How My Master’s Degree Made Me a Better Teacher

I always tell people I’m perhaps the most dangerous person in the world: my bachelor’s degree is in English (the study of humans) and psychology (the study of human behavior), and my master’s is in writing and rhetoric (the study of manipulating people through language); everything I say and do, every movement I make is done with some kind of purpose, and while I’m on the end of my graduate program, I can’t help but reflect on the value it has added to my life.

In the education world and reform movements, much discussion has taken place regarding the value of the master’s degree in education. The opposing side argues that master’s degrees do not make better teachers; that many teachers just get their degrees online, at for-profit universities, and research suggests there is no value to gaining higher education–to which I would say that is true; there certainly are degree programs that are focused around garnering a piece of paper over actual education. But, in my defense, I will say that my master’s degree has 100% made me a better teacher.

Better resources: I’d say about 60% of my grad school has been reading research articles (30% reading literature, 10% watching film, which I will get to later). In my courses, we have covered topics, anywhere from Aristotle and Plato’s views on “a universal truth” to Strauss and deconstruction to writing as a non-linear process. We have discussed topics, such as why Obama won the Democratic ticket in 2008, how morality is formed, is #Twitter as random and chaotic as we once thought?…

I’m not really the kind of teacher who can develop one unit, and then teach it for the rest of my life. If I’m not passionate about something, I can’t teach it. Living in a Common Core world, one of the challenges, particularly with English, is that we are expected to have a non fiction focus, but we don’t necessarily have non fiction materials to pull from. Luckily, grad school has given me a slew of new and exciting materials to be passionate about. Grad school has introduced me to an array of essays, articles, books, films, short stories, poems, journal prompts, commercials, etc. that I use frequently in my classes (Now You See It by Cathy Davidson, They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff, Screening America by Jason Mittell).

In addition, grad school has introduced me to new and innovative topics. Two summers ago, I took a film class that changed my life (you can read about it here), and just for fun, tried it with my seniors last year. The unit structured around how to read film like literature, and we learned film techniques (transitions, matching, point of view, etc). We discussed issues of morality, beauty, reality. We read critical reviews. I was amazed at their enthusiasm, the depth of their conversations, and the products they produced from this unit. But, it really was grad school that encouraged me to develop and implement this life changing unit.

Better networking: I teach a senior level college prep class at my high school, and one of my favorite things about teaching the class whilst being in grad school is the networking I have access to. First of all, I get to meet other English teacher from around the state and share stories, lesson plans, grievances. Talking with these other teachers and finding out their copy rooms also don’t work, their internet is also sketch, their students are also fidgety right around Halloween always grounds me and gives me perspective: maybe I’m actually quite normal. Additionally, I get the opportunity to network with the writing professors and graduate students who are in the trenches of freshman composition, and can tell me, “hey, these kids really don’t know how to integrate quotes”, “hey, these kids have really low vocabularies”, “hey, these kids really struggle with citations”. Lucky (or unluckily, however you want to look at it) for my students, I can go to school the very next day and start solving some of these deficits so my students are most successful post-graduation.

Better instruction: Being back in the classroom reminds me what it is like to be a student; sitting in the desks, studying for tests, writing essays. While it sounds minuscule, watching my graduate professors teach their own classes significantly improved my own instruction. For example, my first year of teaching, I was a terrible discussion leader. Part of that came from my own insecurities of not knowing the material, and my fear of not being in control of the time, the types of comments made, etc. So one year, I made a goal to be a better discussion leader, and one of the best learning experiences I gained was being my own student and observing how my graduate professors ran their own discussions. I had one professor who would track the discussion on the board–write down people’s comments, circle repeating phrases, and draw arrows to connecting thoughts. As a student myself, this visual tracking of our discussion was incredibly helpful, because it gave me time to mill over my own thoughts, while also allowing the conversation to move forward, and when I tried it in my own classroom, I was astounded by the depth the students were able to gain. No longer were we just talking about Holden’s hunting hat, but rather, where we saw similarities when he wore the hat. No longer were we just discussing the point of view, but rather when, why, and how we saw the point of view shifting. No longer were we just discussing our opinions on gun control, but rather how we were made to feel that way.

When I look back at my lesson plans from my first years teaching, we did things like, “draw pictures of symbols”, “memorize vocabulary words”, “write about how you are feeling today” (which, don’t get me wrong–are still very valuable lessons). But now, we are doing things, such as learning how to engage in a productive discussion, how to discern an author’s argument, and discuss the importance of effective communication. When I look back at my student evaluations from my first years of teaching, the students said things like, “I mostly learned vocab”, “I really enjoyed reading In Cold Blood”. Now when I look back at my evaluations, the students say things like, “I’m much more confident at writing thesis statements”, “I really enjoyed the real-life conversations we had”, or, “You ruined film for me!” To me, this shift in responses tells me that I’m doing my job; I’m no longer just focusing on comprehension issues, but rather developing analytical skills and thinking structures–and the kids are noticing.

More than just the intrinsic value, and the few extra IQ points I picked up along the way, my master’s degree has 100% made me a better teacher.

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