Inspiring Educators Through Impactful Teaching: Q&A with Dr. Jessica Toste

Dr. Jessica Toste is a highly decorated educator in the College of Education. An associate professor in the Department of Special Education, Toste was the recent recipient of the President’s Associates Graduate Teaching Excellence Award for her outstanding graduate student teaching, a recipient of the 2022 Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award in the College of Education, and in 2017 was one of the Texas Ten nominated by UT Austin alumni as a professor who inspired them during their time on the Forty Acres. Since her arrival at the College of Education in 2013, she has been making big impacts on her students, colleagues and in her research and it has not gone unnoticed.

What began as a career as an elementary special education teacher and reading specialist in Montreal, Quebec, has evolved into a life devoted to researching intensive interventions for students with reading disabilities, and teaching and mentoring future educators and researchers to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and those who experience persistent challenges with reading.

Toste recently sat down with us to share the story of her career path, her passion for teaching and research, and her approach to inspiring and equipping students to go out and change the world.  

Tell us about your background and the path that brought you to this point in your career.

I began my career as an elementary special education teacher and reading specialist, working in both public schools and clinic settings in Montreal, Quebec. I eventually decided to pursue graduate studies and completed my Ph.D. in educational psychology at McGill University in 2011. Early in my doctoral program, I was the recipient of a Canada-U.S. Fulbright Fellowship and had the opportunity to spend a year as a visiting researcher at the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) at Florida State University. I worked with Dr. Carol McDonald Connor, an incredible scholar and mentor with whom I learned so much about reading development. After graduating from McGill, I completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University. Through working with Dr. Doug Fuchs, I gained further expertise in the design and implementation of special education intervention studies and the methodological rigor essential to this research. I kept moving further away from my Canadian home and ended up at UT Austin, joining the Department of Special Education in fall 2013.

Can you tell us more about the work you conduct through the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk and your ongoing research projects?

I have been affiliated with the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER) since I started at UT in 2013, and I’m also affiliated with the Texas Center for Equity Promotion (TexCEP). My research is focused on the understanding of how best to support students’ reading development—and specifically, my work investigates methods for intensifying interventions for students with persistent reading challenges and reading disabilities. I have focused on two areas: supporting teachers’ data-based instruction and decision-making processes so that they are able to effectively intensify reading interventions, and targeting psychosocial factors (e.g., motivation and self-determination) within these interventions.

My team is involved in so many exciting things right now, but I will highlight two main projects. I am currently the principal investigator on two grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES). In one project, my team has been developing a suite of personalized professional learning tools to build teacher expertise in using student data to guide their instructional decision-making. The EXPERT Program includes 1:1 coaching, our mini training module video library, and access to the EXPERT Monitoring Tool—a web app to enter, track, and analyze student intervention data. We will begin our pilot study in fall 2023 to examine not only the impact of participation in the EXPERT Program, but also to evaluate feasibility of different versions of EXPERT (i.e., adaptative implementation interventions).

In another project, we are collaborating with researchers at the University of Kansas to develop and test the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction for Reading (SDLMI-R) for upper elementary students with reading disabilities. By adapting the research-based SDLMI, we believe that the SDLMI-R will enhance reading interventions by integrating self-regulated goal attainment and motivation to accelerate outcomes for students. We have been working with Austin schools for the past two years to design SDLMI-R lessons and support students in becoming goal chasers! Next year, we will be working with a larger number of schools in Austin and Lawrence, KS to deliver an intensive reading intervention program with the SDLMI-R integrated.

Your research explores intensive interventions for students with reading disabilities. How did you become interested in this research area?

I’ll begin by saying: I am a self-proclaimed “word nerd.” So, words have always had a profound effect on me and my love of words was one of the reasons I chose to study education. In my early years as a teacher, I found it distressing that some of my students struggled to access the written word. I found it even more distressing that I didn’t have the knowledge to support them instructionally, so I sought out opportunities to get additional training at a local center in Montreal that provided services to individuals with learning disabilities. This training and my ongoing teaching experiences turned into a deep interest in the science of reading—and dedication to students who experience challenges with reading, particularly those with disabilities. As my career has progressed, I hope this is also reflected in my commitment to teacher training, professional development, and mentorship of future reading researchers and special education scholars.

What impact do you hope to have on communities and the lives of others through your research?

Ultimately, I hope that everything I am doing contributes in some way to improving outcomes for students with disabilities and those who experience persistent challenges with reading. Much of what I do is indirect in this way—training teachers, mentoring future researchers, or conducting research that answers critically important questions but may not always translate immediately into practice. So, it’s always thrilling when my work does have a direct, observable impact. For example, several years ago, my colleagues and I developed and tested a reading intervention program for upper elementary students. We published multiple empirical studies reporting positive effects from this program and have received several requests to share the materials over the years. In October 2022, I redesigned and packaged the intervention materials to make Word Connections: A Multisyllabic Word Reading Program freely available for download and use by educators. The teacher manual has now been downloaded almost 12,000 times by individuals across the U.S. and beyond, and I’ve communicated with hundreds of people to support their implementation. Thanks to support from the College of Education, my team is currently collecting user data on Word Connections, which will inform ongoing development of the program and implementation supports.

Any new projects you are working on or a part of?

Yes, I’m excited to answer this question! I am principal investigator on a newly awarded R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. This five-year project is called IDARE: Integrating Data to Advance Reading Evidence. We propose a unique approach where we combine datasets from rigorous studies investigating the efficacy of supplemental reading interventions for students with or at-risk for reading disability—making use of the vast knowledge available through extant datasets and the significant federal research investment that they represent—to explore racial differences in intervention effectiveness. To date, the limited number of studies that disaggregate findings by student race make it impossible to know whether reading interventions deemed evidence-based are generalizable and valid for all students. IDARE aims to identify characteristics of students, interventions, and outcome measures that may explain potential differential responses to reading intervention for Black students as compared to their White peers. It is my hope that this work will advance our understanding of the persistent disparities in reading achievement reported between Black and White students and potential sources of individual difference for these groups. Although we have incredible knowledge about effective reading interventions, the field has still not fully explored “for whom” these interventions work. In fact, we have perhaps not grappled enough with the question of for whom they were originally intended.

You are the recipient of many teaching awards across the university– what is your approach to teaching that others can learn from?

I aim to be extremely purposeful in my planning for all elements of a course. Wilbert McKeachie, who authored one of the most widely read books on college teaching, is quoted as saying “The best answer to the question ‘What is the most effective method of teaching?’ is that it depends on the goal, the student, the content, and the teacher.” As I design a course—or any learning experience—I try to remain aware that my effectiveness as an instructor is always dependent on the context of the course, the individual students enrolled, and even my own positionality within the course.

Relationship-building has always been central to my teaching approach, regardless of the age of my students. The teaching and learning process is collaborative in nature, so I try to create opportunities for students to provide regular feedback to foster shared ownership over our learning environments and the activities that occur within. I strive to have an equity-focused mindset in all that I do and am explicit in setting expectations for inclusion and respect. Any space where learning happens must be a space where each person can bring their whole selves to the work that we do together.

You’ve been highly recognized with many awards and acknowledgements. Where do you want to go from here? What have you set your sights on next?

Is the answer to this question “keep on keepin’ on”? I’m mostly joking, although I definitely do have my sights set on continuing to engage in high-quality research that contributes to our understanding of how best to support students’ reading development. Also, I recently redesigned our College Teaching course in the Department of Special Education. We learn about principles of course design and delivery, and students simulate application of these principles over the semester as they develop their own courses. This has been a fun way to bring my passion for teaching to the preparation of future special education faculty. And finally, as I advance in my career, it is also incredible to observe my past mentees transition into their own successful careers and contribute to the field. I think that might be the real long-term measure of a successful academic career!