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Interview: Tech-Savvy English Teacher Uses Online Master's Degree to Advance Career

Denylle McDowell has worked for as a teacher for more than a decade, and she's made exceptional use of her time. During her tenure as a middle school language arts teacher and department chairwoman at Yvonne Shaw Middle School in Reno, Nevada, she also taught Technology in the Classroom institutes as part of the Northern Nevada Writing Project Technology in the Classroom program. As the school year concluded in 2008, Denylle enrolled in an online master's degree program in curriculum writing and instructional leadership for a perfect opportunity: a master's degree program with a thesis option to complete all of the entries required to apply for National Board Teaching Certification, a voluntary credential that requires teachers complete 10 assessments in various areas.

Q: With so many online schools available, how did you choose?

A: That was one of the most overwhelming things about researching master's programs for me! I had a hard time choosing a program that would fit my life and needs. In the end, the program I chose offered me the most options for my master's experience. It was also a completely online program, which I preferred to some other programs' hybrid model of online courses with some in-person interaction and group projects.

Q: What are some of the challenges you faced in your online degree program?

A: One really big challenge is that not everyone is skilled at communicating expectations in an online environment. Fortunately, I had only one course where I fought with the instructor about making his expectations clear. That was enough to make me aware that he probably wasn't the best fit for an online institution. And dealing with that, as a student, was really hard.

Q: What was your favorite class?

A: It was the companion course to the course I just mentioned! That instructor was scheduled to teach both the first and second curriculum writing courses. Because he had such a tough time communicating his expectations in the first class, the second was taught by another instructor. It was fascinating, as an educator, to see the extreme differences in the two professors. And it was uplifting to see this instructor enhance and enrich the curriculum from the first course while still teaching us the new material for his course. This class was my favorite because I learned more than just the intended curriculum; because of the issues with the first instructor, this course became a practical lesson on different teaching and leadership styles.

Q: Do you feel the classes were directly relevant to your career as an educator?

A: Absolutely. This was one of the major differences between my undergrad and master's experiences. My undergrad experience prepared me for content, but not pragmatic experiences as an educator. My master's experience prepared me for both.

Q: What sorts of expectations did you have before you started your online degree program?

A: Actually, I was very skeptical of online education, before my master's. I, honestly, did not believe that you could teach, let alone learn, in an online environment. I thought all of my coursework was going to be easy with no real challenge. I thought I wouldn't take anything away from the experience, except for the degree. I was surprised by how wrong I was in all of those assumptions. I would even go so far as to say my master's coursework was harder than it would have been in a traditional setting.

Q: What career goals has your degree already helped you to achieve?

A: Well, I left the traditional classroom and started teaching at an online school myself. So, I guess it caused me to convert to being a believer in virtual education's effectiveness. It's made me want to fight to help see it legitimized as an effective option for students to learn. Because of my degree, I now work in a place where I write curriculum that is appropriate for virtual learning. I think it's the best blend of using the content of my degree and my experience in getting the master's degree to advance learning options for kids.

Though her application for National Board Certification wasn't successful, McDowell's online master's degree led her to her current job as a teacher facilitator at Nevada Connections Academy, an online public school alternative for students who aren't successful in the traditional classroom. Her online degree has also set her up perfectly for her dream job: to write a comprehensive Language Arts curriculum for middle or high school grade levels.

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JoVon Sotak is a writer, community journalist, and photographer who enjoys living in the middle of nowhere, Nevada. Her articles have appeared in online and print publications in Nevada and throughout the United States.

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