Jessica Urquhart’s shortcut through the teachers’ lounge didn’t help her get to the meeting she was running late for any quicker. It did, however, give her the nudge she needed to earn a master’s degree.
“A woman was there representing a few different colleges,” she said. “I talked to her for a minute and grabbed the informational pamphlets. Later that evening I said, ‘Why not?’ I really had no reason not to do it. It was the logical next step in my professional career.”
Despite some initial apprehension about returning to school, Urquhart graduated in April 2016 with a Master of Education in Educational Leadership Certification that she earned online from the University of West Florida.
“My administrator at the time [Principal Gaye Lively] had been encouraging me to pursue my master’s degree in educational leadership, but I’m a mom and I didn’t know if it was something that was feasible for me and, quite honestly, I was a little afraid of going back to school,” Urquhart said. “A few years prior to applying to the program, I had explored the idea of joining a leadership cohort program offered through my school district, but the cohort had ended and I hadn’t given it much thought since. The college representative just happened to be there that day and that was the spark I needed.”
Living the Dream
After she earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Petersburg College in 2004, Urquhart started her teaching career at a Clearwater, Florida school named for her grandfather, Calvin A. Hunsinger.
“He was on the school board for about 20 consecutive years, so when he passed away, they named the school after him,” she said. “I was there when they broke ground. I was there when they built it. Teaching there was a dream of mine. They had one opening when I got the job.”
Urquhart, a Florida native, has never left Pinellas County Schools. She has been the behavior specialist at Anona Elementary School for nine years. Both of her parents were also teachers and retired from Pinellas County Schools with over 70 years combined.
“Teaching was what I was good at,” she said. “I started at the YMCA and worked sports camps during college. At the YMCA, I always ended up with the students who were struggling with behavior. I took my love for that and my natural ability to help struggling students and decided to pursue exceptional student education.”
Urquhart said she has completed the requirements to be in her school district’s assistant principal pool, and recently applied for the assistant principal position at Calvin A. Hunsinger School.
“I am currently waiting to hear if I am being recommended for the position, but it was an honor to even be considered,” she said.
Urquhart said the online format made being a student again extremely manageable and provided extensive relevant knowledge for her current position.
“I didn’t find it difficult because it was interesting to me,” she said. “The coursework was very relevant to me and my professional development, so I never really felt like I was doing busywork. Even though it was still hard work, it was work that I felt helped me grow and that I could apply.”
Leadership in Education: School Improvement Theory and Practice [EDA 5191], Law and Education [EDA 6232] and Data-Driven Decisions Using Standardized Student Achievement Data [EDG 6285] were the three most enjoyable and interesting courses in the Educational Leadership curriculum for Urquhart.
“Theory and Practice was the course that really made me think the most about who I was as an educator now and who I wanted to be as a leader in the future,” she said. “It helped bridge the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.
“It was all reflecting on yourself. What are you doing now? What is your personality type? And how that equates in terms of leadership qualities. For me, it wasn’t so much enlightening as it was confirmation of the personality traits that make me who I am. It confirmed why I wasn’t seeking out leadership opportunities but letting them fall in my lap, so I really enjoyed that class.”
Urquhart said she was able to work her online degree program around her busy schedule, which included being a mother to her only child, Dutch (11).
“I would say I put in a good two hours a night,” she said. “If something was going on with the family, I would only do an hour. I typically did schoolwork around 10-15 hours a week. When my son was asleep, I would usually do a couple of hours. I found it to be a very good fit for anybody who is working and has kids and someone who wants to grow.”
When Urquhart was earning her master’s degree, her family and work colleagues were rooting for her all the way.
“Everyone was really excited for me and supportive of my learning,” she said. “My husband [Russell] was really helpful and made sure I had the time I needed to complete my assignments. It was a very positive experience for me. It felt good to work hard and accomplish something. It didn’t disrupt my life so much that I felt like I was missing out on things I should be doing. It was very fulfilling.”
Urquhart attended St. Petersburg College on a softball scholarship, and paying for her online education at UWF was the first time she had to foot the bill for school.
“UWF was the most reasonably priced — especially being in a district with a partnership,” she said. “It was significantly less. I also looked at some reviews, which were good. When I would call to get more information, everybody [at UWF] was really kind. No one seemed pushy. They just answered my questions and got me where I needed to go.
“The cost was a big factor, but I also wasn’t willing to risk it not being a strong program. I spoke with anyone I knew who had done the program, and I actually had two friends who were finishing the program just as I was beginning — they were in their last semester when I was in my first. That really helped me, too.”
Urquhart added that she was glad she attended her graduation ceremony.
“I recommend attending the commencement ceremony,” she said. “Even if you live out of town take the time to go because it’s a really cool experience. It was interesting to collaborate with people I had never met during the program and fun to meet those people at graduation.”
Whether the spark to go back to school comes from extensive planning or an unplanned trip through the teachers’ lounge, Urquhart said she would highly recommend the online Master of Education in Educational Leadership Certification program.
“If you’re looking to grow professionally, this is a really great program,” she said. “The professors were understanding and supportive. Everyone I dealt with from UWF was very helpful. I would say, ‘Just do it.’ There’s no time like the present. I literally got the information and signed up and it was the best thing I ever did.”
Learn more about the UWF online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program.
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