Q&A with Sarah Davis, MITx Project Administrator

MITili Staff
Sarah Davis

Sarah Davis, MITx Project Administrator, is passionate about supporting underserved student populations such as international students, first-generation students, minority students, and helping others achieve success within academic programs in post secondary institutions and undergraduate degree programs. 

Davis began her career in education as a teacher at an elementary school in Yukuhashi, Japan where she spent seven years educating Japanese children in the English language. She received a Bachelors of Arts from Purdue University in Japanese Language and Literature and a Masters in Education from Suffolk University. Through her current position, Davis works closely with faculty and education technologists to create online courses for the MITx program. 

When did you first become interested in education and in particular working with underserved communities? 

Oh man, I was the kid who was like “Let’s play school!” with my friends. You know, after you’d already gone to school that day. I’d daydream in the back of my parents car about getting some of those offices-for-lease and opening up a free school for everyone. That would be fun. [laughs] So I’ve always been very interested in teaching and education (but mainly the teaching thing, I’m in charge here).

With underserved populations particularly, honestly it probably didn’t strike me as a concern until I was a teacher myself. I grew up in a very affluent community and went through a pretty awesome public school system, so I naively assumed all schools probably had the same level of resources mine had. When I was teaching in Japan I was really fascinated by how everyone assumed one school in town was the best, and therefore how many more resources (both formally and casually) were allocated towards it that weren’t allocated towards others. And they were all in the same municipality! Plus Japan has a very different approach to education than the US does and those differences really allowed me to see the US education system from a new perspective. And a lot of what I saw was really disheartening. 

When I decided to return to the US, I really wanted to bring that new perspective and new found passion for closing education gaps into whatever new path I started. 

What was your experience like teaching English in Japan to young learners? 

Amazing. Absolutely AMAZING. I don’t think teaching is for everyone, and I highly respect teachers because I think it requires a lot of skill, but I do think there is a lot to be learned about yourself and your community by teaching. And elementary school kids, in every country, are brutal. 

“Sensei, you look cute today. Why?” Ummm. I don’t look cute every day?

“Sensei, why do you smell like bread?” Not a clue, please enlighten me?

“Sensei, why are you tall?” Genetics, I guess? 

“Sensei, that is NOT how you [insert just about anything here].” 

It’s humbling and humorous and so fulfilling. 

The boon for elementary school teachers was that English wasn’t required until fifth grade. (Japanese elementary schools often run 1st to 6th grade.) And nothing was tested. So English was the fun class. You learned the language because you wanted to win whatever game we’d play at the end, not because you knew you’d be tested on it in a month. So I approached it as, it’s far more about communication and cultural exchange than language acquisition. Which I think gave myself and my students a lot more joy in learning than it would have otherwise.

How has your teaching experience helped shape the way you go about the creation of online learning experiences?

First I want to say, I certainly don’t do this alone. I have a wonderful set of colleagues who bring multiple perspectives and expertise to the table in helping a faculty member develop an online course. 

But personally, I hope that my experience teaching helps me see from the perspective of a faculty member as they move through course development. Teaching is hard and teaching online is a whole different game than teaching in person, so understanding both sides of the coin of teaching versus course development is really helpful in building trust. 

I also aim to advocate for the learners where English isn’t their first language and they’ve never had to write an academic assignment for an American academic. Someone can be fluent in English but still struggle to grasp the mechanics of what is considered a great essay or superior assessment (to an American academic) due to differences in what their academic experience and culture has taught them. Reminding course teams of the global scale of their courses and to scaffold in those supports for non-American or ESL students is something I try to always keep in mind.

How has the pandemic changed the way you think about scaling education to a broader audience? 

The pandemic highlighted a lot of ways that scaled education can be used in multiple ways to improve educational experiences for a myriad of groups. While I do think the pandemic highlighted a lot of disparities in education and educational systems, we can also find a lot of hope in the adaptability of educators and their use of scaled education to do their best for students. If the pandemic highlighted a lot of out of date and crumbling infrastructure within education, then it also highlighted the fact that there are a lot of people looking into a lot of different solutions to fix these. There isn’t going to be an overnight silver bullet fix, but I believe that with scaled education playing a large role we can work towards finding solutions for a lot of students who would have otherwise been left out.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

Can I cheat and say two things? 

Okay, just this once. 

My favorite thing about the whole institute is the unique approach they have to subject matter you don’t automatically associate with MIT. Literature, language, music - things that I don’t think would immediately pop into mind for most people when thinking of an MIT education. But the faculty and departments here are really examining every subject in a very uniquely MIT way and I find that different perspective really fascinating.

My favorite thing about working at MIT is my colleagues. The MITx team, the Open Learning community - our staff is just awesome. When I say I wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without them, I truly mean that. Everyone really believes in our mission and we support each other in making sure that mission is accomplished but also in taking time for ourselves, taking time for our family, taking time to find joy. They are some of the best people to work with (unless we’re discussing Thanksgiving food, then it is every man for themselves).