Tondra Brooks knows a thing or two about perseverance.
At age 29, while married with children, she went back to the University of Louisiana Monroe to finish her bachelor's degree in elementary education. She always knew she wanted to pursue an advanced degree but had to put her dreams on hold to undergo treatment for cervical cancer.
As soon as she was in the clear, she was at it again.
"I wrote out all of my goals and set out to accomplish them, because we never know how much time we have left on this earth," she said.
Brooks, an elementary math and science teacher at Carver Elementary School in Monroe, Louisiana, returned to her alma mater for her Master of Education, Curriculum & Instruction – Concentration in Elementary Education. She has one course left in the online program.
"I was originally going to transfer into the Educational Leadership program, but I decided to stay in Curriculum & Instruction because it actually helped me be a better classroom teacher," she said.
She's still eyeing an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and hopes to start the online program next year. She expects the second master's will help her achieve her ultimate goal of becoming a school principal.
"I wouldn't just be confined in the classroom," she said. "I'd be able to make a difference in the lives of more students than just those I teach directly in the classroom. I would also be an effective leader. I'd also be a voice for teachers, because I've been a classroom teacher."
Brooks is happy to report that her courses, classmates and co-workers have helped strengthen her skills as a teacher, building her knowledge of data, strategy and even classroom design — with the online format enabling her to go at her own pace.
Brooks was no stranger to the ULM campus or its professors, but she wanted an option for her master's degree that would suit her busy lifestyle. Online was the natural choice.
"When I went for undergrad in a brick-and-mortar institution, I had to stop working completely in the latter part of it because it was too demanding to have a job and be on-site at the school — it was like a full-time job in itself."
She is enjoying freedom from a fixed class schedule and the ability to study anywhere she has an internet connection.
"If I'm at work in my classroom, and my kids go to music or the library, I have that time to pull out my assignment for the day and start working," she said. "I could be at work or home or even at a friend's house; as long as I have my laptop or a computer and access to the internet, I am able to work at my own pace freely."
Brooks had such a positive experience on the digital campus that her friends and colleagues decided to join her there.
"I've been recruiting, telling everybody, 'Come on. Let's go back. It's not too late,'" she laughed, naming two friends she inspired to go back to school. "There are also three other co-workers at my school who are also in the program, and we like to get together and study."
The digital space afforded Brooks the opportunity to learn from a diverse group of people.
"It's very helpful to be in an open environment, getting to learn from one another instead of being in a closed group that's focused on one area," she said. "I may see something from the standpoint of an elementary school teacher that a high school teacher may see totally differently."
At home, Brooks has the full support of her children — De'adric (22), Arianna (18), Kieara (16) and Antonio (13). Arianna took over some of her mother's duties, such as driving Antonio to football practice, so Brooks could focus on studies.
The online M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction program is helping Brooks fill gaps in her knowledge of data, strategy and design.
"When you come into teaching, they always talk about looking at the data, but no one ever really knows what data you're supposed to be looking at or how to read it," she said. "My [EDLE 5000: Teacher Leader I: Educational Research] class helped me see the bigger picture.
Brooks is benefiting from new knowledge and ideas that come not only from the program curriculum but also from classmates in the online discussion boards. She will be implementing one such technique in her own classroom.
"I've incorporated something that's called a place of peace," she said. "It's a designated area in your classroom where a child who is upset about something can get time alone in a comfortable setting within the classroom."
With just one course left to complete, she offers some words of encouragement to those who may be unsure of returning to college later in life.
"Don't think that any age is too old to get your master's degree," she said. "If that's the goal that you have in mind, at any age, you can do it!"
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