Elizabeth Mills loves a good challenge.
It’s why she chose education as a career. It’s why she loves her new role as dean of students. And it’s why it’ll be bittersweet to leave her graduate coursework behind when she earns her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Specialist, degree in December 2022.
“I am going to miss the professional growth, because it is very natural to me to want to grow even in my 16th year of teaching,” says Mills. “Whereas in the past, I was trying to find ideas and look for ways that I could improve, I feel like in graduate school it was given to me on a platter, so I will miss that.”
While Mills is leaving behind deadlines and discussion forums, she says she’s already applying what she’s learned through this online master’s in education program.
Carolinian to Ragin’ Cajun
After earning her bachelor’s degree in education in her home state of South Carolina, Mills moved to New Orleans with her high school sweetheart and has taught in parochial schools for the past 15 years.
Mills decided to pursue teaching because she knew it would offer the variety she craved.
“The field of education is always changing. Therefore, the profession never grows stagnant, and neither will my desire to learn. Always having a new group of kids, new challenges and strengths to support was very appealing to me when choosing a career path,” says Mills.
“I've had a handful of incredible teachers in my lifetime that impacted me not only in my academic growth, but also in helping shape who I would later become. I wanted to be that person for kids in the same way those teachers had for me.”
When Mills was ready to take her professional growth to the next level, she wanted a program that would provide growth as well as balance so that she could continue working and be present for her three kids, ages 8, 6, and 4.
Her brother — a Ragin’ Cajun alum — encouraged her to look into online degree programs at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“The affirmation from my brother and the fact that it's offered 100% online really solidified the choice for me,” says Mills.
Adjusting to online coursework for Mills was less technological and more logistical, she says.
Although she’d never taken online courses, the platform was like those she’s used in her own classroom. To succeed, she relied on planning, time management, and a strong support system.
“A lot of my professors intentionally broke apart the week's assignments into smaller manageable chunks to help us with our time management. I very much appreciated the intention with which they created and assigned work. It helped tremendously regarding staying on top of our weekly assignments,” she says.
“I also have a couple of great babysitters and a wonderful husband. If I needed a little extra time, I would say, 'This week I'm feeling like I've got a little extra work to do; I'm going to go sit at the coffee shop, and I'm going to go do it.’ So, I think by managing my time and then just being assertive with the people close to me with what I needed in support of my work, it helped me manage it."
Mills also found support through other educators enrolled in the program. She says throughout the program, fellow students were active through GroupMe and other channels, reminding each other of upcoming deadlines or just checking in with one another.
"It was a really nice opportunity to build community when you are doing this online coursework, and you're not seeing them face to face,” says Mills.
“I can see it being the type of professional learning community that I could rely on in the future. I would feel very comfortable if I was looking for guidance, I could hop back on that text thread and ask people if they would be available.”
Developing Accountability, Collaboration
Earlier this year, Mills began a new role as dean of students. The foundation of the role is supporting both students and faculty in service of discipline; however, it’s a multi-faceted role through which Mills has also planned in-services and professional development.
"A lot of the work that I've done in grad school helped prepare me for the work that I'm doing this year,” she says.
She’s also working with the third and fourth grade English Language Arts team, which she says among the highlights of her role.
“We're a very small team, but we are a mighty team. It's been awesome to work with them in a very collaborative way,” Mills says. “We work together to identify areas that we want to either improve or align on, and then I provide the scaffolding and the framework for what that should look like. We always have a lot of fun, and they will also give me feedback, like, ‘what we did today was hugely beneficial,’ or, ‘I was immediately able to use what we did last week in the classroom.’”
Students are also giving feedback. In November, Mills’ school encouraged students to write letters of thanks to any teacher or administrator on campus.
"I received a couple from boys that I would call my ‘frequent fliers.’ It was so wonderful to get letters of thanks because it showed me that they know that the work that we're doing together is from a place of love and support,” she says. “I want them to learn and to improve and hopefully one day have the self-discipline and the emotional intelligence to make good choices. But for now, I'm going to be that cheerleader that helps them figure out how to get there.”
As commencement approaches, Mills says one of her biggest takeaways from the M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Specialist, degree program was what it allowed her to learn about herself and the type of educator she wants to become.
"One of the things that really was most beneficial to me was learning myself better, learning who I was as an educator, as a leader, but then also creating a vision for who I want to be,” says Mills. “And thinking from the different perspectives and lenses of students, parents, fellow administrators, teachers alike looking from their perspectives to ask, ‘Who do I want to be in support of those people?’ You can't find that in a book. The way that the professors had us reflect on our work and what we were doing in the classroom enabled me to look inward more and then as a result, look outward and say, 'OK, this is what I want to be one day,’ and I very much appreciate that and will take that with me forever.”
Mills’ nature is to continuously improve. Undoubtedly, she’ll keep looking for new methodologies and techniques to enhance what she’s already been able to do in improving collaboration and students’ personal accountability.
For now, however, Mills is looking forward to reclaiming some time for herself.
"The other day, my 8-year-old said, 'Wait, you're almost done? What are you going to do at night?’ And I said, ‘Buddy, I'm going to do whatever I want."
Prepare to refine, reform, or develop curricula and instruction for your classroom, school, or district. Request information today about the online M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Specialist, program.