A Journey in Educational Leadership from Rural Nepal to East Texas and Delaware

Chetanath Gautam is an associate professor in the Education Department and teaches in the Educational Leadership graduate program at Delaware State University. Chet received his doctorate in educational leadership from Stephen F. Austin State University. His research interests include educational leadership with a focus on equity and social justice in Pre-Kindergarten through University (P-20) settings.

Since this blog is my first contribution to this website, I will start off by talking about my personal journey. I was born in a rural part of Nepal and come from a humble background. I am a son of farmers who had no formal education. When I finished high school, I had to trek two days to catch a bus that would take me on a 12-hour journey to Kathmandu, to continue my studies. I studied my Bachelor’s in math and science education in the capital city and then became a high school math and science teacher. I left teaching for a short stint in computer programming and then decided to go back to school to pursue a Master’s in curriculum and instruction. Inspired by my own experience as a teacher and my dad’s experience of collaborating on opening schools in the rural area where I was raised, I became increasingly interested in how I might contribute to making education more effective.

Post Master’s, I was offered an opportunity to work as a science teacher and assistant principal, which marked the start of my career in educational leadership. In my new position, I began an in-house teacher training program for the teachers at our school. Due to this program’s success, I was invited to join Nepal’s Ministry of Education Teacher Development Division as a teacher training expert. Soon after I was presented with an opportunity to design and start an innovative private school. The school started with about 250 students, yet it soon grew to over 1,000, becoming one of the country’s top-performing schools.

Research field visit in rural Nepal

After a few years as a principal, I decided to pursue another Master’s degree, this time in educational leadership, to understand better what I was doing and how I could improve my efforts as a school leader. I was all about creating the best learning opportunities for students in my school. It was during these years, where my initial interests in research started to develop and I decided to pursue a doctorate (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership at Stephen F. Austin State University.

As part of the program’s sixteenth cohort, I was its very first international student and my classmates were surprised to meet a student from Nepal. Despite having vast teaching, leadership, and academic experience when I began the program, I quickly learned the cultural and linguistic differences would pose challenges. In the beginning, I struggled to fit in, express my opinions, and understand others. East Texas is part of the Bible belt and has a strong belief system. Coming from a different educational and cultural background, I was open to learning about this new culture and I began to visit local community centers, e.g., libraries, schools, and churches. I wanted to understand the communities and the K-12 system in the U.S. and had thousands of questions in mind. Many of my colleagues were principals at local schools, and I began to go to football games with them, which helped me understand the local culture and begin to garner access to the local schooling system.

From there, I began to research a variety of subjects, including power relationships, cultural dogmas, and cultural openness—inspired by critical philosophers and democratic educators such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire. For example, in one of my first research projects on gender equity in elementary social studies textbooks in Texas, my colleagues and I found that there was no equitable portrayal of females and female leaders in the textbook.  We critically discussed the impact of this inequity on students, especially the possible negative impacts on female students.

In another study currently under review, we looked at one school’s response to receiving new populations of migrant and refugee students. We identified cultural biases and found that the teaching staff was not prepared to act in a truly culturally responsive way. As one of the teachers simply put “we failed those children”; the school and the teachers were not able to fulfill the learning needs of the students and adequately engage their parents. This work has been particularly interesting since I was able to compare what I have learned to my own personal experiences immigrating to this country and navigating various opportunities and challenges.

Chetanath at the UCEA Conference with Professor Charles Lowrey

I have also had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Charles Lowrey and other colleagues in rural Ohioan schools, where we looked at how school leaders act as political agents within their respective communities to ensure equity for rural learners. The findings of this study looked at school leaders’ advocacy to ensure equitable funding and policymaking related to transportation, testing, and technology for their students. Our results analyze how superintendents make meaning of their obligations and provide data that can improve leadership preparation programs. Working with schools in the Appalachian region, I was able to make very relevant and unique connections to my previous experiences in rural Nepal, such as how leaders are able to achieve more with limited resources and how to keep the hope alive that education transforms lives in spite of challenges.

As you can see, I have a wide array of different research interests and backgrounds. However, a common thread is that I am passionate about transformation and unpacking how the multiple interconnected dynamics in education systems support or limit the goal of providing quality education to all students. Also, a key piece is that all of my projects have been collaborative, drawing directly from the needs of the communities I engage with. This is important because I do not believe that research is an individualistic task. Having multiple viewpoints adds richness to the conversation and ensures that our findings will be relevant for researchers and practitioners. As part of the International School Leaders Development Network (ISLDN), I have had the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from around the globe.

Through all of my work and research, I have identified that being an educational leader requires strong morals, ample energy, resilience, and a priority to put children’s needs first. I have seen many examples of this, including during the COVID-19 pandemic as many school leaders are figuring it out as they go, yet continuing to progress and innovate. I am proud that I work at a high-level research institution and a Historically Black College and University (HBCU, @DelStateUniv). My research focus and my university’s mission match perfectly; this support and connection gives me energy to continue to research and write about equity and social justice focused practice across P-20 settings.  

Thank you Chetanath for sharing your journey in educational leadership and research. If you are interested in learning more you can reach him at cgautam@desu.edu or on his GoogleScholar or ResearchGate Site.

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