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]

Must-Reads, Professional Development, School Design

BOMish: July 2018

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How’s that personal professional development going, friends?

In the midst of my final days of graduate school, in which I want nothing more than to sleep and eat an unsafe amount of chocolate truffles, I’m still keeping the practice of reading.

I’ll admit– I’m cheating a bit this month.

This month’s BOMish was one of my choice-books for my final class. Nevertheless, it’s a book! A compelling one, at that, rife with lessons I’ll take with me, and another chance to walk my walk and keep reading for my own sake.

The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools (Anthony Kim & Alexis Gonzalez-Black)

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Photo from newschoolrules.com
  • The Stats: 216 Pages, published February 2018
  • Who Should Read It: School administrators, school designers
  • My Rating (out of 5 ♥): ♥♥♥.5
  • My Thoughts: If you’ve ever found yourself checking the clock during a faculty meeting, willing the seconds to propel forward as you listen to an unproductive argument rooted in excuses and unnecessary power dynamics, this book is a breath of hope. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a strategic plan that seems impractical, patronizing, and woefully inappropriate, this book shows the light! 

The New School Rules offers six practices that help improve school structure, design, and overall effectiveness from an administrative perspective. The practices (Planning, Teaming, Managing Roles, Decision-Making, Sharing Information, and Learning Organization) are research-based strategies and are presented alongside realistic case studies, which include the problems, the learning, and helpful resources. The website is the perfect companion to the book and offers a rich supply of tools, workouts, and exercises for applying the rules in real-time.

I found myself nodding along several times in this book and having a few “aha!” moments, such as when planning, start small and plan for pivot-points. Or reinventing meeting structures, whereby most of the preparation is done by individuals before the meeting, rather than spending time listening to the moderator review the entire schedule.

Along with some aggressive head-nodding, I also left the book wondering how well certain ideas would work in a school, as they smelled more of a non-profit or start-up flavor, than that of an education setting. In a school setting, the majority of roles are already pre-assigned at the time of hiring. For instance, if I’m hired to be a middle school teacher, the bulk of my job will be… teaching middle school. The additional roles will generally be ancillary, and I’m curious how the Managing Roles and Teaming strategies will be received and/or adapted by school leaders as this book finds itself in schools. 

Ultimately, I’m curious about the reception of this book and its practicality and application to schools. I left it abuzz with ideas but also with equal measure of questions of its depth of relevancy to a school. The rules and simplification found on the website are dangerously tempting to be used as quickie (easily forgotten) professional development sessions and not for grander structural overhauls– which the book suggests are necessary for a school to be more responsive. 

Certainly worth a read, and I look forward to seeing further versions, adaptations, and ideas as schools take it on.

Have you read The New School Rules? 

Are these rules appropriate for your school setting? 

What rule do you think is most important for your school? Least? 

Must-Reads, Professional Development

BOMish: May 2018

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And just like that, it’s May– perhaps the busiest and most anticipated month of any educator, as learning targets perhaps seem more improbable than nailing a bullseye blindfolded. Final papers and lab reports loom in the distance while the pile of grading takes on a magical quality of never actually diminishing- only growing exponentially, despite what your bloodshot eyes may say otherwise.

Fear not, Educators. June is nigh.

What a great time to find the time NOT to read, right? 

R I I I I G H T ? 

Wrong! Remember, you’re responsible for your own professional development. Read like your profession depends on it (it does).

Alas, it’s a great season for a lighthearted yet valuable read. My BOMish of May came to me during the May of my first year teaching by a former teaching mentor of mine, a history teacher named Matt. Matt flattered me by saying that I reminded him of Madame Esmé herself, the author/heroine/protagonist/bada$$ teacher of Educating Esmé– a compliment which I kindly laughed off as I was in the midst of confidently nearing the end of barely surviving my own first year of teaching.

In fact, Matt had extraordinary timing when he gave this to me that fateful May day. Reading Esmé’s (mis)adventures fueled me with a quad-shot of inspiration– that jolt I’d been missing since September. After finishing the book, I was running on all cylinders, confident I could make it to the end of the school year as hopeful and energized as I’d began it. (You may be wondering, kind Readers, if that confidence translated to success. I’d estimate I made it at least 50% back to my September naivete exuberance, but for a first-year teacher in May? That’s pretty darn exceptional ;))

Educating Esmé: Diary of a First-Year Teacher (Esmé Raji Codell)

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Photo from Amazon.com
  • The Stats: 290 Pages, published September 2009
  • Who Should Read It: First-year teachers, veteran teachers, school administrators, and parents
  • My Rating (out of 5 ♥): ♥♥♥♥
  • My Thoughts: Hot out of teacher-training and ready to change the world, Esmé enters her first-year teaching 5th grade at a tough Chicago public school. It’s clear from the start the care and love Esmé has for her students and the profession, as she toes the line in class daily of giving in to her verve and joie de vivre through silly antics (think rollerskating in the hallways, renaming math class “puzzling” class, making a homemade time machine in class that involves a great deal of rolling around on the floor), contrasting the raw and heartbreaking challenges of teaching. Though the book is light, peppered with her characteristic sass, Esmé isn’t shy to reveal the underbelly of School World, such as her cringe-worthy and hands-on (literally!!) principal who sees her investment to innovation in her classroom as an inconvenience; or the abuse inflicted by a parent to her child at a parent-teacher conference; as well as the realities of an underfunded school with a district screaming for performance to weary, apathetic educators (Esmé’s fellow faculty). Esmé narrates the weird, the ugly, and the raw with heart, and I was rooting hard for this young teacher with her Miss Frizzle flair. I left this book inspired to awaken that creative, ambitious, and confident inner teacher (who I hadn’t seen since the fall) and excited to, against all odds, keep trying. At times, admittedly, I found myself jealous of Esmé because while she does face challenge, it’s never exactly related to her confidence nor competence in her career– something common in the first-year teaching trauma. I was left wondering if she left these parts out, or if she simply didn’t experience them. 

My biggest grievance with this book is that after making it through the school year victoriously, Esmé-the-hero informs us she won’t be returning to the classroom and has decided to pursue being a librarian instead. 

Say what?!

I FELT SO DECEIVED!!! If Esmé can make it, I can make it… but now Esmé’s decided not to make it; so maybe I can’t make it, or maybe I shouldn’t make it, either?! This aspect left me wondering if she left something out, something too juicy or personal for a book. The less-kind part of my mind wonders if perhaps she underwent a first-year teaching experiment, knowing she’d write a book, and thus was less attached to the career overall. Who can know? 

Regardless of the plot twist, this book is a refreshing, delicious read if you’re an educator, an administrator, or have any experience with the highs and lows of a school year. Thank you, Esmé, for taking us on your ride!

[Photo courtesy of Amazon.com]