Practice and research: a conversation with Maria Theodorakakis

Even as an undergraduate at Boston College, Maria Theodorakakis was looking for a way to combine her academic interests with hands-on work.

“I was looking for a major that really kind of combined my interest in psychology and sociology with my interest in helping kids and working in schools,” Theodorakakis recalls.

A conversation with the late John Cawthorne, a former Associate Dean in BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, led her to transfer from the College of Arts and Sciences to the Lynch School – and that’s where she found City Connects.

Back in those days, in 2007, when City Connects was only in five Boston schools, Theodorakakis applied for and received a summer research fellowship, joining the City Connects team. 

She has stayed involved through college and graduate school (she earned a PhD in counseling psychology at Boston College). And today she’s City Connects’ Senior Manager of Clinical Practice and Research. She also works as a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Focusing on both practice and research has given Theodorakakis a unique view of City Connects.

How teachers in City Connects schools personalize instruction

For a current research project, Theodorakakis is looking at the ways that teachers take information from whole class reviews and use it to personalize instruction for their students.

In addition to looking at survey data, Theodorakakis has “observed whole class review sessions live and conducted follow-up interviews with teachers. This is where my clinical experience comes in handy, because I’ve also worked in schools and that perspective informs the questions we’re asking teachers.”

“It’s been inspiring to see that our coordinators and teachers are doing such a fantastic job with whole class reviews and that the teachers are really taking something away from it,” she says.

Helping schools build systems of support

On the practice end of City Connects’ spectrum, Theodorakakis has been working on the professional learning courses that City Connects has been offering to educators across the country.

“We’re translating data and research about why City Connects works into lessons for a larger audience. It’s been exciting to think about how schools can benefit from the core principles of City Connects even if they’re not formally implementing it.”

A key part of the message: educators and school staff are already doing great work every day. What they need are strategies for systematizing this work and applying it to every student.

“We talk about assessing students’ strengths and needs across the four domains of development — academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — and that organizational structure makes a lot of sense to people. We know that teachers and other school staff don’t just think about academics and that they are learning about students’ non-academic lives, so we talk about organizing this information and using it to connect kids to appropriate services.

“Sometimes the focus doesn’t have to be on directly addressing academics. Sometimes a child needs to be connected to an enrichment program or to social-emotional supports that will in turn have a positive impact on their academic performance.”

“People need to be reminded how powerful it can be to foster resilience and promote strengths, to talk about students and families in a strength-based way. This is something that we’ve known for a long time, but it’s especially important to share it right now in the wake of the pandemic.”

Next week, Theodorakakis and City Connects’ Executive Director Mary Walsh will share some of these ideas in a webinar – “Building a System of Support in Your School Post-Covid” — hosted by the Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth, Inc. The webinar will “expand participants’ strategies for organizing and integrating the many and varied student support efforts in a school.”

“We’ll be presenting to student support staff, primarily school counselors and school social workers,” Theodorakakis says. “And we’ll talk about why integrated student support approaches can be helpful not only in response to a crisis, but also in how we might reimagine what student support looks like as we move forward. Now more than ever, the world is recognizing how out-of-school factors really do impact kids’ ability to be successful in school.”

To Theodorakakis, her work at City Connects runs in an organic and informative circle. 

“Our research findings inform our practice. And our practitioners directly contribute to the research questions that we ask.”

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