I was 43 years old when I started working on a master's degree. These days it's common for teachers to pursue graduate degrees shortly after earning a bachelor's, but in 1979 when I started teaching, that was the exception. So I'd been teaching awhile when I applied to graduate school.
The program was new, the first cohort of practicing classroom teachers to pursue a degree in K-12 Literacy at the same university that awarded me a bachelor's degree in Secondary English Education. It was significant that the program was for teachers, in actual classrooms, because it made the work relative and meaningful. In addition, our schedules were considered so no classes started before we could get out of school, maneuver around car pools and buses, and meet together at an off-campus site that was convenient to us.
At the risk of being melodramatic, my master's program was life-changing to me, as a teacher and as a person. But last week, I heard a Superintendent of another state's Department of Education tell a room full of teachers that a master's degree doesn't make a difference in the classroom. He went on to add that a PhD doesn't matter either. Oh, and neither does National Board Certification. I'll get back to that...
But first, I'd like to let Dr. Superintendent, who, by the way, has never taught one day in a K-12 classroom, know that, as a result of my graduate degree, there are now hundreds of struggling readers who've been assessed and diagnosed, and, as a result of my ability to pinpoint their exact deficiencies in reading, have had the opportunity to grow by a grade level or more during my time with them. Because of my master's degree, I put my overhead projector away and stopped the "correct this sentence" daily warm-up because I figured out that my students were unable to make the connection to their own writing.
My research in graduate school, on the effects of poverty on reading, enabled me to better understand my students and the struggles they brought to my classroom. I literally left that program with an arsenal of instructional strategies that made me a better teacher.
In addition, the collaboration that occurred in that program helped me understand what my students were experiencing before they got to me in middle school - there were over twenty elementary school teachers in my cohort. We discussed, we bounced ideas off each other, and we listened to concerns, research results, and success stories. As a practicing classroom teacher, I was able to connect to every story, an experience that was different from when I earned my first degree and had never taught my own students.
My master's degree mattered.
Before I even walked across the stage to receive my graduate diploma in 2003, I had begun the process of National Board Certification, another growth experience that changed me as a teacher. I was able to take those strategies I learned in my graduate program and mold them to fit the needs of my own students. While writing my entries and viewing my videotapes, I reflected on ways to improve my teaching: I spent hours trying to determine how to help my students grow in reading and writing, an accomplishment that a candidate for National Board Certification must prove in order to be certified in English/Language Arts.
I was able to scrutinize every element of my teaching as I pursued National Board Certification, and at the same time I honed up on some skills I had learned back during my undergraduate days - I reviewed my content vocabulary and revisited my college textbooks in an effort to prepare for the assessments that are an integral component of the National Board process. I also reflected on my accomplishments as a teacher leader in my school and looked for ways to make a bigger impact on my profession.
I remember asking myself a million questions while planning each lesson: how can I teach this better? How can I raise my expectations for how I teach and how my students learn? National Board Certification was the reason I asked those questions.
When confronted by the teachers in the audience who disagreed with the Superintendent's opinions, he answered, "The research does not show that master's degrees and National Board Certification make a difference. It is clear that the really good teachers are the ones who pursue higher degrees and national certifications anyway. They're already good."
Well, Dr. Superintendent, I may not have numbers and percentages and data. But what I do have are stories. For every negative thing you can say about the ways that we grow as teachers, I can tell you a specific story about a specific teacher who made a difference to kids who aren't numbers, kids who have actual faces and names. I'd love the opportunity to sit down with you and tell you those stories.
Just so you know, when I wrote my National Board Certification entry and chose the one thing that was the most meaningful in reference to my growth as a teacher, I chose my master's degree. If I had gone through the National Board process first, and had been asked to reflect on my growth while writing a graduate paper later, I would have named National Board Certification as the most significant. Both experiences changed me as a teacher and impacted hundreds of students as a result.
Shame on you, Dr. Superintendent, for not listening to what the very teachers you are supposed to represent are trying to tell you. Sometimes it's not about the research, the data, and the numbers. Sometimes it's about real classroom teachers and their real life-changing experiences.
And always...it's about the faces of the students who learn as a result.