230. Students Who Are Teachers

Degree programs designed for practicing professionals need to be flexible and adaptive. In this episode, Kathryn Pole joins us to discuss the online master’s program in Literacy Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. Kathryn is a literacy researcher and teacher educator in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at this institution.

Show Notes


John: Degree programs designed for practicing professionals need to be flexible and adaptive. In this episode we examine one online teacher preparation program.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Kathryn Pole. Kathryn is a literacy researcher and teacher educator in the Curriculum and Instruction Department in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is also the Program Coordinator for the online master’s program in Literacy Studies. Welcome Kathryn.

Kathryn: Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here.

John: Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?

Kathryn: I am drinking tea. I have a black chocolate tea from the Tea and Spice Exchange. It’s good, and it reminded me of Valentine’s Day, and it pairs well with Girl Scout cookies.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good combo. You’re rocking the afternoon.

John: And to put that in perspective, we’re recording this a day after Valentine’s Day. It’ll be released a little bit later.

Rebecca: It sounds like a real tea cup with a real saucer.

Kathryn: That is true. I love real tea cups.

Rebecca: I love it. I have just an English breakfast today, John.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: Yum! We’ve invited you here today to discuss the online advanced graduate teacher certification program in Literacy Studies at UT Arlington. Can you tell us a little bit about the program and the students in the program?

Kathryn: Sure, it’s a master’s degree program designed for already practicing teachers. So these are people who are already teaching in the classroom, but they want to become literacy specialists, or instructional coaches, or curriculum developers in literacy. And currently we have about 325 students in an 18-month program. So somewhere about 100 join in the fall semester or the spring semester or the summer. Many of them are from Texas, but some of them are from other places, and we’ve actually had students around the world in our program. And they range from just a year or two of experience up to… some people say, “Oh, I’m bored with teaching, I’ve been teaching the same thing for 25 years.” And so they decide they want to come back and hone their skills so they can apply for a new job. So they’re kind of from all over the place.

John: And I believe you mentioned that this was an entirely online degree program. Could you talk a little bit about why students might prefer an online degree program?

Kathryn: Yeah, so this is an entirely online program. And over the years, we’ve asked students, we’ve done surveys, or asked even informally, why this program appeals to them. And for one thing, they have to be a practicing teacher to be in the program. And so if they had to come to campus for face-to-face classes it would have to be either in the evenings or on weekends. And a lot of them are women and mothers and they have things to do, they have got soccer practices to get their kids to, or just family time, helping with homework, and all of that. And so they don’t really want to come to school in the evenings or on the weekend. And probably the number one reason is that they appreciate the flexibility of when they work, because while we do a little bit of synchronous work, we have office hours. They’re always optional, and students can either come or they can view recordings that we make following those meetings. So they feel like there’s a lot of flexibility. We have very solid deadlines for things. If an assignment is due on a Friday, it’s due on a Friday, but students can work on it at two in the morning if they want, and a lot of them do. We also have a 100% pass rate on our certification exam for those students who end up taking that, the Reading Specialist exam. And I think a lot of them indicate that that’s really appealing. So those are the two big reasons, I guess. The flexibility and then they know that there’s quality in the program. And then some of them come because they know a faculty member in the program that draws them to us.

Rebecca: So I believe the program started in 1998. Can you talk a little bit about how it evolved?

Kathryn: Yeah, it started in 1998, which was well before my time there, but it started out, they used to call it the “TeleCampus” where the instructors would actually go and be filmed reciting lecture notes and things in front of cameras. And then it just evolved into something that is much more flexible and appealing. And so that’s just evolved a lot. At this point it’s online, and it’s mostly asynchronous. And it’s a 10-course program, so a 30 credit-hour program, that students can finish in as few as about 18 months. Each one of those 10 courses has a lead instructor. And that lead instructor’s job is to select the course materials and set up the objectives and map the course and the assessments to the standards that we’re trying to address. And then that person designs the master course shell. We’re using Canvas right now, and so they’ve got a master shell that they designed so we can easily, pretty flexibly move it from the master shell into a live course shell as courses are beginning so people aren’t constantly rewriting courses. They also create the rubrics and the assessments and the course structure and policies. And then we also have support from our Center for Distance Ed. So if an instructor who’s designing a course needs some help with any aspect of designing a course and getting it up and running they can get help from there. And so we do that because it’s more consistent than those old TeleCampus courses where people were just kind of talking on the fly. And we feel like having this lead instructor idea ensures quality across the program. Our courses change, but if we have an adjunct or a graduate student teaching a course, for example, they don’t change the course at all, they teach what’s handed to them, and it’s pretty standardized at that point. And a couple of other changes. When I first took over the leadership of the program, it was a 36 hour program. And then we were told that we had to shorten it to 30 hours by our university. They were looking to shorten all the master’s degree programs. Figuring out, how do you cut two courses without losing content? That’s been a challenge. And then because we’re a teacher ed program, we have certification standards that we have to meet and our state certification agency change their rules pretty often, and maybe they won’t let us know until about the day after they’ve done it. [LAUGHTER] No, it’s not that bad, [LAUGHTER] but sometimes it does catch us a little bit by surprise. We’ve changed to meet that. And then at the university level, we’ve changed our learning management system a few times. Now we’re with Canvas, but we’ve been with Blackboard, and before that there was this TeleCampus structure. So that kind of changes the way things have worked. And then we’ve also changed, not we but our university, has changed the way we collect and archive important documentation. So that has been all over the place. So there have been a lot of changes along the way. And we just do our best to roll with the punches. I think it’s working really well right now. We’ve maintained this 100% pass rate on our exam, and our students are happy, and enrollment is looking good.

Rebecca: So you mentioned having master courses. How many sections do you usually have of each course?

Kathryn: We have one section of each course each semester, so fall, spring, and summer. And so, sometimes there could be 100 students in one section, but they’re divided into smaller groups, so students really only see about 20 classmates. So we put them into smaller groups, and then we have the equivalent of a TA, we call them instructional associates, who lead those smaller groups as far as discussion boards and those kinds of activities. So one section, but broken into smaller pieces.

John: What would a typical semester’s course load be like for a student in this program?

Kathryn: Every semester, a student will take a full semester-long course that is called a practicum. And so there’s learning within that course, but there also are practical pieces that they need to be able to demonstrate by sending video. And so we assess the video, looking for specific things that they can do that demonstrate how they’re meeting our standards. That’s one course that is an umbrella over the semester, either August to December or January to May. And then they also will take two, seven-week courses. They’ll take one seven week course the first half of that time, and then another seven week course, the second part of that time.

Rebecca: So your practicum is interesting, because we typically think about these as being in-person experiences, and you have an online program, and you mentioned video. Are teachers using the classrooms that they’re already teaching in to do their demonstration videos? Or is there a different structure?

Kathryn: So for the most part they use their own classrooms. And because they’re seeking advanced certification, that’s fine. Typically, each practicum has a different focus. The first practicum is on learning best practices within the field of literacy. So they learn what is good reading instruction, and what is good writing instruction. And how do you move students along based on research. And then the second practicum is working with diverse learners. So they might be looking at working with special education students, or students who speak another language than English at home, or some other form of diversity. And then the third practicum is on literacy leadership. And so in that course they actively mentor another teacher or a paraprofessional or someone who is interested in learning more about literacy within their school. And then they also plan for professional development within literacy. And so they’ll lead, maybe, a workshop or another professional development opportunity for teachers in their school. So they create these videos within those practicum courses. And we have instructors, but we also have people called “field supervisors.” Field supervisors are also experts in the field, and their role is to help the student prepare for these practicum videos. And then to eventually analyze them, evaluate them, and then write up a practicum report helping the students grow along the way. So it works really well to do this online surprisingly. We do think about these in-person practicum supervision, but with these videos we have opportunities to go back and look at things and to call attention to something that we want the student to see. It’s like, “Oh, look, here’s something that you did that was really effective,” or, “Here’s something that if you had asked this question a little different way you might have gotten a different kind of answer or a better answer.” So it gives us really good opportunities to work with our students.

John: One issue that might come up with some of the shorter terms is what happens when there’s some type of natural disaster, say a power outage in the middle of winter as happened in February of 2021. How did people adapt to losing power and internet access and so forth and still keep the online courses progressing?

Kathryn: Yeah, so that was a really interesting thing. I live in a part of Texas where we didn’t have power for… I don’t know, 10 days? Like we had power, but we might only have it for an hour, and then we wouldn’t have power for two hours. And so people’s priority wasn’t hopping on to Canvas to get their work done. It was more like, “Oh, how am I gonna cook dinner?” It was a really tough time. And so what our instructors did was, they just stayed in contact with students as best they could, sending emails and messages through Canvas, and letting students know that we weren’t going to ping them for something that completely wasn’t their fault at all. Even other adults, they need a lot of hand holding. Sometimes they think, “Oh no, I’m going to be in trouble. I’m going to get a bad grade because I didn’t do this work,” and we all understood and so we sent those kind of messages. So if there’s a natural disaster—even if it’s not in Texas, maybe it’s a wildfire in California, or a hurricane that hits the East coast—our university is really good at identifying those online students who are most likely to have been impacted, and they’ll send us those names. And so we can match that with emails that we’re getting from panicking students, and just let them know that we understand and we’re as accommodating as we can be. It’s not that they have forever to finish the assignments, but we do give them grace. We’ll give an incomplete if we need to, to let them catch up. That was a challenge. And of course COVID was a whole different challenge, because we had people who were supposed to be doing practicum in schools and their schools were shut down. And so it was the same sort of story, we just said, “You know, we get it. We’re all in the same situation.” And so we gave a lot of grace for that.

John: Now, you also did a study at some point about the times when students were participating in your classes where you looked at the timestamps on their student submissions. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Kathryn: Yes, another colleague and I, one day we both were talking about how tired we were, [LAUGHTER] and we’re like “Oh, I was up until 11 o’clock working with a student.” And so we thought, ‘Well, I wonder how many of them are actually emailing us, or posting things in Canvas, or trying to get our attention at odd times?’ And so we actually did a study. We requested timestamp data from our Distance Ed office, they were able to pull together all the time stamps that involved students for a period of about two years. And so as we looked at this, we realized there was a really good reason why we were tired, because a lot of our students were logging in and doing work between about 11 o’clock at night and two in the morning, that was a pretty heavy time. And then a lot of them would get up early, and we would see that they were working from 4 a.m. until about 7 a.m. And then, I guess, going on to school. It might not be every day, but it was some days, especially, probably days when assignments were due that evening. They would try to make sure that they had it done in the morning before they left the house. But a lot of our students were working on Saturdays and Sundays, which I guess is to be expected as well. And sort of strange hours then too. Again, early mornings and in the evenings after they were finished with family time. It was very interesting. And so we’ve kind of made a little bit of a shift ourselves, realizing when our students needed us most. I’m not one to be online with my students at 11 o’clock at night, I’m way too tired for that, but I do try to hop online every night between 8:30 and 9:30 or so just to make sure they’re doing okay. And I wake pretty early, and so I’m usually looking at Canvas by about 7:30 in the morning to try to catch those who might have questions in the morning. And also, we’ll hop on Canvas more on Saturdays and Sundays, because we know our students are active and there may be some timely questions. But we’ve also decided… You know what? If I decide to take a nap from one to three, it’s okay, because I’m doing all these other things at different times of day. And I think looking at that has really helped us understand what our students are doing and why it’s important for us to practice self care in this kind of a program as well.

Rebecca: I can imagine. You’ve mentioned family commitments and work commitments of your students. There’s a lot of challenges associated with going to school while you’re a working professional. Are there other challenges that your students have faced or mentioned that you’ve been trying to accommodate in addition to the timing?

Kathryn: There’s always something, you know? [LAUGHTER] Especially now, we’re on the getting better side of it now, but one of the things that was a surprise to us was the impact of COVID. It’s like, well, we knew that they were closing schools, and that that was a disruption. But what we didn’t expect until we started asking students about it and digging deeper into it was that all these other issues, like technology. They were parents whose kids were home all of a sudden instead of being at school and the kids needed to use the computer and their schools were expecting them to be logged in. And maybe that family only had one computer, or maybe if they had two, they had five kids. The parents needed the computer, the kids needed the computer. And so that was a really interesting thing to discover: how much sharing of devices happens in a family. My kids are all grown and they have all their own computers, and so that wasn’t anything that I had to face. But I have a couple of colleagues with younger kids, and they were definitely feeling that as well. But it was a surprise how much device sharing there was. And then also, we realized some of our students were staying at their schools to get their classwork done because they didn’t have internet at home, or they didn’t have stable enough internet at home. And so when their schools were not opened any longer, we found out that they were thinking creatively, I guess. They were going and driving their cars to a McDonald’s or Starbucks and logging into free public Wi-Fi. So those things were challenges and surprises to us. And then just the impact of what it’s like. They’re teaching all day normally, but when it’s your own children, and they’re in your own house, you don’t have quite the same control. And so they were saying, “Well, my kids are just going crazy in my house. If I was at school, I would have everybody at their desk doing work.” And here they were, like, [LAUGHTER] “Oh! Kids.” And also we had students dealing with their own issues. Many of our students reported having COVID themselves or having family members who came down with COVID and they were having to be caretakers. And we had a good number of students and even some of our faculty members who lost a family member to COVID. There’s just a lot of stuff going on. We’ve always got something popping up to deal with and thinking about creative ways to handle it all and keeping people moving along. That’s always an interesting challenge to coordinating a program like this.

Rebecca: Did you find that during COVID, and even now, while these teachers who are also students are handling COVID in their own classrooms, are they using this classroom space or your discussion boards to collaborate and troubleshoot together?

Kathryn: Absolutely. It was fascinating to me to see them because they were sharing. And a lot of instructors, me included, we changed our discussion prompts. Because for a while we were saying, “Okay, well, discuss how guided reading might look in your classroom,” and then all of a sudden it became, “Discuss how guided reading might have looked in your classroom, but now what are you doing in this hybrid, or high flex, or totally online teaching situation?” So they were hopping onto discussion boards, and they were sharing those things, and they were talking about what it was like in their classrooms. And even we as instructors got some really great ideas. It’s like, “Oh, well this might work.” Sharing ideas was a really important piece, but also, this whole sense of built camaraderie. It’s like, “Oh, this is not just me. I am part of this bigger community of people who are trying to find the floor under our feet, while all of this stuff is shifting.” And so they were absolutely doing things like that. They were using the discussion board, I know for sure. They didn’t invite me to it, but they had a Facebook group for second grade teachers who are doing high flex or something. They had several different ways that they were communicating amongst themselves and sharing ideas. And they let me know that they were doing that, and that it was working. So yeah, and I think in a program as big as ours, that was probably one of the more helpful things for them. They got to see what other teachers were doing and what other school districts were doing, or other principals were doing. And some of them would say, “I’m going to tell my principal this.” The things that worked anyway.

John: Now we’ve done some past podcasts where we addressed issues of the emotional pressures put on students or the emotional challenges that our students are facing. We also have talked a little bit on previous podcasts about issues of burnouts among faculty, but the students in your program are kind of getting both sides of that. They’re students working through COVID, and they’re also teachers during COVID. What sort of challenges has that presented for your students?

Kathryn: A lot, even though we’re kind of at this point where we’re almost pretending that COVID is gone, it’s still on our students’ minds. In my county, we’re still seeing 800 or so cases a day, and it’s better than the 4000 we were seeing a few weeks ago, but our students are really feeling this. And I don’t know what the next new thing is going to be because it seems like there’s always something. Probably last year was the hardest because we had both power failures and COVID at the same time, and how do you use technology when you can’t turn on your lights? I think part of the coping that they did was trying to stay in touch with one another and then our faculty being more present than we might have been otherwise, I think we’ve learned to be more present as part of what we learned from that timestamp study. When are our students hanging around? And if we can answer their question 10 minutes after they ask, that’s a whole lot better than making them wait 8 or 10 hours. So I don’t know that there’s a great answer, but I think it has to be something about being present. Both our students being present for one another, which we’ve learned better ways to build into our courses, and then for faculty being more present to our students as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned too, kind of at the top of the episode, about faculty in your program being careful about self care and managing hours and managing time. Could you talk a little bit more about some of those boundaries that you’ve set? And then also the ways that you might be supporting your students in setting some of those same boundaries and finding some similar balance for themselves when they’re taking on quite a bit all at once?

Kathryn: I have a colleague, and I can’t remember exactly how she puts it, but her email signature says something like, “I am responding to this in hours that I have decided are within my work day. Please respond only in those hours that you have decided are within your work day.” And I love that, and I feel like using it on my signature, but I don’t want her to think that I’m stealing it. [LAUGHTER] But I think it’s really important that we do set those boundaries, but at the same time being present. And so being present doesn’t mean being present 24/7. It means being present in those times when our presence is the most helpful. And so we know for sure that our students are not typically working in our courses between 9 a.m. and noon. They might hop on during lunchtime for a little bit, and then they’re not usually in our courses working between one in the afternoon and three or four in the afternoon. And so if we’re going to adjust our schedules, and run our errands, and do those kinds of things, that might be a good way for faculty to think about their use of time. When are the times that we’re most helpful to our students? And when are the times that are best for us to take care of ourselves? And so I think we’re all still working, probably, more than eight hours a day, because that’s just kind of the nature of our work and that’s our passion as well. But we’re not feeling like we have to work all day and late into the night and all weekend, the way that we first thought that we needed to in order to be that presence that our students needed. Did that answer your question?

Rebecca: Yeah, the second part was thinking about supporting your students and also finding balance.

Kathryn: So we also give our students a calendar so they know exactly when things are due. And we typically have them due at some time that is… you know, if they like working at night, we might have something due at 6 a.m. or something like that, just so that those people who want to work at two in the morning can get it done. And so we think about those kinds of things. And we let our students know that the entire course is released at the beginning of the term. And so they can see everything, they can start reading ahead if they want and working ahead if they want. Other than discussions that need to be relatively live within a week’s period of time, they can still prepare in advance if they need to. And if they anticipate something, if their school is having some particularly busy or stressful week, they’re free to work ahead and move things off their plate. And we encourage those kinds of things. And then also, another piece of it is just, again, faculty reminding students that we’re human, and we get it and if things come up, just keep communicating with us and letting us know so that we can be of the most help to them as well.

John: We always end with a question, What’s next?

Kathryn: Oh, we have so many different directions to go. I’m working with a group of colleagues from across the country, about eight different universities in eight different states. And we’re looking at the impact of COVID and beyond. What can we pull out of what we’ve learned from COVID to help refine online teacher education courses? Because there’s a lot there I think. And as we look at it, we find more and more interesting things to analyze. And so we’re working right now on getting that more refined and getting that information out. And then our programs themselves are constantly being refined. We’re looking at new state standards soon and other issues that just pop up. And so keeping in touch with our students and figuring out what’s going to be the next new things that we learn to support them and to keep them moving along, I think that’ll be part of the next steps as well. So there’s kind of no shortage of where to go.

Rebecca: It’s kind of the biz that we’re all in. [LAUGHTER]

Kathryn: Right! [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I think so. These are such interesting times, because we don’t know. I keep reading all these different opinions on whether or not COVID will be over pretty soon, or whether the next new wave is coming. Just thinking about what’ll happen in the future that’s outside of our control, and then figuring out ways to mitigate that in ways that we can control, I think that’s gonna be really important. I don’t think that higher education is going to ever look like it did four years ago. I think that’s gone.

John: Whatever happens with the pandemic, I think we’ve experimented a lot in higher ed, and I think there’s a lot of lessons we can take away. We’ve observed a lot of things that were hidden in the past from faculty as students moved into working from home with very different technology and so forth. So I think you’re right that we are going to see some pretty substantial permanent changes. What they are though is open to discussion, and so your study could be helpful in helping to shape that, perhaps.

Kathryn: Yeah, and some of these things will be decided at levels above our heads. State boards of regents and university administrations will make some of these decisions, but figuring out what it means to be faculty in these programs and then getting everything to align right so that we’re doing the best job for our students I think is going to be really important.

Rebecca: Definitely. Well thank you so much for sharing some of your insights and experiences with us.

Kathryn: You are so welcome. I’ve enjoyed talking to you both.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.


John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.