Kate Smith has two passions.
“Teaching has always been number one, but cupcakes are pretty high up there — my first job was at an Italian bakery — so I got the best of both worlds doing it this way,” she said.
Enrolling in Fitchburg State University’s Master of Education in Curriculum and Teaching online program enabled Smith to earn an advanced degree in her field while still keeping up with everything she loves.
“I am a first grade teacher,” she said. “I am married. I have two 3-year-old twins, Alexandra and Evangeline, so I’m definitely a little busy. I also run a cupcake business on the side, CupKatie’s. Having a totally online grad school option was exactly what I needed.”
A resident of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Smith enrolled in the online master’s program in September 2019 and has taken two courses each semester per session so far.
“I went to Fitchburg State for undergrad and then, years later, I just happened to move back into the area. That made it really nice and easy to pick them again. I did do some research on other places, but felt Fitchburg State was a good fit for me.”
While Smith is no stranger to virtual learning, this master’s degree marks the first time she will do an entire program online.
“I was familiar with Blackboard, using discussion boards and posting assignments online,” she said. “It’s definitely a little different than going in and seeing a teacher face to face, but I find that the staff members and the professors are really good at making sure you’re still getting that personalized experience.”
Not long after enrolling in the program, Smith began seeing the benefits of going online for her master’s.
“The wonderful thing about the program being fully online is I can do it when my kiddos are in bed,” she said. “I don’t have other babysitting options. My husband Brian works crazy hours. My mom already takes care of my kids, so I couldn’t ask her to take on more babysitting time. I needed a fully online program that I could work on when I had the time to do it.”
So far Smith has taken a couple of classes that have changed the way she teaches.
“Using Data to Improve Student Learning [EDLM 8033] had you take your classroom data and type out a letter that you could send to your principal, school board, superintendent,” she said. “After you analyze your data, you show the next steps that you could use to improve your data and run a meeting with a data team. It forced me to look at data and come up with steps to help improve my students’ learning.”
In EDUC 7127: Strategies for Creating a Positive Learning Environment, Smith learned about responses to intervention that help teachers make a real impact in the lives of her students.
“That class gives you clear-cut examples of how to identify students who are struggling and what we can do to help them,” she said. “It gave great strategies for forming committees in your school and how you can meet with your team members or other staff members to establish these lines. It gave me ideas of how I can start the process at my own school.”
Smith has obtained plenty of new ideas for her classroom from course content, projects and assignments, with her digital classmates adding a wealth of useful information as well.
“I’ve had some really helpful tips through the discussion board where you have people in different grade levels within the teaching [field],” she said. “There are students who talk about what they are doing in preschool and others who talk about what they are doing in middle school or high school.”
Smith was also pleasantly surprised to find out how committed the Fitchburg State faculty were to their students’ education.
“One professor would upload a three- to four-minute YouTube video of her talking just to you and responding to your assignments,” she said of Dr. DonnaLee Tignor. “She took the time to make those videos for each student, and there were about 60 students in the class.”
Zest for Learning
Going back to school to earn her master’s degree was a long-held goal for Smith, and her family was there to support her when she decided to start.
“I got engaged right before graduation of undergrad, so I took years off to plan a wedding and do this and that, but five years later, it was time to go back to school. I don’t want to brag, but they’ve been amazed that I’ve been able to juggle it all. My sleep has lagged a little bit, but I’m really proud of being able to do it so far.”
Smith’s support network consists of her parents, her husband, Brian, and his parents, all of whom are ready to help her accomplish her goals.
“They are all so supportive, whether it’s my husband picking up the slack when he knows I have schoolwork or taking the girls out of the house to go play so I have some quiet time to do my work,” she said. “Even my parents and in-laws have been very supportive and helpful.”
Smith believes anyone can do the work. It is just a matter of finding out when you can.
“Make sure you dedicate the time you need to be able to do it,” she said. “Doing your best only gives you more knowledge and strategies to help you become a better teacher. You need to put in the work to get the most out of it. Being online gives you the freedom to do it when it works for you.”
The icing on the master’s cake comes from the cohort interactions that are broadening and enriching Smith’s perspective as an educator.
“It’s been great being able to talk with teachers from all over the United States, getting to know how things differ from state to state and across grade levels,” she said. “It’s definitely been eye-opening. In undergrad, you were stuck with the grade levels you were going to teach, but these classes are more diverse with a lot of different points of view.”