Dr. Melissa Sherfinski’s interest in becoming a researcher was sparked by her experience as a kindergarten teacher in Wisconsin amidst the advent of No Child Left Behind. It was then that Sherfinski noticed a palpable shift in how she was perceived as an educator.
“I felt that I went from a respected curriculum designer, colleague, community member and educator in a holistic sense, to somewhat of a first stop in the line of producing ready children to compete in the global knowledge economy,” Sherfinski said. “This repositioning of my role and identity as a teacher actually inspired me to read like mad about the social context of education.”
It was then that Sherfinski, an assistant professor of early childhood and elementary education, decided to pursue her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 2011. There, she studied the homeschooling movement and, more broadly, the relationship between homes and schools. When it was time for Sherfinski to choose where she would begin her career as a professor, she was drawn to WVU for the research opportunities and the environment.
“I chose WVU specifically because I have always been drawn to the Appalachian context and its history. I was intrigued that West Virginia was one of only a handful of states implementing universal pre-kindergarten, and appreciated that there was a great opportunity here to work with doctoral students with qualitative research interests,” Sherfinski said. “I was also impressed by my future colleagues, their work ethic, and their commitment to inquiry-based teacher education.”
Sherfinski’s desire to study West Virginia’s universal pre-kindergarten program led her to participate in a six-year, longitudinal study focusing on the program. She is currently analyzing the third phase of data to examine how different stakeholders throughout the state view practices and policies related to universal pre-kindergarten.
Through her research, Sherfinski has been able to identify some key areas of improvement for West Virginia’s universal pre-kindergarten program, with the ultimate goal of providing more opportunity for students from all backgrounds.
“My research provides evidence that spreading equity-based and strengths-based curriculum and teaching through professional development in teacher education is something that should happen more systematically in universal pre-kindergarten programs in all counties and schools, no matter their demographic makeup,” Sherfinski said.
Sherfinski’s dedication to her work has led to 17 career publications, including top-tier journals such as Curriculum Inquiry, Education Policy Analysis Archives and the American Journal of Education. She has presented her work throughout the United States, and she recently had the opportunity to share her expertise abroad through presentations in both New Zealand and Ireland. In 2015, she was a national semi-finalist for the American Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, the highest honor in her sub-field.
Sherfinski’s drive is due largely to the inspiration she finds from the teachers she studies, as well as her students and colleagues at CEHS.
“Our teacher candidates and my colleagues are among the best in the country in terms of smarts, dedication and love for what they do,” Sherfinski said. “There are so many people here who deserve to be recognized for their amazing outreach and tireless dedication to the state.”
As she works with future teachers, Sherfinski hope to provide them with the ability to examine and understand their students’ unique situations and backgrounds.
“I want them to understand the power that they possess as a teacher, and specifically the power that their beliefs hold over what they may and may not see, understand, and act upon about the children they teach and the families that they work with,” Sherfinski said.