Amy Jolly has found her happy place.
The Lunenburg, Massachusetts, native returned home to become the head of Applewild School after enrolling in the online Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Management program at Fitchburg State University.
"My contract ended with the school I headed in Maine, and I had a year in between because there's a hiring cycle for the kind of work that I do," she said. "I knew I was going to have some time on my hands.
"I knew I would do some consulting, but I also wanted to finally make the time to obtain my master's degree. While I had the requisite experience for top headships, lacking this credential was holding me back."
Jolly followed in the footsteps of her mother, Mary Ann Sudolmik, who also earned a master's degree in education at Fitchburg State. She taught eighth-grade physical science for 20 years in Lunenburg Public Schools before retiring.
"She was my inspiration as an educator," Jolly said. "I went into education for the same reason many people do — to change the world. I consider myself lucky to have my dream job; I love the strategic nature of being a head of a school."
The flexibility of the online format was beneficial to Jolly after she started at Applewild School in May 2019. She and her husband, Dan, have three children — Madison (24), Adam (22) and Phoebe (17).
"My job is pretty demanding, so there were definitely a few semesters where I was doing schoolwork evenings and weekends," she said. "Earning a degree online worked well.
"I'm freshest in the morning. It's not unusual for me to get up at 3 a.m. I would get up and hit the books to stay on top of my coursework. I also connected to people from all over the place in the program — even from overseas."
Jolly graduated with a bachelor's degree in international studies from American University in 1989. She then embarked on a corporate career as a management consultant before transitioning to education.
"I never taught," she said. "I started out doing recruitment for independent schools. I got interested in financial aid, branding and marketing, and program development. I rose through the ranks that way."
After Jolly spent time as director of admissions for three different schools, she became head of The Maine Girls' Academy in 2017. She considered several online master's degree programs before enrolling at Fitchburg State.
"At the time, I had three kids who were all either in college or boarding school, and their education was our financial priority," she said. "When I started the program, I was in the process of interviewing for new headships. For me, the decision was about the program and cost."
Jolly soaked up all of the information from the M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Management curriculum like a sponge. EDLM 8032: Strategies for Effective Administrators was her favorite course for helping her connect the dots in her previous experiences.
"The advantage of taking a master's program when you're already sitting at a master's level in life is that you get to go back and look at actual theory behind all of the things you have been doing at work," she said. "It tied up a lot of loose ends for me.
"I didn't have some of the educational background that a lot of people I manage do. It was helpful for me to go back and learn how to do instructional leadership. For someone who wasn't a teacher, how do you keep an institution focused on instructional excellence? That's a pretty big question. I enjoyed that part of it."
Never Too Late
The knowledge that Jolly acquired in the online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Management program was immediately applicable once she started her role at Applewild School.
"A lot of the case studies came from me getting to know the school," she said. "It worked to my advantage to wander down the hall and sit in someone's class and watch what they were doing, or to do an informational interview on the side that I could reflect on later. That helped me do my job."
Jolly also gained new perspectives on educational leadership from her online classmates.
"I enjoyed the camaraderie of learning from others in the discussion groups," she said. "A lot of the students were from public schools, while I am at a private school. It was interesting to hear about their thoughts and experiences."
Jolly had plenty of encouragement from her family and friends.
"It's unusual to go back to school as a middle-aged person," she said. "My kids helped me with doing research, which was fun. I was at a different point in life than most of the people in my classes — but that's okay."
Although Jolly has already achieved her ultimate career goal, she believes having a master's degree takes her to another level. She completed the online program in January 2020.
"Now I can check that box," she said. "It definitely opens up opportunities for me. The fact that I was using my downtime to get a degree instead of sitting around showed intellectual curiosity to the schools that were looking to hire me."
Jolly is proud to continue a family tradition by earning a graduate-level degree from Fitchburg State. She has a space on her office wall cleared to hang her diploma.
"You get as much out of it as you put into it," she said. "I would advise people to not wait as long as I did. I wish I'd done it years ago. I was raising three kids and working full time at a demanding job. Life gets in the way. Online makes a difference."
So does doing what she loves.
Learn more about the Fitchburg State online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Management program.
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