MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Wrapping up her second year as an assistant principal at Oakland Middle School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Annie Ralston is spending her weekends paving the way for more career opportunities by pursuing an advanced degree at Middle Tennessee State University.
Ralston is enrolled in the MTSU College of Education’s doctoral program for Assessment, Learning and School Improvement. Ralston started teaching at Oakland Middle four years ago as an eighth grade social studies teacher when the school first opened its doors within Rutherford County Schools. She’s now embracing her role as an administrative leader at the school and is scheduled to graduate from MTSU in August 2016.
“This (doctoral) program is amazing. I use it all the time,” she said. “Every weekend after class, I go back to my house and I plan how I’m going to implement what I learned into school. Then I start implementing the plans on Monday.”
MTSU has been a leader in preparing teachers and administrators for more than a century, and that role has grown in importance as K-12 education reforms sweep through the state and nation.
From its foundation as the Middle Tennessee State Normal School in 1911, the university’s mission as a teacher-training institution has grown, and the commitment to serving a leadership role in improving Tennessee’s teacher workforce remains central to the MTSU identity.
MTSU College of Education Dean Lana Seivers emphasizes that a master’s or doctoral degree in education can:
- Help a teacher become a more effective educator;
- Increase a teacher’s earning power over the course of a career, and
- Help a teacher qualify for advancement into leadership positions or administration.
While recently revised state guidelines have reduced the number of incremental pay increase steps in teacher salaries, “the fact remains that a teacher in Tennessee does make a higher salary with an advanced degree,” said Dr. Michael Allen, dean of the College of Graduate Studies at MTSU.
In addition, he noted that many Tennessee school districts do support their teachers’ pursuit of graduate education.
For Ralston, the pursuit of an advanced degree is also showing tangible benefits in the classroom all along her journey toward “Dr.” status. The key has been putting the theory and practical research knowledge base learned in the university classroom into practice inside the walls of Oakland Middle, she said.
“It’s helping with student learning. It’s helping implement a culture at my school,” said Ralston, mentioning a book written by nationally known education reformer Anthony Muhammad that she read and in turn had her teachers read.
“This is something that is helping my school, currently, and can be expanded and extended into the future.”
Ralston is in a cohort group with 19 other students. The intimacy of the small group allows for greater collaboration and idea sharing.
“We do a lot of group discussions. We have become a family,” she said. “We talk when we’re not in class. We email and we Facebook all the time, we’re asking each other questions: ‘How would you handle this situation at work?’, things like that.
“We’re reading, we’re discussing what we’re reading, then we try to use what we’re reading in large projects. We learn from each other a lot.”
Ralston and her classmates will play an important role in Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which seeks to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications to 55 percent by the year 2025.
MTSU teaches the teachers who will ultimately help achieve that goal. In fact, MTSU produced significantly more licensed teachers — 540 — than any other program in Tennessee in 2011, the most recent year of available data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Teachers can build upon a strong undergraduate experience by getting an advanced degree at a university founded on pedagogy.
“Our programs at MTSU focus on what we have known for a long time — the fundamentals of education,” said Seivers, who served as Tennessee commissioner of education under Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“We are not trendy or fad-driven: our programs help teachers deal with whatever comes their way. We have always kept our focus on what helps teachers teach and students learn.”
For example, MTSU’s master’s programs address many critical needs — reading, inclusion, counseling, English as a Second Language — and can help teachers now. The strength of these programs is their ability to help improve teachers’ classroom practice, add areas of licensure or help propel them into administrative roles.
Neil Watson, in his first year as an assistant principal at Cascade High School in Bedford County, Tennessee, is in the administrative licensure program at MTSU and graduated this spring.
Before becoming an assistant principal, Watson spent several years in the classroom as a science and social studies teacher. The MTSU graduate program allows Watson to earn the master’s degree necessary to take the state licensure examination for administrators.
Watson feels the classes he’s taken in the program, such as school finance, school law and current events in education, will be “very beneficial” in his career because they help build the foundation needed to be a well-rounded, knowledgeable administrator. Issues such as legal requirements, school maintenance, public relations and transportation require a wider breadth of training.
“This program is built around helping a future administrator understand all of those foundational pieces to what’s going to take place when you step into this role,” Watson said, adding that an administrator also must become “the instructional leader” for faculty regarding the latest teaching strategies or compliance with initiatives such as Common Core.
That’s what makes the MTSU master’s program so satisfying for him.
“The professors that we have, I like that they are in the field,” he said. “Most of them have been assistant principals, principals or even superintendents from other schools and districts. They’re current, hands-on every single day.”
Meanwhile, MTSU’s doctoral programs are unique in the nation. The Ph.D. in Literacy helps teachers understand the process of children’s learning, and the Ed.D. in Assessment, Learning and School Improvement is designed to equip teachers and administrators to make immediate improvements in their schools.
In addition, MTSU has interdisciplinary programs with the College of Basic and Applied Sciences — a Ph.D. in Mathematics and Science Education — for teachers in those fields.
Danica Wright Booth enrolled in MTSU’s doctoral program in literacy studies in 2008 and, like Watson, graduated in May. She teaches in Metro Nashville Public Schools at H.G. Hill Middle School, where she’s taught eighth grade literacy for the past six years.
She describes the Ph.D. in literacy program as “multidimensional,” exploring issues ranging from neurobiology (how the brain works and develops), to how learning is affected by a student with dyslexia or a student who is an English as a Second Language learner dealing with the accompanying sociocultural influences.
“We look at every way and everything that could affect a child learning to read,” Booth said. “It really gives you this comprehensive overview of who your students are and how best to teach them.”
Booth said her dissertation was related to teaching English language learners, which directly related to her teaching role at H.G. Hill where she’s seen a jump in the number of students learning English from 2 percent to 11 percent in two years.
“That’s something we’re seeing across the nation right now,” she said.
Booth connecting her graduate studies directly to the realities of students in the classroom comes as no surprise to Seivers. In making the choice to pursue a graduate degree, according to Seivers: “For most good teachers, it is not about what they want, but what their students need.”
Ralston, the Oakland Middle assistant principal, encourages other teachers considering an advanced degree to “just do it.”
“I have never been happier with a program than I am with this program I’m in right now,” she said. “I would highly recommend it because it is worth it, for sure.”
“It’s going to be the best move that you could possibly make,” said Booth. “I know there’s a lot of hesitancy, and it is a long-term process and it is exhausting, but you come out on the other end a better teacher.”
Said Watson: “If you think you want to do it, go ahead and do it.”