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Tips for Surviving the Mandatory Master's Degree

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Most states today require new teachers to start their master's degrees after just a few, short years in the classroom.  While there are many pros and cons to that requirement, the reality is that many master's programs really help us develop into better teachers and have a huge impact on what we do in the classroom.  Here are some tips and tricks to surviving the required master's program:

1. Go online!

There are many great online master's programs out there, from Western Governors University to my alma mater, University of Southern California's Rossier Online program, and the cost is wide-ranging, too.  Some programs require some face-to-face sessions while others don't, but it is possible to find a program that fits your best blended learning style and budget.

The best part about studying in an online program is fitting classes around work and home so much more easily.  I will warn you, though: most online programs have higher workloads in order to make up for less or no face-to-face time.  That's just the way it is.  The nice thing, though, is that you can still use all the great social media and online meeting or backchannel apps to develop real relationships with your professors and fellow students.  If you aren't as comfy online, don't worry--you will be by the end!

2. There's an app for that!

Time management and workload management are definitely problematic during a master's program.  You will still be teaching full-time, and trust me, there is always at least one term in which you have all your biggest stuff due right when all of your grades are due, too.  For managing all that work and all those deadlines, it turns out there are apps for that.

My top apps that got me through my program are:

  • Evernote (along with the free Webclipper add-on for Chrome)
  • Google Calendar (with notifications on!)
  • Any.do (best to-do list app out there)

There are many good apps out there, though, even free ones, for keeping track of your workload.  I started out my program using a college-student specific planner app, but in the end, I found that my top three worked the best for me.  It is worth downloading a few, playing with them a bit to see what's easiest to use when the prof is talking about the next due date or your principal gives you your next deadline, and then seeing what works best to keep you on track.  Some of the new student planner apps even color-code everything so clearly, so if you are a strongly visual learner, you might find those work best for you.

3. It's okay to go old school!

I was given an Evernote Moleskine as a gift at the beginning of my program, and I fell in love.  When I filled that, I just got a regular Moleskine and used Evernote post-its for color-coding as needed.  I found that I had to hand-write during class, that typing notes into Evernote during class was too much of a distraction in my brain.  When I talked with other students, several agreed, and they hand wrote their notes as well.

This also applies to books.  More and more textbooks are online these days, and usually, they are cheaper.  That then produces the dilemma of how to effectively read them--print out a massive book, use a different reading software than Adobe Reader, or try to read it online and take really good notes.  If you do your best active reading with actual pages, it is worth buying the actual book.  The good news is, though, that Amazon Prime has a student version, and you can rent even education textbooks through their service for very low cost.  Before buying that textbook from the college bookstore, check out Half.com, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online textbook companies.  You can probably find a deal.

For some texts, though, you will have to get the e-book from the college bookstore.  Word to the wise, some of the really big textbooks don't actually fit on a Kindle even though all the numbers say they should.  Foxit Reader ended up being my go-to program for reading my e-books and handouts because I could highlight, copy/paste, and write notes that were easy to find, though Evernote Premium also offers that capability now, too.

4. Schedule in mental breaks!

 While it is tempting to take a full load during the school year so you can finish sooner, I highly recommend going part-time and taking at least one term off a year.  You will need time to focus on teaching from time to time during the year, but in reality, you will need a break from grad school just to have self-reflection and healing time.  This is the time during which you will get caught up on sleep, housecleaning, reintroducing yourself to friends and family, and getting that last unit planned out.  Grad school classes move quickly, requiring a lot of work in a short period of time.  While that means we can finish heavy loads sooner, it also means that we don't get the self-reflective time to really think through what we just learned.  Even the self-reflective writings so many classes require just become yet another thing to write for a deadline.  It takes time after each term ends to really think through what you learned and how to apply it to your classroom.  Be gentle with yourself, especially if any big family or personal issues get in the way.


In the end, getting your master's is a highly rewarding experience, and you will find many new ideas and strategies to apply to your own students.  If you take time to reflect, use your best learning strategies and a good combination of apps, and do your best, you will get to the end of your program and find that you are a far better teacher than you were at the beginning.  


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Carina Hilbert is a middle school English/Spanish teacher currently on medical leave from Kalamazoo Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Carina has 10 years of teaching experience in urban, suburban, and rural schools; public, private, and charter schools; and grades 6-12. Last year, she also earned her Master's in the Art of Teaching from the University of Southern California through the Rossier Online program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages with her capstone research being on rural English language learners in Michigan. Carina's main teaching interests are blended learning, alternative education, project-based learning, and working with language learners across the curriculum. She lives in Kalamazoo with her two amazing children, her fiance and his son, as well as their two cats and her rather sizeable book and yarn collection.

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Guest Monday, 18 February 2019