Well, I don’t know if you’d call Lafayette metropolis, but a larger city. And we are situated on a variety of acres of an old sugar mill farm and production facility. And so we have a very unique physical landscape that to me has always played into our culture here, but that many other schools don’t have. And I was trying to think of what I could research that would be appealing, you know, because they say you need to find a topic that’s going to excite you or try to excite you for the next four years, something that you’re going to be really immersed in. And my headmaster gave me a book called Last Child in the Woods. And he said, “You should read this and talk about our physical landscape here at ESA”. And I said, “Well, everybody knows that nature is beneficial for children and adults, for everybody, you know, I don’t think that this is really new”. And he said, “No, it is, and you should pursue this research”. So as I began to delve into it insofar as why adolescents need a natural environment, really more than ever, I began to realize that this really is something that could change the face of education, whether or not you’re starting a school from the ground up or you are in the middle of an urban city.

Sofie: Absolutely. And I think that to the point of your headmaster there, that is something that I don’t think a lot of people really do recognize. And it’s important that someone had that conversation on it and studied it. I know that spaces that I’ve been in where there is that understanding and that celebration of the nature around you and really, you know, playing with your environment there has such an incredible impact on your mental health, your ability to be inspired and motivated and focused compared to when you’re learning in an all brick or concrete environment. You’re in a concrete jungle. You’re in a city, and there’s none of that open space, open air, greenery around you. And so I think that that’s important there. And that’s why I was so curious about what motivated you to choose that. And I think that, for sure, it’s something that I don’t think a lot of people think about in education. Right? They think a lot about, you know, well, what are we teaching and how are we teaching? And not a lot about, well, what’s the environment like for our students?

Katherine Movassaghi: Completely, I completely agree with you. And I think that as we’re moving toward an increase in adolescent anxiety, an increase in depressive episodes, which even in just since I published this paper or this dissertation in 2020, has increased almost 2%, according to Mental Health America. And the other information on the CDC so, you know, the mental health of adolescence is a real thing, and the poor mental health of adolescents is something that needs to be addressed because technology necessarily isn’t going to go away, and it’s not just – it’s not technology that is the root cause of all of the episodes of depression and anxiety for them.

Sofie: Yes. And that brings me to my next question, because I would love to know, especially from someone in the field, what are some key changes that you envision for education, more specifically educational institutions?

Katherine Movassaghi: Well, the current model of education in general, like just in general, is still one that we’ve used for over 100 years. And one thing that I’ve learned with combining this type of research plus with different sorts of things that we uncovered as far as how to teach during the pandemic, we really need to blow that whole scheduling system up. And I think that for the future of education, we’ve got to look at things differently. We’ve got to look at thinking outside the box for our students social and emotional health, but as well as keeping the rigor of our studies paramount. And I just think that it’s time to start looking at beyond X number of minutes in a classroom and what all of that entails. Of course, that’s a larger picture because each state has particular, you know, regulations and rules from their Department of Education, and you’ve got a number of stakeholders involved in this. But that’s my vision for the future, which I would love to see somewhat realized one day.

Sofie: Yes. I think that something that I’ve always noticed is, as you planted out, that instruction time, time in classroom is, there’s so much emphasis on it and not a lot of emphasis on. All right, well, what’s that continuing learning that we’re doing? How are we equipping our students outside the classroom when they go out into the world in their day to day life? How are we, you know, equipping them with the skill sets that they need to be a member of society and to grow as an individual? So, absolutely there. I’m also curious. I know that you are very passionate about mentorship, and I think that there is, I don’t want to say a missed opportunity in education, but I don’t see a lot of it happening, especially from a middle school, high school level, in terms of mentorship, especially of women. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts on the importance of mentorship in those secondary school settings and how it can really contribute to the growth of women or young women in their desired career fields.

Katherine Movassaghi: Well, I don’t think, you know, people might not view education, especially women, although I don’t have. This is just anecdotal for me, but it’s not a particularly glamorous job. And there is so much wonderfully that women can do these days. But I would like for young women in particular to take a look back at education and break whatever stereotype that you think it has, you know, not just — it’s definitely not easy. It’s definitely not a ten month gig and you get your summers off. There is a lot of rigor and there is a lot of importance that comes with being a good teacher. And we need good teachers more than ever now for our young people. And so I would ask young women to reconsider this profession and to seek out a role model whom they admire. If they do pursue it, whether it’s someone in their undergraduate field or someone who, once they’re hired, they connect with on campus. When I was first hired, I was assigned a mentor, but we naturally clicked anyway, you know, I was just out of graduate school and it just fit that. She was the one who kind of took me under her wing, but I would have chosen her anyway and I wanted to model myself after her and that style of professionalism and that level of expertise. And so she continues to mentor me 28 years later. And so I would encourage women to look harder at this profession and find someone to help you through it because it’s not easy.

Sofie: Yeah, I think really finding those not forced mentorships, I think, is super important. I think a lot of the time we, especially young women, get really scared of the idea of mentorship in the sense that, oh, my gosh, I have to find someone that is, you know, willing to spend all this time with me and really committed to my growth. And I have to, you know, ask them. You know, it’s like at the level of me proposing to someone or being proposed to of, oh, you know, will you be my mentor? And it doesn’t have to be that formal. As you were saying, it’s finding someone that maybe had a similar path as you or is in the same department as you, is in university. Maybe it’s a professor, maybe it’s someone just a couple of years older, but just really seeking those out in a natural way, in an authentic way. Absolutely, I think is so important for fostering that mentorship there.

Katherine Movassaghi: I think you also need to be open to making sure that you’re open to accepting feedback, because there were many times that my mentor, you know, told me I was doing something wrong. And I know that’s uncomfortable for people to hear sometimes, and they shy away from mentorship because that feedback might be uncomfortable, but people need to get used to hearing, and I’m generalizing it, but that these are areas that you can improve. Let’s look at this practice. This is an area where you can improve upon for this next time. And that it’s not necessarily a criticism, but just a way to grow.

Sofie: Yeah. That feedback element is so important to that mentorship process. And as you were saying, it might be uncomfortable in the moment. It might be like, oh, my gosh, they’re giving me negative feedback. Oh, no, I’m such a bad person. I can’t believe I did that. Or I didn’t do that right, when in reality they’re there to help you. And so sometimes you’re going to get that negative feedback, that constructive feedback, but it’s there to help you. It’s there to help you grow in your career, in life. And that feedback element is so important, whether it’s a mentorship or it is through an educator or through a parent or through a family friend, whoever it may be, having someone to really call you out when you don’t do something correctly or, you know, to say, hey, I know that you’re usually not like this. You’re kind of off your game lately. What’s going on? How can I help? You know, hey, you’ve been really great at doing this, but I think that you can improve on X, Y and Z. And so, yeah, absolutely, there. I would also like to really highlight your experience as an educator. And I think for anyone that’s listening to this, that’s considering pursuing a career in education, hearing a little bit about some of your best experiences, I think are always really great to share with people. And so are you able to share a memorable experience or accomplishment that has really had a profound impact on your journey as an educator?

Katherine Movassaghi: Well, one of the aspects of teaching that I truly and sincerely value, and it’s an aspect that we especially hold in high regard here at ESA, are the relationships that we establish with our students. And so because we are a six through twelve campus over here, even we’re pre K three through twelve overall. But this campus is six through twelve. And because I’ve been able to teach 6th through 12th grade, I’ve been able to watch students who come in as 6th graders mature and grow in their talents and passions. I mean, think of all the growth that happens. It’s the most neuroplastic time in that person’s life. Between the ages of 10 and 18 and even younger when you’re a child, school is prime time for developing so much, not just intellect. And so that’s been a true gift to me, to be able to continue those connections beyond the classroom. I just, in fact, Sunday received a call from a student, a former student who graduated in 2009. And we were catching up on the phone about the passion that she has pursued with film. She was an English and theater student of mine and what she’s writing and, you know, the latest, and I was so proud of her and so happy for her. And so I felt so lucky to have that enrichment in my life of all these different young adults now who have gone out and are doing great things. So I guess it’s not one anecdote per se, but all the little relationships that are spread throughout that, you know, we still keep in touch.

Sofie: Yeah, those lifelong connections, I feel like must be one of the most amazing and fulfilling parts of the job is being able to see the growth of people and, you know, when they graduate versus, you know, 10, 20 years from now, you know, where they are in their life, I bet is so cool to just be able to see and how one person can change so much and grow so much in such a seemingly short amount of time. I’d love to spend a minute here to really talk about women in education because I feel like there’s maybe not misinformation, but just a very interesting perception of women in education. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stereotype of women pursuing education and how young women can better prepare or equip themselves to pursue a role in education, especially in today’s world.

Katherine Movassaghi: Stereotype, that’s a good term and that’s part of what I was referring to earlier. Stereotype, in my opinion, would be, this is a great job if you want to be a mom too, you know. It’s a good work life balance, another misconception stereotype. It’s not highly demanding. You get your summers off, you know, this kind of like a little bit low key professionalism in a sense. And, you know, even to the extent of teaching elementary children is easy, and it’s not, you know, another stereotype comes financially. Generally, teachers don’t make a lot of money, and we are consistently underpaid in general. And so there’s less of a respectful view of their professionalism. But I would ask young women to take control of that and reshape that, because good teaching is very demanding and we do have to work hard and we have to work extra. And I think in any profession, you can balance the demands of being a mother, the demands of being a wife or a daughter. In some cases, yes, it’s easier than others. But when you’re really involved in teaching with extra curriculars, your children are there with you. For example, when I directed plays and the spring musical, my two children basically grew up in the theater or in my classroom. And so they would come after school, and I would hire a student babysitter or somebody who needed some service hours to watch them. And that’s what we did until it was time to go home. And so you make it work. And I would love to see more assertive and assertive, intellectually assertive women take on and go through this profession.

Sofie: Absolutely. And thank you so much for, in a way, kind of knocking down some of those stereotypes there. I think that a lot of the misconceptions that you mentioned are elements that I’ve either heard in conversation or I’ve heard used, especially against people that I know that are in the education field. And so I think really taking a microscope and looking at those is super important there. And so thank you so much for sharing that and to tie everything together, what is one thing that our listeners can take away from this conversation?

Katherine Movassaghi: I would ask that young women don’t shy away from considering the field of education, you know, I know that it’s, again, not financially at the top of the hierarchy, and sometimes it’s socially not either, in a sense that, you know, we get a lot of flak as educators from various constituents in the community and in the world. But I would ask that they really look at that calling and work together to make it, to change that sort of narrative and to consider that I’m going to make this different.

Sofie: Yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. I think that’s such an empowering message to leave everyone with and for anyone that would like to continue that empowerment and hear more of your wonderful wisdom, how can our listeners connect with you?

Katherine Movassaghi: Well, you have my email address, which is usually the best way to contact me first. Would that be up on the website?

Sofie: Yes. So we’ll put it in the episode description to all of our listeners listening right now. We will have Katherine’s email in the episode description box. So if you would like to email her, that is down below.

Katherine Movassaghi: And then, I’m happy to talk by phone or continue email, whatever is the next best method. I’m happy to share all of the research that I’ve done, what we’re doing currently at our school as well. We’re working on mind brain education and that neuroplasticity and all of that that I was talking about earlier. Our teachers are working toward understanding the latest on neuroscience research to best serve our students and it’s really exciting. So or if you just want to talk about gosh, it’s really hard to be a teacher and I’d love to talk through it. That’s fine too.

Sofie: Sounds good there, I think there might be a couple of people listening in our audience who are in the education field and for sure might want to just have a nice ranting session on, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that this is happening and others that just want to connect and hear more about what you’re doing, what your school’s doing, all fantastic conversations there. And I want to say thank you again so much for coming on to the podcast, Katherine. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Katherine Movassaghi: Thank you, Sofie! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about teaching.

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