Interview with Jennifer

Jennifer had wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl. She would play "school" on the back porch. Sometimes her little sister, or neighborhood children, could be coaxed into playing her pupils for awhile. She even assigned them homework-- discarded dittos saved for her by indulgent teachers; but eventually the children became restless and too unruly. So mostly her stuffed animals, those trusted friends who had crisscrossed the United States and the Pacific Ocean on many military moves, dutifully lined up for roll call. Jennifer couldn't wait to take attendance with a classroom of real children sitting in real seats.

So when she received her bachelor's degree in 1991, and teaching credential a year later from CSU, Sacramento in 1992, she was anxious to get right into the classroom.

It was over a decade before she returned to the classroom as a student. And this time it was a virtual university. Walden University has no brick and no mortar presence.

"It took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that I was actually going to enroll," the elementary school teacher says candidly. "Online education was still fairly new to the general public at the time. I had a concern as to how others would view it."

Her husband, Scott, was a part of the decision-making process. Also a teacher, he had started to shop around for master's degree programs over a year earlier. As he matriculated through the Walden University program, he urged his wife on as well.

When Jennifer finally made the decision to return to school, the entire family, including their three boys now 9, 6, and 4, was supportive. "My mom almost got teary-eyed because she'd waited so long for me to go back to school, and she was beginning to fear I wouldn't," recalls Jennifer. "She offered to do anything she could to help. My mother-in-law was also encouraging."

When her husband was taking his courses on-line there wasn't much of an interruption in the family's daily routine. But since Jennifer is the one who usually prepares dinner, preps school lunches, helps with homework, bathes the children and reads the bedtime stories--some concessions had to be made.

The children had to learn to be more flexible, and more patient. "They tuned into television more the year I started school," she laments. "They had to entertain themselves."

The coursework was labor-intensive. On a weekly basis, each class involved textbook reading, viewing of a 30 - 60 minute video lecture, posting comments and replying to two other classmates on the discussion boards, and submission of a 6 - 8 page paper.

Some professors would "drop in" on the discussions as well. Just as in a traditional setting, "there are some professors who are truly involved and facilitate, some who are just lecturers, and some who posted as a matter of formality," she notes. "Some really probed and forced us to think about certain issues and directed us to other resources."

There was no break between classes either. When one term ended, the next began the day after. Winter break was the only respite. Still, despite the grinding schedule and her responsibilities as a full-time teacher, she feels her decision was right for her.

"I tend to enjoy working in a solitary fashion," she says. "In a traditional classroom setting you're encouraged, even required, to work in groups. I didn't want to have to do that for every single class. Especially in education classes, they want you to experience collaboration and cooperative grouping."

In her particular program the group work component was minimal. "One of my issues with group work is the different work ethics," says Jennifer. Adding to her concerns are, "the level of determination" and different levels of effort that people choose to put into their work."

To her relief there was but one research project that involved partnering. And she was permitted to pick her own partner, a like-minded individual with a similar work ethic. The convenience of attending school within her own home was another factor that contributed to her positive experience.

"I always knew that I wanted to further my education," she says. "It was time." She admits it would have been easier to attend school prior to having children. She briefly considered pursuing her degree as a young teacher, and again as a newlywed living in Southern California.

"I would've had access to a big name university. UCLA had a prestigious School of Education. But I couldn't be a full-time student. It was discouraging."

She also considered some of the other programs in the area then, but found them lacking in innovation. "And," she adds, "I wasn't looking forward to sitting in L.A. traffic after work."

"By the time we returned to Northern California, any thoughts of returning to school were put on hold as we added to our family. As we were having our last child, we started on the path." Pursuing their degrees did call for creativity, stamina, and personal sacrifice. But they made it work.

Her laptop computer was "indispensable." It gave her the freedom to weave coursework into the fabric of their daily lives. She took it to soccer practice, tee ball practice and to capoeira, a Brazilian martial art the family studies.

In between fastening shin guards, lacing cleats, and opening juice boxes, she typed up homework. "I even took my laptop on the family vacation to Hawaii," she remembers fondly. "The place had wireless access. I packed my videos and was able to do my postings as well as submit my homework."

She likens the 18-month degree program to new motherhood. "I studied after hours. It was almost two years of really late nights. "I didn't go to sleep anytime before midnight," she says. "You make it through bleary-eyed, just like with a newborn baby. And a year and a half later, the baby is sleeping through the night."

And just as with parenthood, she has found the experience of getting her degree to be rewarding. "I received affirmation when I would try things that I learned [from the coursework] in the classroom with positive results," she says with pride.

"I would've had access to a big name university. UCLA had a prestigious School of Education. But I couldn't be a full-time student. It was discouraging."

She also considered some of the other programs in the area then, but found them lacking in innovation. "And," she adds, "I wasn't looking forward to sitting in L.A. traffic after work."

"By the time we returned to Northern California, any thoughts of returning to school were put on hold as we added to our family. As we were having our last child, we started on the path." Pursuing their degrees did call for creativity, stamina, and personal sacrifice. But they made it work.

Her laptop computer was "indispensable." It gave her the freedom to weave coursework into the fabric of their daily lives. She took it to soccer practice, tee ball practice and to capoeira, a Brazilian martial art the family studies.

In between fastening shin guards, lacing cleats, and opening juice boxes, she typed up homework. "I even took my laptop on the family vacation to Hawaii," she remembers fondly. "The place had wireless access. I packed my videos and was able to do my postings as well as submit my homework."

She likens the 18-month degree program to new motherhood. "I studied after hours. It was almost two years of really late nights. "I didn't go to sleep anytime before midnight," she says. "You make it through bleary-eyed, just like with a newborn baby. And a year and a half later, the baby is sleeping through the night."

And just as with parenthood, she has found the experience of getting her degree to be rewarding. "I received affirmation when I would try things that I learned [from the coursework] in the classroom with positive results," she says with pride.

She views education as an investment. She estimates the total cost of her master's degree to be about $7,500. "It was manageable, but it was a strain," she admits. Her employer did not offer tuition assistance. So she used her credit card to pay the tuition. She and her husband accrued enough points to redeem for tickets to Hawaii, their annual vacation destination.

With the demands of a full-time job, marriage, homeownership, three active children and two pampered dogs, she had every excuse not to go back to school. But she had quiet determination.

Some districts offer opportunities for teachers to continue their education. Workshops on classroom management techniques, differentiating education, and utilizing new software are provided free. Jennifer had taken advantage of most of those opportunities as they became available.

Though after 12 years in the classroom, she was "hungry for more." She felt the workshops tended to target teachers new to the subject matter. "They were rather rudimentary," she says. "I had exhausted all of my resources to keep myself current in my field," she says. "I had done everything I could with attending seminars, teaching conferences, doing professional reading on my own, participating in study groups. I felt ready to take the next step."

The State of California requires teachers to earn 150 hours of professional development every five years to maintain their credential. When Jennifer's credential expires next year, she can submit her hours from Walden University master's degree program to fulfill the professional development requirement.

That degree hangs on the wall in her home office now because her family wanted to display it. She goes in and out to pay bills, do her lesson-planning and check e-mail without giving it a second thought. But the learnings benefit her every day.

"I felt that having a master's degree would create opportunity for me," she reasons. "The farther I progressed in my coursework, and the more I made of what I was learning, I realized it didn't matter where I had received my degree. I had achieved my goals that I had set for myself in advancing my education."

 

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