Alumni Spotlight: Mike Wilber, Ed.D.
Dr. Mike Wilber is an Adult Basic Education Instructor at the Delaware Department of Education Adult and Prison Education Resources Division in Wilmington, Delaware, helping inmates earn their GEDs and learn job skills. He is also a GED Instructor in the Adult Education Division of James H. Groves Adult High School.
Dr. Wilber’s Ed.D. dissertation was designed to examine a particular aspect of the prison population in order to look at the problem of recidivism from a different angle. It’s challenging work, but Dr. Wilber’s passion for teaching and serving others is evident through his most recent award: Region II Teacher Of the Year for 2018.
We sat down with Dr. Wilber recently to talk about his experience in the UNE Online Ed.D. program.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and what encouraged you to pursue your Ed.D.?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in History and very nearly earned a minor in Education. I took all the courses but just didn’t do the student teaching portion. Twenty years later I earned my Master of Science in Management with a concentration in Human Resource Management, and then twenty years after that, I decided to pursue my Ed.D.
I have always wanted to earn my doctorate, and once I decided it was time, I started searching for online doctoral programs. I knew that my ideal program would have three main elements: it had to have an Education element, it had to have no residency required, and it had to be 100% online.
The University of New England met all three criteria, so I decided to look more closely at the program. Watching the FAQ videos by Dr. Collay, I got the sense that UNE would be a very good fit for me.
Can you talk a bit about your dissertation, and how you decided on that topic?
Once I applied and was accepted into the Ed.D. program, the very first thing I did was to work with Dr. Collay to narrow down the scope of my research. I began to receive constructive feedback on my proposed dissertation topic almost immediately, which was immensely helpful.
Ultimately, I decided to narrow my focus to the topic of recidivism among young adults aged 18-25 years old. Recidivism is a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior. As a negative outcome of the correctional system, recidivism is generally a relapse into criminal behavior.
My initial research led me to the discovery that various scholars had done research on singular aspects of recidivism, for example, generational socioeconomic oppression as one of the causes of recidivism. But that’s all they wrote about. Another scholar would write about family and another about education. I always had the sense that there was a relationship between substance use and abuse, and the impact it has on offspring.
What did you find in your research?
I found a study that categorically stated that 55% of substance-using parents have children that display nontraditional faculties, such as a propensity toward antisocial behavior. Well, who is in prison? Children of substance-using parents also display diminished learning capacity — which again mirrors a large portion of the prison population.
The four areas that I used for the basis of my study were what I call prenatal experience, the family experience, the education experience, and the generational socioeconomic oppression experience. For the research portion of my dissertation, I was required to work with people in a different prison than the one in which I work. So I went to a different correctional facility and interviewed three inmates in a series of three one-hour interviews per person.
It was an amazing experience.
Can you talk a bit more about your research subjects?
My subjects were all incarcerated men. They had never spoken or even met one another, but the common factors among them were absolutely incredible. I asked each one — if you could change one thing so that you would never come back through that turnstile again, what would it be? Each one of them said that they could not understand why they were being returned right back into the communities from which they came. They worked so hard to rehabilitate in the prison, and then they were being sent right back into an atmosphere rife with criminal behavior. They end up returning to a life of crime because it’s all they know.
If someone is born into a family group where one or two parents are selling drugs — not because they necessarily want to but because they have to sustain their family because they are not making a living wage, what does that child know? That child learns that in order to survive, you need to sell drugs. It’s classic modeling.
If we want to change the outcome of their lives, how do we do it? My hope is that instead of looking at inmates as a number that just repeats through this turnstile that we call recidivism, where they enter jail and rehabilitate, and then exit jail and return, my hope is that we begin to look at the reasons behind why recidivism happens.
We need to begin to look at the problem of recidivism holistically, and from a greater perspective. If we look at the inputs, rather than the negative output, can’t we get a different outcome? The goal is to get a positive outcome for these people, but for the last 40 years, we as a government have been accepting a 76-86% failure rate year, after year, after year.
You work in the prison system full time. What do you teach?
I teach adult basic education, including reading and mathematics, to students who range from 18 to 70 years old. My particular focus is to prepare my students to go into the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) prep class, where they then take lessons in social studies, science, mathematics, and reading/language arts.
One of the things I have tried to do in my learning environment is to incorporate Maria Montessori’s principles into adult learning in the prison system. When the learner is allowed to take responsibility for creating their own learning environment and discovers what it is they want to learn, the results are amazing. It becomes very empowering to them.
My classroom has a rather nice selection of books and a lot of floor space. At any point, if one of my students gets tired of doing math, if they wanted to take a break, they’re welcome to select a book, sit on the floor, and read the book instead. This is perfectly acceptable because you’re learning when you’re reading. Sometimes all it takes is a little freedom like that, to help these guys realize that it’s OK to be who they are and to be a good person. It’s transformative for them because they realize that it’s OK to be different, but different in a good way.
You were just selected as the CEA Region II Teacher Of the Year for 2018. Congratulations!
It’s exciting, thank you! It’s a humbling honor to be even thought of for that because that’s not why I do what I do. I’m also a Deacon in the Catholic Church, and part of being a Deacon is serving others. So I approach what I do from the standpoint of being a servant. I’ve never had a bad day teaching. It’s been wonderful to see the little transformations in people, where they go from being lost to finding hope is just so empowering. It’s just amazing.
I enjoy helping people recognize that they have dignity just because they exist, and nobody has the right to take that away from them. It’s brought more than one full-grown man to tears because I acknowledge that with each and every one of my students. I don’t want to know why you are in prison, and I don’t necessarily care. When you’re in our learning environment classroom, it’s a safe zone, and we can speak openly and respectfully about anything that we want to. That’s the way it should be.
If we are really going to change their lives, first we have to care about them and develop some sort of relationship — which many of them have never had before. And second, we have to be people that they can feel comfortable confiding in, and they feel listened to.
You never know when or how you’re going to touch a life, but you know for sure that you’re going to. It’s not only about being a teacher, it’s about humbling yourself so that others can rise above.
What have you liked about getting your doctorate at UNE?
I’ve found UNE an institution second to none. The faculty, the staff, the supporting cast, everybody. Just great human beings. So focused on the student, and focused on drawing the best out of each one of us. UNE has done a magnificent job. Not just for me, but for every one of my colleagues who went through the program with me. It was the same thing. UNE just knows how to tap into who we are. It has been absolutely phenomenal.
We all shared doubts and hard times, but somehow or other, each one of our lead professors was able to pull us through that and say ‘You got this! You can do this.’ It’s been an amazing transformation. That’s the reality, and that’s what UNE is to me. And it always will be. Whenever I talk to people, I tell them the same thing. It’s a great place. It’s not easy — you need to work your butt off. But you have people that care about you, who help you take ownership of your learning, and they guide you so that you won’t fail.
If there’s one thing you would want a potential student to know before starting this program, what would it be?
If you believe in yourself, you want to better yourself, and you want to better the world, the University of New England is the place to go to help you do that. The end result will be exactly what you want. You’ll become a transformative leader in an ever-changing world.
My belief about UNE has grown from many perspectives. You want a good education? Go to UNE. UNE has been transformative.
If you are interested in the Ed.D. program at UNE Online, or if you would like more information, please reach out to an Enrollment Counselor at (800) 994-2804 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ready to apply? Fill out an online application now at online.une.edu/gateway-portal-page.
More Ed.D. program information: go.une.edu/education/doctorate-program