After pondering a career as either a teacher or an attorney when she finished her undergrad degree, Yvonne Gittelson found a way to combine the two. She taught high school history for a number of years and then became the education coordinator at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“Studies verify that education reduces recidivism,” she said. “We need qualified and well-prepared teachers who want to work behind the wall, and we need to help them understand what’s involved.
“Most teachers never think about working in corrections, but it can be very rewarding,” she said of rising to the challenge of meeting the unique needs of this student group.
Gittelson completed the online Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Management (Non-Licensure) program at Fitchburg State University in August 2021. She is excited about her recent appointment as program specialist for corrections at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“The program specialist position is a really cool job,” she said. “It’s within the division of adult community learning services, which deals with adult education and oversees education in all of the correctional facilities across the state. It’s an incredible opportunity to do something innovative in corrections education. This is a dream job for me. ”
“I would also like to create and offer a teacher-training course on how to work in corrections education,” she said, noting the paucity of resources for those who need to upskill in this area.
The flexibility of the online format helped Gittelson earn a degree while maintaining her full-time position without missing a beat.
“The online, asynchronous format was ideal for me,” she said. “I could do the work when I had the time as long as I made the due dates, which were rigorous but not difficult. There is a clearly identified weekly schedule for all the readings and written assignments, so I always knew I had the week to get my work done.”
In 2019, Gittelson started a master’s degree program at another university, but realized she needed to go in a different direction. She was eager to find the right fit once she was ready to return to an advanced degree program.
“From the very beginning and throughout the admissions process at Fitchburg State, I was speaking to a real person: the admissions counselor,” she said. “Once accepted, I connected with a student success advisor, who answered any questions I had about registration and the workload.
“I got the sense right away that the people at Fitchburg State wanted me to succeed in the program.”
Coast to Coast
Gittelson was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, New York. However, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982. She added her secondary teaching credential the following year at San Francisco State University.
“I have always been a natural teacher type and loved school,” she said. “School is my happy place. It seemed easy for me to go into teaching, although law school was a very close second choice. I never thought I would enjoy or go into education administration, but I really like it.”
Although Gittelson pondered earning an advanced degree for several years, returning to school was not in the cards.
“I was either too poor or too busy,” she said. “I put myself through college, and I had student loans to repay. When I first started teaching, I was working nonstop, learning the job, preparing for classes and grading papers.
“There was never any time to go back to school once I finished my undergrad degree and credential. I also taught summer school every year because I was living in such an expensive market at the time, the San Francisco Bay Area, while still earning an entry-level public school teacher’s salary.”
Gittelson enrolled at Fitchburg State in August 2020. She made the adjustment to learning online and in an accelerated format of seven-week courses.
“I was nervous about going back to school after so much time away from the routine,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what the difference might be from the undergraduate to graduate level in terms of academic expectations. It was nice to have someone helping me understand how things work and reassuring me that the program was challenging but manageable if I was disciplined and stayed on top of the weekly modules.”
EDLM 9011: Researching Perspectives in Education was Gittelson’s favorite course in the curriculum, but she also especially enjoyed EDLM 9006: Leading the Change Process and EDLM 8037: Educational Law for Administrators.
“The research course turning out to be my favorite shocked me,” she said. “Based on the title, I thought it was going to be about research methodology only, but it was about looking into the latest bodies of research in almost every area of education, a re-exploration of the field from every angle.
“That course brought me back to my roots and reminded me why I went into education in the first place. It was a happy surprise for me to realize that I enjoy research. I liked every one of the courses.”
The Right Stuff
It took no time for Gittelson to begin reaping the benefits of the knowledge in the online M.Ed. program.
“From the very beginning and from every single course, I have applied what I learned,” she said. “I brought materials from my coursework into my program and have done some professional development with my teachers.
“I have supplied my supervisor with information she did not previously know or understand about the field of education. I used a significantly improved observation, feedback, and evaluation process with one of my teachers, and made it a real learning experience for us both.
“I strengthened collaborations and connections with professionals outside my setting with whom I am working to develop additional programming — now for all the correctional facilities in MA.”
Throughout the 12 months as an online student, Gittelson got plenty of encouragement from her loved ones. She is the first person in her immediate family to earn a graduate degree.
“They were a bit surprised but very supportive, and maybe a little impressed,” she said. “I did not need this degree to do the job I already have, but I wanted it and thought it was time to refresh my content knowledge with current research-based and evidence-based practices in the field.
“It always bothered me that I had the master’s degree equivalent number of post-grad credits through my teaching credential program, but I did not have the master’s degree itself. Having the degree means a lot to me, and I am very proud of achieving it.”
Now, Gittelson is eager to take the next step in her career and her higher education journey.
“I got enormous value out of the master’s program and then some,” she said. “The program far exceeded my expectations, so much so that I applied to a doctoral program and will be starting that soon.
“I discovered that I love being in grad school and missed being a student. I especially like doing this while I am working in my profession so that I can make the applications of theory to practice immediately.”
Gittelson believes that the online M.Ed. program at Fitchburg State would benefit most anybody. She views the leadership and management aspects of the program as being relevant across a number of professions and fields.
“Don’t think twice or hesitate,” she said. “The degree will open doors for you that you never would have expected.”