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Q&A With March 2020 Graduate: Xhen Mucelli

The master’s in education program at the Woodrow Wilson Graduate School of Teaching & Learning is competency-based. Teacher candidates (TCs) progress through the program as they demonstrate the skills and knowledge necessary to graduate.

At the end of March 2020 (and in the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis), biology TC Xhen Mucelli completed her requirements, having successfully demonstrated proficiency in all of the Graduate School’s competencies. Before entering the Graduate School in 2018, Xhen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Now, about to embark on a new chapter, Xhen reflects on her journey at the WW Graduate School.

The Graduate School: What originally attracted you to the Graduate School? 

Xhen Mucelli: What attracted me the most was the competency-based model, and the flexibility to be able to work on the skills that I needed to become a competent educator while also getting to explore teaching and learning in a lot of ways that I care about. I think that what really attracted me was knowing that in the time I would be spending there, I would be developing as an educator, making progress toward the competencies necessary to graduate. One of the big attractions was that I would be evaluated on what I could do, and not simply what classes I took.

GS: Did you always know you wanted to go into education?

XM: Not exactly. I think education has always been something I care about. I have a lot of interests, but I think what I care most about is thinking about what teaching looks like in different environments, which is something that the Graduate School really emphasized. Through out-of-school time (OST) placements, I got to spend time in a biochem classroom and those were things that when I was a kid didn’t exist—or at least they didn’t exist in my high school. So I enjoy thinking about what the future will look like for kids now and later on, and about the kind of skills we need to be developing. When I came to the Graduate School I really cared about teaching and I cared about changing some of the traditional structures. I think I’m leaving with tools and skills that will enable me to one day be in a teaching and learning setting that fits for me. 

GS: You’ve talked about the tools you’re going to take with you once you leave. Something that’s always interested me about the Graduate School is the “broken robot” or design thinking model where you experiment, learn, and try again. Do you feel like that model of experimentation is something you’re going to bring with you? Was that one of the most challenging aspects of the program for you?

XM: Yes, for many reasons. I think for me, coming in as a STEM graduate where things are very clearly right or wrong, it was really challenging to be like, “Wow, I’m failing over and over again at something.” But I think part of that was what was so exciting to me. I felt that for someone with a STEM background, it really modeled the scientific method, in that when scientists are actually doing science, they’re failing a lot. They’re trying and learning and trying again. So I felt like it helped me become a better scientist and teacher. Particularly in teaching you can’t predict anything. You’re always going to have a new group of students, and things are always changing. I think that model really supports you in being able to learn from the first try and then do better the next time. 

GS: If you could go back to the start of your experience at the Graduate School, what would you tell yourself?

XM: The number one thing is that the Graduate School has a lot to offer and it can connect you with so many people. I think in the beginning it was almost overwhelming for me. In some ways that was great, and I got to meet a bunch of people and try all these new experiences, but it was really hard to stay focused. So I think that I would tell “old me” to make a list of the things to focus on going forward. Figure out the opportunities to take advantage of and the ones not to take advantage of. In the beginning I tried to take advantage of everything, and that was a lot. All the opportunities were great, and I never want that to change, but I wish I knew that you don’t have to do everything or everything all at once. 

GS: On that note, do you have a favorite memory or experience from your time at the Graduate School?

XM: I think my favorite memory from the Graduate School was that I got to shadow a student my first semester. I basically followed him around—he felt like he was very famous—and I got to watch him and other students. I had a copy of his schedule and went to every class with him. It was so eye-opening in many ways. First, I got to see how different kids were in different classes, to see the strengths that different classes brought out in them that I wouldn’t know about if I just saw them in science class. Maybe the structure of science class isn’t set up to bring out those strengths. I also learned, in general, how hard it is to sit in a chair all day and not have lunch until one o’clock. I think that is a memory I will literally never forget.

GS: What Graduate School practice or technique are you most looking forward to implementing in your own classroom?

XM: I think one of the big things that I hope to take away from the Graduate School is what I learned through the competency called “Grounding Instruction in the Science of Learning and Development”. Before coming here, I didn’t actually know that there was a lot of research done on how the brain learns, or on educational development and things like that. I didn’t know that there are research-based strategies that support students. I think this will be applicable even for myself and my own learning, how I learn and how I’ll go on to learn more. I want to take some of those insights and implement them when I’m setting up learning for others and think more about things like cognitive load and metacognition. It was one of the things I loved about the Graduate School.

GS: Any parting words from our March 2020 graduate?

XM: I think one of the big things that makes the WW Graduate School so special is that everyone deeply cares about your path and what you want to do. That’s something that’s really special about the place. 

*the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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