A few years into teaching, Jessica Johnston realized she wanted to do more for her students. She felt she could have a greater impact as an administrator.
She decided to take action by earning a Master of Education in Educational Leadership Certification Online from the University of West Florida. Johnston earned a promotion to assistant principal at South Sumter Middle School in Webster, Florida, one school year after she graduated.
“I was a brand new assistant principal working for the first time in administration,” Johnston said. “It was a whirlwind, to say the least. But I felt as prepared as I could have been without having the physical experience.”
Although Johnston had to step out of the comfort zone she established as a teacher, she’s glad she took the initiative to go back to school.
“When you’re a teacher, you’re kind of in your classroom, in your groove,” Johnston said. “You’ve got you and your kids and you’re able to, in large part, keep to yourself.
“In administration, you can’t even imagine all of the different people that you’re going to need to work with in all of the different ways they need at all different levels. You work with parents, administrators, the district office, students, with the nurse — just the variety … you literally never know what’s going to happen hour to hour.”
Since joining the Sumter County School District, Johnston has taught kindergarten, fourth grade and sixth grade, in that order.
“I was working my way through the kids,” she said. “It’s funny because, at the middle school, they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ because it’s kind of a small district. I said, ‘I’m following you.’ They loved it. Having the opportunity to teach the kids from my very first kindergarten class in the sixth grade was truly one of the coolest experiences. It was incredible.”
Down a New Road
Johnston started teaching when she was 22 years old after she earned a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Clearwater Christian College. She was the first person in her family to earn a college degree, and her family was another big reason she enrolled in college.
“They said, ‘You can do this, Jess. You can accomplish this. Don’t sell yourself short,'” she said. “I was basically out of college for five years when I went back to go get my master’s. Right from the very start, it was the blind leading the blind in our house. My parents did the very best they could. It was never, ‘If you’re going to school.’ It was, ‘Where?’
“As soon as I got my bachelor’s degree, it was, ‘Okay, where are you going to get your master’s?’ I thought, ‘Hold the phone. That was not part of the deal.’ Honestly, they were very supportive and very encouraging. That’s important, I think, too, because it will get a little hairy. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Her parents were extremely proud of her for following through on earning a master’s degree.
“The year before I graduated, my dad had a health issue,” Johnston said. “He told me that if anything was to ever happen, I had to promise him I had to finish. I was like, ‘Yeah, Dad. Of course.’ I didn’t want to let my dad down.”
She didn’t disappoint, and when she completed the program in August of 2014, both parents were able to celebrate their daughter’s achievement.
Johnston initially had some apprehension about returning to school and having too much going on in her life.
“I thought, ‘Teachers are so busy. Getting a degree and going to school and teaching at the same time is like an impossible feat,'” Johnston said. “But, since UWF has an online program, and one of their big promises was that it’s designed for working professionals, I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll give this a whirl. It seems like the best route to go if I’m going to do this.'”
Even though she had to work hard and sacrifice some of her free time, a master’s degree proved to be the best route to an administration career.
“It was a full plate,” she said. “Time management and just being really alert to due dates and things like that are important. It was definitely feasible. … My friends thought I was Wonder Woman. I had to tell them, ‘I assure you I’m not.’ It was a little bit of lack of sleep, and I like sleep. It’s hard, but it was definitely worth it.”
Paying Off From the Beginning
The knowledge Johnston was acquiring with the M.Ed. in Educational Leadership Certification online program immediately helped her become a better teacher.
“All of the assignments were very applicable and lent themselves to things that actually occur during the daily work duties of a teacher or a teacher who is an aspiring administrator,” she said. “I never felt like there was an occasion where it was busywork or out of left field.
“We were reading books that were newly written. They were up-to-date with issues facing educators. It was really well-rounded. I think that my big takeaway was the fact that the curriculum was, like, ‘Oh, I learned about that in grad school. Oh, I learned about that in grad school, too.’ It was just really applicable and on point.”
The two courses that she enjoyed most were Applied Instructional Technology Investigations [EME 6062] and Law and Education [EDA 6232].
“I really found Applied Instructional Technology Investigations applicable as a teacher because it’s such a growing field,” she said. “It was amazing. It told you everything about technology. I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ So, that was mind blowing. Every time I had to use the monitor, I decided, ‘I learned something, and I’m going to use it.’ That one was probably one of my favorites for that reason.”
She added that Law and Education was a fascinating look at all of the different components of educational law and the background and precedents being set.
“It was just like watching a documentary on the History Channel or something,” Johnston said.
Online a Perfect Fit
The online format was essential to Johnston earning a degree without giving up her job.
“I work in kind of a rural district, so there aren’t a lot of great options as far as travel,” Johnston said. “I didn’t want to quit working. Our district had also partnered with UWF and was able to help facilitate that for us, where it was like a work-contract-once-you-got-done type of thing. It was pretty much just a way to help from the district and not having to travel because all of the courses were online.”
Johnston also realized pretty quickly that earning a master’s degree in educational leadership was absolutely a smart move.
“It will be worth it,” she said. “This is going to sound bad from a teacher, but I didn’t love going to school. I loved the learning, the insight, the knowledge, the topics they covered. It made me a better teacher.”
Learn more about the UWF online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program.
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