Professional Development

5 Most Important Things I Learned from My Graduate Program

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No, no… you most certainly do not have to call me Master Teacher Sara.

But if you insist… ok, fine! I’ll allow it 😉

Other than the obvious perk of having your students (and more perhaps satisfyingly, their parents) call you “Master,” pursuing a graduate degree in education has a wealth of benefits, in addition to its sacrifices. I’ve shared my journey and some reflections on the process here, focusing principally on the greatest lessons I unearthed in the process.

The Stats.

After four years of classroom teaching, I made the decision to head to graduate school to pursue a Master’s of Education (MEd) in International Education. I chose Endicott College’s program ultimately because it provided face-time with classmates and professors over the summer in Spain and Switzerland, as well as spring and fall online sessions, which afforded relative freedom and autonomy to continue working throughout my 3 years (3 summers + 2 fall terms + 1 spring term). The program was reasonably affordable and comparable to most MEd programs.

The Sacrifices.

Before sharing my distilled list of wisdom, I’m also compelled to note that pursuing a higher degree required sacrifice, though as a single, childless and pet-less woman in my late 20s with relative financial stability, my sacrifices weren’t as grand as some of my classmates. The school I at which I taught has a strong expeditionary focus and curriculum is created based on the real world; with such a dynamic system, projects, questions, topics are constantly changing based on what’s happening internationally, locally, and regionally and as a teacher, if you’re not ready to pivot and dive deep into something new, you’ll sink– and drag your students down with you. I knew that in order to be a successful teacher in this context, I simply couldn’t manage to balance my own studies and remain relatively healthy and even moderately social. As such, I left the classroom for a fantastic curriculum development and consulting position and was afforded some form of balance to study and work.

Why an MEd?

I came into education in what you might consider the back or side door, which is to say I didn’t pursue an undergraduate education degree, worked in education for 3 years, and came upon a teaching apprenticeship program, and landed an independent school teaching contract the following year. Would I recommend this bask/side door path? Mostly/kind/not really. If I could tweak just one thing, I’d go back and pursue my teaching credential (and ditch that one boyfriend way earlier, but I digress…). In my younger years, I found this superfluous, convinced I’d only work for independent schools. As a millennial elder (viewer discretion advised), I see a teaching credential indeed opens up many more doors, but that’s for another post.

While teaching as a credential-less young person and navigating the exciting waters of expeditionary learning, I found myself craving some theory and background information that was more robust and holistic than what I was getting in professional development. I wanted more on curriculum development, language theory, classroom management, child development, classroom diversity, and more. I was grateful for this appetite to learn more, as it indicated passion for my work and the desire for excellence in teaching.

I was principally drawn to Endicott’s model, which combined intensive summer courses with online work, and I was curious about the field of international education. I didn’t want a program that forced me to sit at a desk for 2 years and wax theory, nor did I want to student teach, having already been a teacher for over 4 years. I went back and forth between MA and MEd programs and eventually found myself most excited about Endicott’s approach and curriculum, though in the end (and no disrespect to my alma mater), I’m sure my degree is comparable to most MEd or MA programs.

What I Learned.

In short, I got exactly what I wanted out of my degree program in regards to curriculum and training.

Where my expectations were exceeded, however, was outside of the curriculum and squarely related to what happened in between the papers, the careful placement of periods and italicization in APA citations, and the dreaded navigation of Canvas.

I humbly present my five biggest nuggets of learning:

Trust & Use Your People

Perhaps the single most important aspect of any graduate program is the networking potential, and I don’t mean that in the gross elbow-rubbing old boys club style. My program had a small cohort of individuals who taught and/or lived in China, Spain, Morocco, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, Malawi, Columbia, France, Ghana, Netherlands, Germany, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Panama, Canary Islands, Canada, and more. The diversity, ideas, stories, cultures, and more supplied a seemingly endless stream of perspective. As a class, we could examine one topic from nearly 14 different perspectives. Having my dominant worldview and opinion challenged (kindly) on a daily basis in class filled my brain with more ideas than any textbook or scholarly journal could.

In class, we quickly built a community of trust constantly asked one another for opinions, advice, or perspective. I used to be shy about sharing my work, especially my written work, however, it was clear that if we each operated in a bubble, we’d be missing out on 9/10ths of the learning potential. Following graduation, I still reach out to my classmates and ask them to edit or give feedback on my writing or projects I want to run with students. This type of professional community is rare, and so rich.

APA Citation Loves You More Than You Love It

Psych! Some of my biggest learning really is related to APA citation!

Citing work, though tedious and seemingly neurotically detailed in its punctuation and typeface standards, ultimately bolstered in my mind the importance of owning my work and my own ideas. As young students, we (those of us with calibrated moral compasses, that is) are terrified of accidentally mis-citing and subsequently “stealing” other people’s work but mainly because we don’t want to get in trouble and lose points (life fact: points aren’t real).

But as I started to synthesize increasingly more complex ideas and create my own work, I recognized the value citation can have in protecting me! I want to own my ideas, even if I’m keen to share them, too. As I started writing and creating more and more, I found that people “using” my work, even on social media, did feel unfair and like stealing. It took a minute for me to be okay with owning my own work, but ultimately my ideas are a result of my work, effort, and sacrifice, and it’s not fair for someone to snatch the final product without doing the dirty work.

So, whether you subscribe to APA or Chicago or even IEEE (gasp), cite, darn it! Stop stealing people’s stuff, and start protecting your own.

It’s Not All About Me/You

Deciding to take on a higher degree is usually rooted in some type of selfishness. A Master’s degree can make you a more qualified or attractive applicant, increase your salary, and make you the source of teacher’s lounge eye-rolling  (mostly jk), and ultimately the degree is for you.

However, in my program, I found myself consistently proud of or excited for classmates. It was amazing to watch my classmates (and me) grow over the course of a few years, trying new things in their classrooms. I was inspired by how all of my classmates were there to be a better teacher for their students and their school. They wanted to improve how they could foster student learning, how to engage their faculty in initiatives, and think about ways their classroom culture could be elevated. More often than not, a discussion would be inspired by a teacher asking for advice on how to reach a student. The care and dedication implicit in this type of program is a poignant reminder that while ultimately some perks may come from a higher degree, the impacts are farther reaching and much less self-serving– one of the dearest things about the field of education.

Hard Things Take Time: Start Them Now

I can’t tell you the number of times I avoided actually just starting a paper, before I checked every possible thing the internet had to offer. Some weeks I would laugh-cry at my schedule wondering how I was going to possibly engage meaningfully in my group project online while also traveling back and forth to Asia. Once I totally misjudged a deadline and ended up writing a 21-page paper on broken hotel lobby computer in Costa Rica at 2am.

And if I learned anything from those coffee-fueled moments of academia adrenaline, it is simply this: just start. Hard things will ultimately take time, but they are worth it. Recognizing that investing in a higher degree must come with the understanding that it will take time is the first step. If you just start, even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, you’re making progress. Prior to school, I was paralyzed with “writer’s block,” but really I felt like unless I had exactly the flow and direction of my ideas, it simply wasn’t worth the time to write. Yet, in school, I can’t tell you how many new ideas or “aha!” moments came when I just allowed myself to start. Indeed, this lesson itself led to the creation of this blog!

Be Proud of Yourself.

A Master’s degree is never handed or bought; it’s always earned, and I proved to myself that I was capable, worthy, and skilled in this field. That I belong. I’m a teacher.

I’m proud of completing my program ultimately because doing so took a commitment, sacrifice, and focus. To be willing to take this on is noble in and of itself and to learn, to network, to connect, and to flourish on top of it is nothing short of incredible. To feel proud of yourself? That’s pretty incredible.

Worth It?

In short, yep!

I am me, and I’m not you, so perhaps the Master’s of Education path is not one you want to go down; but perhaps it is. There are no shortages of resources that discuss whether and MEd is worth it, or not.

But ultimately, the vitality, richness, and depth of the program originated from my wonderful classmates and professors who infused the curriculum with life lessons and global experience.

Of equal importance was the professional confidence it imbued in me. If I’m ever feeling a lack of confidence, all I need do is look in the mirror and remind myself:

You’re a freaking MASTER!

[Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash]