Growing up in Rayne, La., Jazzmin Evans didn’t think college was on the table for her. Now, Evans is a first-generation master’s graduate, having earned her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Specialist, degree.
Evans' hard-earned achievement serves as an example for both her family and her students that higher education is possible.
“Seeing how proud my parents, my sister, and my brothers were of me, it just made me so happy. Now that I’m getting my master’s, my nieces, my nephews, my godchildren are going to see me,” says Evans. “It’s another steppingstone. It’s like, ‘I can do it. Twice. Y’all can do it at least one time.’”
And she isn’t finished. She’s using her degree and her experience to support teachers and encourage self-care.
Putting college on the table
As a middle schooler, Evans participated in TRIO through the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The program encompasses pre-college initiatives and student support services to, “motivate and support qualified students who are either low-income, first-generation college attendees, or have a documented disability so that they can succeed in the completion of their post-secondary education.”
Once she was in high school, Evans continued to participate with TRIO as a volunteer working with middle schoolers.
“I think that’s where my love for teaching started,” says Evans. “I found joy in tutoring.”
It was through TRIO that Evans learned about the full range of financial aid opportunities available that could enable her to go to college.
Evans enrolled at UL Lafayette in 2011 as a secondary math education major but, remembering her own middle school experiences and the middle schoolers she tutored, Evans shifted to middle school social studies and math education.
It was more of a challenge than Evans’ anticipated.
"I graduated in the top five in my class and when you're from a small town and you're graduating really high, they think you're supposed to go on and college is supposed to be easy,” says Evans. “And I was like, ‘This is not easy. I'm struggling. I don't like it. It was a lot. I cried a lot.’”
Giving back to her community
In addition to coursework and everything else that comes along with college, Evans’ student teaching experience was unique.
She found herself in the same middle school where she’d participated in TRIO, where she tutored, where she found her love for teaching.
A math teacher had left the school and the principal was struggling to fill the position. Evans stepped in to lead the class with a substitute there as backup.
“I was from the community, and I knew the kids,” Evans says. “I was in their shoes, and I know what it feels like to have a teacher walk out. I was like, ‘yes, I will teach them.’”
When she graduated in 2015, she was able to officially fill that role full-time.
“It was really nice to just go back and be able to motivate the kids in my community and tell them I went to school right there at UL Lafayette and that it doesn't matter your circumstances; you can still do something. You can go to community college, you can go to a tech school or a four-year university.”
Evans was receiving great feedback from administrators and her community in her first year of teaching, but she didn’t feel as though she was growing as an educator.
Another parish had attempted to recruit Evans on multiple occasions, and she finally began considering the change in 2017.
“I didn’t want to leave because I was so comfortable – I went to school there; I tutored there,” says Evans.
She ultimately accepted a position teaching seventh-grade math in Jefferson Davis Parish, reinvigorating her teaching by taking her out of her comfort zone.
“I had to make the bond with my students brand new; I had to get to know the community,” says Evans. “That was the best thing.”
Going back to school
One of the hallmarks of a great teacher is a love for learning, and Evans loves to learn. But she wasn’t eager to re-enroll for an advanced degree.
“I put off going to grad school because, you know, I was kind of tired of school. It was very hard,” she says. “I love to learn; I was reading books, going to workshops and professional development sessions, but I didn’t have the spark to go back to school.”
The spark came when Evans was named Teacher of the Year for the Parish. She decided it was time to invest in herself.
She started putting out feelers to learn more about her colleagues’ graduate school experiences and found the decision would come down to, “do I want easy, or do I want a good quality education where I know people are going to hold me accountable and they're going to push me to do my absolute best?”
Evans chose UL Lafayette.
“One thing that I love about UL Lafayette, the College of Education, and the professors in education, is they see where you are, and they always push you to be your best self. And whatever your best self is, they hold you accountable,” Evans says.
Rising up, moving forward
Graduate school presented new challenges both academically and personally.
Evans knew her learning preferences leaned toward face-to-face interaction, so enrolling in a 100% online graduate program was a big adjustment. As she progressed in the program, she struggled to find balance with a full-time work schedule, church activities, and community work.
“I remember thinking, ‘maybe grad school is not for me,’ because it was really hard,” says Evans. “But the professors in the program made it so easy for me to feel comfortable asking for help,” says Evans. “My personal struggles didn't make me feel like I couldn't do it.”
Evans looked for any opportunity to fit her coursework into her schedule. Often that meant her students saw her putting in the work for her graduate degree.
“Students will tell you how I would give them a test, and while they were working on a test, I would be sitting at a table working on a paper, or it would be their sustained reading time and I'm reading a textbook,” Evans says. “So, I’d find those moments where it was like, ‘OK, now's the time to actually do something for school.’”
Having so much on her plate meant Evans wasn’t making time for herself. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Evans was able to focus on fewer priorities, giving her an opportunity to reset, recharge, and find a new routine.
"The shutdown was kind of a blessing in that sense because it helped me with my time management,” she says. “It helped me learn that I needed to take time to take a step back and just enjoy life. Life is not all about working and doing things for other people. I need to take time to make myself happy.”
Advocating for self-care
Evans is taking the perspective gained through the pandemic and the knowledge gained through her Master of Education to support teachers as an instructional coach.
Instructional coaching, Evans said, was part of her 10-year plan. When she saw a position open, she decided to interview just for the experience.
“I told them about everything I was learning in the graduate program, everything we were doing in class and how I applied those concepts in my classroom,” Evans says. “And then they hired me. I reached my 10-year goal in six to seven years. It's still mind-blowing to me.”
She says she’s making a concerted effort to remind teachers that to teach at their best, they have to take care of themselves.
“I think a lot of people forget that, especially in education. We have such a passion for it that we take it home with us. We think about it all day. We bring it with us on vacation, when we just need time to step away. A lot of educators don't do that,” Evans says. “In this new job, I'm kind of like an advocate of self-care.”
With the graduate program now complete, Evans is looking forward to applying the full breadth of her knowledge to her new role.
For now, she’s taking time to appreciate the work she’s put in and the professors, peers, friends, and family who supported her through it.
“After many tears and a few panic attacks, I'm walking across the stage. I'm so, so excited, and I'm just so grateful,” she says.
“The family-oriented, supportive atmosphere in the program kept me going. Now I have the confidence and the drive to get a specialist or doctoral degree.”
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