Dr. Andrea Stairs-Davenport spent the first several years of her career teaching across the country, but her home state of Maine was never far from her heart.
"I was at the University of Tennessee for three years before a position opened up at the University of Southern Maine," said the Hampden native. "I decided I wanted to come back, be closer to my family and serve my home state."
Twelve years later, Dr. Stairs-Davenport is head of the School of Education and Human Development and teaches in the online Master of Science in Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program at USM.
"Teaching runs in my family," she said. "My grandmother was a teacher. My dad was in the business world, but he taught college classes in the evenings. My sister and I both became teachers.
"I'm from Maine, but something that I bring to my teaching is the perspective of education from different parts of the United States."
She graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in English in 1994, and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Boston College in 1995.
Dr. Stairs-Davenport landed her first full-time position teaching middle school English Language Arts in Derry, New Hampshire. From there, she packed up and moved to Colorado, where she taught high school English for four years in Denver.
"I knew that I was interested in working with adults, preparing teachers and working with educators and practicing teachers, so I went back to Boston College to pursue my Ph.D.," she said.
"While I was doing that, I worked as a literacy coach in Boston Public Schools. I kept one foot in the world of practice and the other foot in the world of theory and research while pursuing my Ph.D."
After graduating in 2006, Dr. Stairs-Davenport got her first full-time, tenure-track appointment at Tennessee, where she spent some of her free time rooting for the Lady Vols basketball team.
"I had season tickets," she said. "Pat Summitt led them in back-to-back championships while I was teaching there, which was pretty cool. That was a fun way to spend a couple of evenings a week. Knoxville was pretty awesome."
Since Dr. Stairs-Davenport arrived at USM, the School of Education and Human Development has seen distance learning take off.
"We knew that education was moving more toward online, so it was an area of interest for my colleagues in the department and me," she said. "I'm starting my 12th year at USM, and we have been pursuing online education the whole time.
"We finally moved our program fully online in 2016. This year, we have six start dates and the 7-week course model, which has been very popular with our students locally and around the country."
Dr. Stairs-Davenport thrives on being in front of a classroom full of students, but she also knows the importance of online education to create opportunities for a broader spectrum of students.
"I am a really social person," she said. "I love teaching, so it was important to me to replicate that any way that I could. I found that it was actually pretty easy to do online.
"If you set up the right learning experiences that are very engaging and allow students to pursue things they are interested in, you can create deep, personal connections online."
In fact, Dr. Stairs-Davenport believes that the online discussions are often more productive than in-class discussions because the students all have an equal voice.
"Sometimes in an on-campus classroom, certain students might try to monopolize the conversation. Or there isn't a lot of time for those who are more introverted or need more time to process, with how fast an on-campus discussion can move," she said.
"Online students have time to think through what classmates or the professor have said and craft their responses. I love having everyone share their perspectives in a safe way."
In the TESOL program curriculum, Dr. Stairs-Davenport said the focus is based on the standards for teachers set by the TESOL International Association.
"Everything we do is to better serve the professional standards," she said. "The TESOL International Association is cutting edge. We want to try to stay right there with them.
"We try to make sure all of our readings and activities are timely, that they deal with current issues in the field and the latest research and the latest practice."
In the fall of 2019, Dr. Stairs-Davenport became an associate dean, which turned out to be a bit more difficult than she anticipated.
"COVID-19 has presented a whole set of new challenges to leaders, but the good thing is I still teach every semester," she said. "I taught this summer in our online program. I am teaching in our online program right now. It's important for me to stay engaged with the online TESOL program."
Dr. Stairs-Davenport and her husband, Mark, have one son, Luke (4). She enjoys camping with her family, playing golf and going for walks. She is especially grateful to be living in her home state and leading a successful program at USM.
"Word of mouth here in Maine is that you can take well-designed classes with thoughtful instructors in USM's online program," she said. "It has worked out great.
"Our department has some of the highest evaluations in our school and at the university. It's a testament to the really good teachers we have working in this program."
As Dr. Stairs-Davenport embarks on her 12th school year at USM, she is just as excited about teaching and the future of the program now as she was the day she started.
"Education and Human Development is growing more than any other school at USM," she said. That's largely because the school has stayed "current with online education and is offering programs people want in areas of high need in schools. TESOL, special education and educational leadership are all areas with shortages that we are trying to address."
Learn more about USM's online MSEd in TESOL program.
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