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Student, Educator, Leader

Brian Kerl (second from right) stands with his University of San Diego doctoral committee including USD professors Lea Hubbard, Robert Donmoyer, Fred Galloway (committee chair), and Paolo Tripodi, professor at the Marine Corps’ Lejeune Leadership Institute.

Earning a doctorate while teaching is not easy, but worth it

By Brian Kerl

In 2013, I retired from the United States Marine Corps after 28 years of active duty. I was hired by Oceanside Unified School District to run the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (MCJROTC) program at Oceanside High School. Simultaneously, I applied to the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) for their doctoral program in leadership.

At first, I had planned on pursuing a Ph.D. in history based on my desire to teach history, and I already had an M.A. in history from the University of San Diego. But a professor at USD convinced me to apply to SOLES to combine the best of two worlds — years of being a practitioner of leadership as an officer of Marines coupled with a Ph.D. in Leadership. My professor believed this combination offered the greatest opportunities for teaching, leading and mentoring people.

The SOLES program, which highlights leadership, social justice and creating meaningful change in a diverse society, complemented my teaching at Oceanside, as MCJROTC focuses on leadership and character development. Further, I was taught by superb professors whose instruction and mentoring helped develop my teaching skills.

Once accepted into the SOLES program, I worked full time at Oceanside while completing four years of academically rigorous coursework through night school — two nights per week from 5:30-8:30 — and one course each summer session.

“I was able to demonstrate to my cadets the concept of being a lifelong learner, [and] to use my doctorate to illustrate the value of higher education and the numerous opportunities that come with advanced degrees.”

My dissertation research involved interviewing eight commandants (four-star generals) of the U. S. Marine Corps. They shared their perspectives on how the command climate, established by the commanding officer, influences the ethical behavior of the Marines in the organization. In June of this year, I successfully defended my dissertation and was awarded a doctorate.

Throughout my Ph.D. experience, I was a student and an educator. I continued to enhance my knowledge during the doctoral process and was able to educate my MCJROTC cadets on leadership by sharing the commandants’ stories from the interviews. These stories fostered student understanding of core values, ethical behavior, and the importance of one’s character.

I was also able to demonstrate to my cadets the concept of being a lifelong learner. I’ve been able to use my doctorate to illustrate the value of higher education and the numerous opportunities that come with advanced degrees. This is all part of the high school’s mission to make students college-and career-ready, to develop critical thinkers who can collaborate with others to make positive contributions to society.

Finally, the academic rigor that I was exposed to underscored the importance of being able to teach our students how to effectively communicate both orally and in writing. One of my goals as a teacher is to bring these skills to the classroom and to support what is taught by all of our departments at Oceanside to better prepare students for college and careers.

It was an amazing experience to interview such distinguished senior Marine Corps leaders as part of my journey. It has been a blessing to be able to teach and mentor such wonderful young men and women at Oceanside High School over the past five years while earning my Ph.D. I would strongly encourage any lifelong educator to take on this challenge. While it was challenging due to my full-time teaching assignment and other life commitments, it was worth the experience, learning and growing as an educator.

Newly minted Dr. Brian Kerl is a member of Oceanside Teachers Association.

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