"I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma." -Eartha Kitt

Nearing Completion…

By Brenda Reed

I have always wanted to teach.  As a child I spent hours teaching my “classroom” of stuffed animals all about the wonderful things I had learned at school.  As a mother I have dedicated the past twenty years to teaching my children about life and the world around us.  As a teacher I teach English, but that description doesn’t begin to explain everything I try to do or need to accomplish each day in my classroom. 

When I enrolled at MSU in 2007, I had no idea what to expect from online graduate courses.  My assumption was that I would be given thick, abstract books to read, then be told to write long, pretentious essays that would have little to do with me as a person or educator, and finally be handed a grade that was based on how well I played the role of graduate student rather than how much I had actually learned.  Thinking back on my expectations of graduate school, I realize that my view was not only dismally negative, but it was altogether misguided. 

As a busy teacher raising a family of five children, I can honestly say that I was not entirely eager to enroll in graduate school.  I was already struggling to spend quality time with my family, and anyone who has ever taught understands that class never ends when the bell rings.  In fact, teaching is a twenty-four hour shift, twelve months a year.  I had made the decision, however, that if I had to attend graduate school, it needed to be online so that I could remain at home with my children.  At the same time, I knew that I wanted a degree from a reputable school; I wanted to attend MSU.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Michigan State’s P-12 Schools and Postsecondary Leadership online program was the right choice.

My first course, TE 891, Special Topics in Teaching, Curriculum and Learning, shattered my misconceptions about graduate school and set the standard for all of my courses after it.  Instead of reading boring, abstract books, I was exploring online museums, watching documentaries, and studying films.  Following my explorations and viewings, I was engaging in insightful conversations with my professor about what each assignment meant in terms of education and leadership.  I quickly discovered that the ideas I had formed throughout my years of teaching were not as unreasonable as I had imagined.  This gave me a new energy in working with my students.  While TE 891 was a college course, I was able to share many of the assignments with my students.  Since I work with alternative students who often lack the confidence to be successful in education because of past failures that have haunted them for years, I wanted to share with them the learnings of Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln as shown in A Passion for Learning by Philip Cusick.  While I didn’t expect my students to read the text, I was able to share with them the concepts found in the book. Cusick explains how Franklin and Lincoln learned through inquiry and experimentation.  If there was something they wanted to know-they found a way to learn it.  My students could appreciate this idea.  If Abraham Lincoln, a beloved president in United States history, was able to overcome obstacles and teach himself what he wanted to know, they could as well.  My students and I, together, were able to discover what real education means.  Learning isn’t always easy, and there will often be setbacks and dead-ends, but the journey can be exciting and fun if it’s approached properly.  That approach doesn’t have to mean worksheets and red marks, but it can mean online exhibits, movies, and games- and fun.

In the past, co-workers had often criticized me for being “too nice” or not being stern enough with my students.  I was made to feel that I was wrong in my approach or that perhaps I was too shy and kindhearted to be a “good” teacher.  I struggled with those thoughts for years, but still I could never understand why people in education, including teachers from my past and colleagues in my present, felt the need to be so inflexible and impersonal.  If, however, cold and impersonal was what education was supposed to be, then maybe they were right; maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it.

The insecurities I held about my ability to teach followed me to MSU.  Because of past criticism, I was fearful of expressing my ideas in class, yet, after one semester with Professor Steven Weiland, I realized that my ideas about teaching and society were not so askew.  Instead, it was often those around me who were not seeing clearly.  I gained this confidence through the assignments and communications I shared with my professor.  Professor Weiland did not simply tell me about ideas, he actually listened to what I had to say, and was even willing to re-examining his own thinking because of ideas I had shared.  Never before, in all my years of schooling, had I known a teacher to admit to not “knowing everything.”  This discovery was a lesson in itself.

I was lucky enough to have Professor Weiland again for EAD 864, Adult Career Development, in the fall of 2007.  Again there were modern films, autobiographies, self-help booklets and insightful communication.  This course, even more than those before it, reinforced my thoughts about reaching out to others and what it means to “teach”.  The concepts that were coming together for me were understanding and respect.   Linda Greenlaw, Jane Tomkins, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and Danielle Ofri are just a few of the people I studied in Professor Weiland’s courses.  What they all had in common were a need to follow their passion, and a desire to continue to learn, grow, and improve themselves and others around them.  There are many other names, real and fictitious, that I could add to the list of those I have studied at MSU, but there is little need.  The point is that through a few books, films and discussions, I have been provided with insight into education and leadership.  Teaching doesn’t mean being impersonal; it means building relationships with your students.  Teaching doesn’t mean making your students struggle to understand; it means finding a different way to teach them.  Teaching doesn’t mean telling your students what you know; it means listening to what students already know so that together we can give them what they need.  Teaching doesn’t mean following the same pattern of teaching for the pattern’s sake; it means following your heart and spirit and finding a way to share with others what they need to know about the world.

I took a short break from my graduate courses in 2008 and 2009.  When I returned to finish my degree, I realized that my short separation from my course work actually improved my understanding of the overall picture that MSU is trying to paint for its students.  The same concepts of understanding and respect that I treasured so much in Professor Weiland’s courses in 2007 were just as prevalent in EAD 825, Shared Leadership in Schools, in 2010.  I discovered in Professor Barbara Meloche’s course that the ideas of understanding and respect don’t only apply to teaching in education, but to leadership in education as well.  This course provided me with a voice.  I had wanted, so many times over the years, to express my ideas about what could make our program better.  Because of my insecurities, though, I chose instead to sit back and say nothing; until now. 

This year, because of the knowledge and understanding I have gained through MSU, I was able to speak up, and people listened.  Now, we teachers are working together. Now, I am communicating and sharing ideas with my director, and now, I am having in-depth discussions with our higher administration.  EAD 825 has given me research to use to defend my ideas.  A line in the Peter Block text, Community, the Structure of Belonging states,

“The transformation we seek occurs when these two conditions are created: when we produce deeper relatedness across boundaries, and when we create new conversations that focus on the gifts and capacities of others. (Block, p. 61)

Because we staff members, together with the administration, are sharing ideas and rethinking those past boundaries that have always defined our program in the past, our students are benefiting.  What’s more, we teachers are working to go beyond those pre-set boundaries with our students as well.  Creating different conversations with them and highlighting my students’ gifts has always been, and always needs to be, my goal as an educator.

Again, I have seen different leadership styles throughout my thirteen years of teaching, and again I have often found myself wondering why some people feel the need to “be the boss” instead of being on “the same team” as those they work with.   What I learned about teaching I also learned about leading.  Leading is not telling others what to do; leading is listening to others and sharing in a vision of improvement for all.  While I am not an official leader in an administrative sense, I play a vital role in our program’s leadership.  My understanding of my students and their needs must be shared with my director and the higher administration.  Without constant communication and trust, there is a gap in our school’s effectiveness; we fail.  I now understand that I have a voice, and my students are relying on me to speak for them.

There have been times, especially in this last year of study at MSU, where I found myself thinking that I had “already learned” certain information in another class.  Interestingly, very little information ever overlapped in my classes.  What felt like overlap was really nothing more than connection.  The ideas in my EAD 825 Shared Leadership class were so tightly woven to the ideas in EAD 801 Leadership and Organizational Development that taken together, they seemed almost to create one extensive course.  My discussions about Peter Block’s Community in EAD 825and Daniel Goleman’s “emotional intelligence” in What makes a leader? in EAD 801, both helped me in my creating and explaining my case studies for EAD 825.  The two classes, though completely different in content, were a perfect example of shared leadership in theory.  Each course brought with it its own information and knowledge, but together they created one well rounded course and illustration for me of what shared leadership can be.  In fact, the entire MSU MAED online program falls under the same concept for me.  Though each course I have taken is individual, the courses work together as a whole to form one meaning, one representation of what learning, teaching, and leading are meant to be. 

Whatever my misconceptions of online graduate school once were, they are long extinct.  Because of my study at Michigan State, I now have an understanding and confidence in myself that I have never had before.  I certainly don’t know everything, but I know many things.  I know that the ideas shared in all of my courses were important to growing as a teacher, a leader, and a person.  I know that I want to share with my students that same desire to learn each and every day.  I know that when I look into the faces of my own children that I can honestly tell them that education is more important than they know, and that I want for them to learn as much as they can- forever. 

The other thing that I know is that I still want to teach.   That somehow, somewhere, each and every day, I want to share what I know with someone else; I also know that I want to learn what others know, to share our ideas, and to grow.  A few days ago I went into my seven-year-old daughter’s room.  Her stuffed animals were lined up on the floor, all facing the front of the room, and there were books and pictures in the center where my daughter had been sharing with them all she knows about the world around them…the animals, and I, were all smiling…