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Online, accelerated teaching degrees get quality new teachers to where the students are faster

The University of North Dakota is the first in the region with accelerated programming in the teacher education field

Janie Schroeder was UND’s first student to take on Teacher Education’s accelerated degree programming. Soon to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, Schroeder has spent most of her spring semester student teaching in a Grand Forks third-grade classroom. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

If someone’s goal at UND is to become a teacher, they’ll discover more options than ever to achieve that goal in an environment that’s well-adapted to what teachers experience in today’s schools.

Just ask Janie Schroeder, the first UND student to take on one of the three accelerated bachelor’s-to-master’s degree programs currently offered in the Department of Teaching, Leadership & Professional Practice.

Jenny Bladow

“When this program came out, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Schroeder, a Grand Forks native soon to earn her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. “My goal was to pursue early childhood special education, and I’ve been able to do that and more – faster – through this program.”

Among other features, the accelerated program lets Schroeder count a number of courses toward both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This will let her earn her Master of Education in Special Education degree just over a year from now.

“That gets me moving a lot faster in my own career,” Schroeder said. “And, really, having that master’s degree makes me a lot more competitive when it comes to finding jobs and higher pay.

“I would say that if you’re committed to this field, as a student, why not go further and finish that master’s degree? Through this program, you can do it faster than anywhere else.”

Moreover, Schroeder has been able to take part in the program from the comfort of her home, as UND’s Early Childhood Education undergraduate and graduate degrees are 100 percent online year-round.

In addition to two tracks through Early Childhood Education (the other of which sends students through the Master of Science in Early Childhood Education degree), there is also an accelerated path for Elementary Education leading into a Master of Science in Reading Education, also available online.

According to Jenny Bladow, director for Teacher Education at the College of Education & Human Development, the accelerated program is geared toward students who have either completed an education-related associate’s degree or 60 credit hours of their undergraduate studies at UND.

“The faculty who originally put this together really wanted to focus on ways to reach tribal colleges and community colleges, as many of those schools offer associate’s degrees,” Bladow said. “There was an idea of providing a stepping stone – people are doing their work where they live, graduating with those associate’s degrees, and then they could jump into one of these accelerated programs online.

“That way, they don’t even have to leave their community. They can stay where they are, working or raising a family while completing an advanced degree at UND.”

UND is the first institution in a wide region providing accelerated degree options for teachers-in-training, allowing a number of courses to double-count toward a set of bachelor’s and master’s degrees offered at the College of Education & Human Development. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Support leads to success

After spending time employed as a paraeducator, and thoroughly enjoying her time as a classroom assistant of sorts, Schroeder wanted to take her role in education to the next level by earning a teaching degree and license.

Melissa Burdick

Inspired by her prior experiences in schools, she enjoys how “hands-on” her program feels.

“We are able to spend a lot of time with students,” said Schroeder, who is soon to finish her student teaching placement in a third-grade classroom at Grand Forks’ Phoenix Elementary. “We talk a lot about theories and how we approach students, but actually getting into the work of that and seeing it happen is a huge piece of this program.”

Though UND is in close company when it comes to offering Teacher Education courses and degrees online, the University is the first in the region with accelerated programming in this field.

“This really came about in response to overall national trends, and how we were seeing enrollment dip in Early Childhood Education especially,” said Bladow. “I really credit our faculty for their passion that led to innovating the curriculum and improving their reach to prospective students.”

Beyond consistently working with stakeholders – the school districts hosting 800-plus students a year for field placements and student teaching experiences – to improve curriculum, UND’s Teacher Education group has created robust supports for its students. Given the online delivery of these accelerated programs, UND has to help students succeed wherever they are.

That’s where people such as Melissa Burdick come in. Burdick is Teacher Education’s field placement coordinator. If a student in another state is working on their UND teaching degree and needs to get into a local classroom for a course, Burdick is the person whom they call.

“Field experiences are critical in developing a sense of who you are as a teacher, your style and your voice,” said Burdick, who’s been helping match students with classrooms since 2015. “So, it’s very pivotal for me to do my best to serve not just the students’ preferences and needs, so they have a great experience and want to become a teacher, but their situations and where they are as well.”

Field experience, by the way, is a student’s first chance to observe a teacher in action in a classroom. It’s meant to help the student explore what it means to be a teacher before the student takes on the responsibility of student teaching.

Students enrolled in UND’s online degrees are able to get classroom experience wherever they are, thanks to Teacher Education’s team of field coordinators and advisors. Through the past year of COVID-related restrictions, faculty and staff provided an online alternative for students unable to access schools for field placements. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Education where it needs to be

When Heather Huighe decided to enroll in UND’s Elementary Education program from St. Charles, Mo., she had preconceptions about earning a degree online. She’d have the flexibility and affordability, she thought, but maybe not so much in the way of interaction with professors and classmates.

“I’ve been able to have more interaction than I ever expected,” Huighe said. “Everyone has been warm and welcoming, and everyone really encourages a high level of engagement.”

And while COVID prevented her from getting into a St. Charles classroom for her early field placements, the Teacher Education team had established an online alternative.

“ATLAS (Accomplished Teaching, Learning and Schools) is a large library of video recordings from all teaching levels, showing teachers delivering material and reflecting on lessons afterward,” Burdick said. “We’re hoping in the fall everyone will be back in schools, but we see that flexibility as something we want to nurture in our teacher candidates, too.”

With many years under her belt working as a substitute teacher, Huighe, in particular, thinks ATLAS and other alternatives for field experiences still show how teaching has changed in recent years, and how UND is rising to meet the needs of today’s landscape.

“You can tell this accelerated program has been well-planned,” she said. “The courses all seem to flow together so well and build on each other. In talking to my college friends who went on to become teachers, comparing what they learned versus what I’m learning shows that we’re in a totally different world.

“I feel like UND is really right where it needs to be, meeting where education is at the moment.”