FPG Profile: Sophia Farmer
Thanks to her background as a special education teacher, Implementation Specialist Sophia Farmer, MT brings real-world experience to her role as K-12 education project portfolio lead at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG.) As a teacher, Farmer worked primarily with children with specific learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities.
While an undergraduate at the University of Virginia—from which she received both a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and Master’s in elementary education—Farmer realized that her high school volunteer work, which centered on reading with young students and working with English language learners, pointed her to a career in teaching.
Why did you become an implementation specialist?
As I progressed in my career, moving from teacher to district leader to technical assistance provider in a regional center, I became more drawn to understanding which instructional practices and programs worked best for students with disabilities. I was curious as to why some classroom practices were so hard to keep in place. I kept running into the same roadblocks of working teacher-by-teacher or classroom-by-classroom and realizing that we weren't making real systems level change. The status quo wasn’t changing, and we weren’t closing the gap for students of color or students with disabilities. That's how I became interested in improvement science and implementation science, thinking about the entry point for systems change.
How did you end up at FPG?
When I worked at the state level in Virginia—where I still live and where I have worked throughout my career—I was contracted through the Virginia Department of Education to run the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS) Research and Implementation Center that is housed at Virginia Commonwealth University. Through that work, I had the opportunity to learn from Dean L. Fixsen and Caryn Ward at FPG’s National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) about using implementation science tools and state capacity assessments. In 2019, NIRN had an open position, which I applied for and received. I was interested in getting deeper into implementation work and working with other states.
What is different in your current role versus working as a teacher?
Change at the state level, particularly in government agencies, can be a little slow. On our team, we remind each other that effecting change comes by “gentle pressure applied relentlessly.” We don't get to see changes right away, as teachers do. We might see changes in the data or how a state or region is organized to implement something, but not up close, with the kiddos. So we celebrate those wins and hope that we are moving to a greater impact.
The fun part about the move to FPG is that because implementation science is a relatively new discipline, we can develop tools and assessments. I have the chance to be creative and apply new learning. We are always learning from our partners in other states and from research and evaluations.
What does a typical day look like for you as an implementation scientist?
No day is the same, which makes it fun and challenging at the same time. I help create and develop teams, typically at the state level, and sometimes at the regional or district level. I then support those teams to build their capacity and structures to support schools in teaching all children but with a focus on those with disabilities.
My work is essentially about getting the right people in the right place together to have the right conversations. It's doing root cause analyses and needs sensing to look at what changes are needed to help teachers and support staff do their work really well. Then we help build the infrastructure and create effective systems to enact those changes that support and coach teachers and leaders.
That means a lot of project planning meetings in which we work with internal NIRN teams to map how we're going to help move a state, regional, or district team through the work. We do a lot of feedback and coaching for each other, brainstorming and generating resources for our partners. I also meet with the states—from cabinet-level leaders to folks who are working on the ground—to problem solve, help them through next steps, and provide professional learning and coaching in implementation science.
What do you like about your job?
I enjoy working with a variety of teams. I love having a team of people who bounce ideas off each other. My NIRN teams coach each other, grow together, and innovate together. I work across FPG teams, with NIRN teams, and in project teams. That work expands to the teams in our states and within each project. It is great that the folks in the field doing the work can give me perspective, keep me grounded, so that I don't lose what it is like to be in the classroom. I learn as much as I teach to others.
I am happy being able to innovate and be creative. One example is that we are now developing communities of practice for implementation science in HBCUs and other universities. We are also developing a micro credentialing program. We are hoping to expand the number and diversity of education professionals who are school, district, regional and state leaders, university professionals, college students, and others who are highly qualified to support implementation efforts. This program will be unique in that participants can apply for and receive badges that not only demonstrate acquired knowledge in implementation science and research but prove that they can apply implementation support practitioner competencies to real-world systems change efforts. In the highest levels, we are hoping to provide experiences for participants to demonstrate their training and coaching abilities in implementation science so that we have an ever-growing workforce well versed in implementation.
How does your work further the mission of FPG?
We're developing new ways for children and families to succeed and we are furthering change to ensure equitable outcomes for students. Having worked in the disabilities world for so long, equity has always been important to me. It is also critical to make sure that equity is not just for students with different abilities but that we create environments and investigate which environments work for all different kinds of kiddos, including Black and Brown children and those who are gender fluid.
What do you hope to have accomplished five years from now?
I would love to write a practical how-to book for teacher leaders, principals, and/or district leaders on how to include different perspectives and functional ways that effect change for them. There's never a checklist in systems change but I would love to give ideas that educators could put to use right away.