Interview: Lynne Wassatt on the Art and Science of Teaching Program

When Lynne Wassatt, an elementary school assistant principal, attended the Building Expertise conference three years ago, she never expected to walk away with a full scholarship to earn a master’s degree at the National Institute of Professional Practice. But she did. Here’s what she accomplished with her scholarship and the life lessons she learned along the way.

Congratulations on both your scholarship to the Art & Science of Teaching master’s program and for recently completing your last course! It must feel good to have finished something so big. Before we get into your experience as a master’s degree candidate, we’d love to know more about you.

How long have you been an educator?

I started teaching special education in 1975. Then I was a middle school science teacher, a curriculum resource teacher, a dean, an assistant principal, and a principal. Right now I'm an assistant principal.

What school and district are you in today?

Princeton Elementary in Orange County, Florida. This is an awesome school. It's a landmark school that’s been here since the 1920s. The astronaut, John Young, went to the elementary school here. It's a nice claim to fame.

What do you like most about your job?

I like working with the teachers. A big part of that has to do with the classes I took in the Art & Science of Teaching program. Here in Orange County, my teachers are assessed using the Marzano protocol, so it is very important that I am able to model, give examples, and help teachers if they're not doing as well as they'd like under any of the 41 elements. Helping them become better and reach the goals they’re striving for is the best part.

You’ve held a lot of positions in education. Which did you enjoy the most?

I was principal of a very small school with only 250 children. It was a Title 1 inner city school and that was my heart. I was principal there for six years. The student population was 100% free or reduced lunch and 36% homeless. We had the highest homeless percentage in the county. It was the most awesome job I’ve had. I just loved it. My kids were wonderful. My parents were hard working.

Can you share a rewarding moment as an educator?

On Facebook, a woman wrote to me asking if I remembered her. I was her science teacher, and she still remembered projects I did with her class. She’s a teacher now, and she said I’m the reason she became a teacher.

I'm also working with a teacher who was one of my sixth grade students. And I’ve taught the children of students who were in the school where I was a principal. I really enjoy the whole generational thing. Because I've been doing this more than 40 years, I get to see some of the actual effects that I've made over the years. It’s rewarding to know that all the hard work and love we put in as teachers sometimes makes a difference in students’ lives.

What are some challenges with being an assistant principal?

The biggest challenge is the state tests. We want to make sure we're teaching all of the state standards and everything that our children need, but sometimes it's hard to balance all the different expressions and ways to learn when you know you have the state standards looming over your head. For example, recess was a challenge today. I saw the children outside running around and playing soccer and having fun. It made me feel great because this is something they need to do as children, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking, Oh,no! Are we going to have time to get to that math standard 3.2.5? The challenge is finding the balance of what they need physically and emotionally as children, and what we really have to do educationally.

You won a full scholarship to the Art & Science of Teaching master’s program offered through the National Institute of Professional Practice at the Building Expertise 2013 educators conference put on by Learning Sciences International. And you met Dr. Robert Marzano. What was that experience like?

I was at a Marzano conference in Florida, and I put my name in different drawings to win all sorts of things. And then at the big assembly meeting my name was called. I ran up on stage like it was Price is Right or something. I was jumping up and down because I was so excited.

I ran up there and gave him a big hug! I know Dr. Marzano doesn't know me, but I feel like I know him because our county does the entire Marzano protocol. We've had the training, and his face is on everything. It was like meeting a movie star.

What did you know about the program before you attended the conference?

I knew quite a bit about the Art & Science of Teaching framework because as an administrator I had to assess my teachers with it. I had been reading a lot of Dr. Marzano’s books, but I knew nothing about the master’s degree.

Were you interested in pursuing a master’s degree before you won the scholarship? If so, why and in what area of study? What other schools were you contemplating?

No, not really. This is my third master’s degree. And I'm 65. Back in the 1970s, I got my master’s in elementary education. When I decided to be an administrator, I got my master’s in administration. You don't get any more money as a principal because you go back to get a higher degree, even if that's a PhD. But to be honest, when I won the scholarship, I felt like God had a reason for me winning.

Though you received a full scholarship to the Art & Science of Teaching, you were not obligated to enroll in the program. What motivated you to enter the program?

Out of 2,000 people, my name was called. There had to be some reason. That sense of purpose helped me during the program. It was a lot of work. I was a principal at the time, without an assistant principal. There were nights when I was thinking, I have to stay up until 2 a.m. to write this paper and I don't feel like it; but then I'd think, God would not have given me this out of 2,000 people for me to just give up. It would be easy to give up. I wouldn't have been out of any money. But I just couldn't quit. I would say my faith encouraged me to do this. I believed there was a reason for me being chosen, even if I didn't know the path.

Tell us a little about your experience during the program. What are some of the highlights?

In one of my classes, the professor talked about considering the children who are important to my job, but with whom I don't have a good relationship.

Well, there was an eight-year-old that I was getting referrals on all the time. She was constantly causing problems in the breakfast line. She’d argue with her teacher. She'd roll her eyes at me. I was getting so frustrated with her. When she got off the bus every morning, I found I wasn't even looking at her because I didn't want to deal with her. Although I was not mean to the student, when I thought about my class assignment, I looked at how I was treating her. It was as if she didn't exist.

At that moment, I determined to just fake it—act as if I just adored her and I was happy she was here. When she got off the bus, I said, "Good morning! I'm glad you're here. Come have breakfast." At first she looked at me like I was crazy. She didn't say a word. I stopped by her class and patted her on the back. I consciously made a decision that she was one of my favorite children. I visited her every day.

And then I found out she was having a difficult time with her classroom teacher because she's a child who's going through a lot. Her mother is a hard-working single parent living in a shelter with all of her children. The student had five siblings. Her older sister was pregnant. Despite everything she was going through, I saw that this kid was really, really smart.

Once I consciously decided to treat her as a loved one, the change has been phenomenal. She does kind things for her classmates now. She’s nice to me. And she isn’t in my office anymore for getting into trouble. I don't know if I would have done this if it wasn't an assignment that challenged me to stop and look at the relationships you have with who's important in your profession. That was a definite highlight of the program for me.

Describe a few of the challenges with the graduate program.

I bought several of my Marzano books online to read on my iPad. The directions from class always tell you what page to read, but on an iPad, the pages differ, depending on the font you use. Telling me to read pages 71–81 didn’t help me. I needed to know I should read this section to that section.

Another issue is that for about a week and a half, you're ending one class and beginning another. For those of us who find it hard to do two classes at once, we're doing our final report on one while we’re doing our initial report on another. That's difficult.

What was it like to be working and studying full-time?

You have to have stamina and be very organized. And you have to be the kind of person who can put off gratification. You have to know, Yes, I'm working really hard now and I'm only getting five hours of sleep, but it'll be worth it in the end. My online facilitators were amazing, especially Melony Fowler. During a class, I found out about a family member's illness, and it's an ongoing situation that requires my attention. Sometimes I had to ask for an extra day to do an assignment. My facilitators, in general, were really helpful. They were helpful personally and through the synch points, which I think was great because if I had questions, I could write to them. The support makes a big difference. But it's still challenging. I absolutely could not do any of my class work while at my job. I needed peace and quiet to think. I did my work late at night after my husband was asleep.

All of the courses are facilitated online. What was that like?

At first, it was hard for me because I'm not a digital native. When I was born, we only had televisions in some homes. And I was concerned that I'd have an assignment due and my computer would crash or something. But then I'd remind myself that there's Kinkos and they're open 24 hours. At first, for someone who isn't that literate with computers, it can be difficult. Although I'd worked on computers, I'd never used a Wiki before. My facilitators were very helpful.

Once I got the hang of it, I liked doing it online because I could work at 2 a.m. if I wanted to. And each facilitator had time each week when they were available for live discussions and questions, just like office hours if you were at a brick-and-mortar university. I could just drop in online and ask my questions. It was really good. My classmates were great, too.

I’d check my discussions every night. I wrote back and forth with the people in my classes. The funny thing is, I felt like I learned more about my classmates in this online program than I did at brick-and-mortar schools I attended. Every day, we’d correspond about lots of different things. That was really the best part—the whole online component. You really do feel a part of a community.

I would recommend it to anybody. I went to Indiana University, and there were classes where there were hundreds of people. The professors had no clue who I was. So this was actually more intimate that that.

Because all of the program’s coursework is embedded into professional practice, learners must be a practicing educator with either a classroom or group of educators they mentor. Were you able to implement what you were learning into your practice? How? What was the effect? Did you see changes?

I chose second grade because our second graders don't take a state test, and I didn't want to interrupt teaching that was going on with third grade through fifth grade. I used different kinds of citizenship because that's part of what Orange County does. Every month you have a particular kind of value that you work on, so I taught a lesson as often as I needed to and I videotaped it. I put it in my Dropbox and gave access to my teachers if they wanted to watch it. This was so awesome because normally I have to go into their classrooms and watch them and assess them. Now they could see me doing the learning goals and scales and the engagement activities. They saw that I wasn't perfect, and I knew what I had to improve on.

The teacher that I was teaching with is a very respected teacher on campus. After I taught in her class, she vouched for me with the other teachers, saying, “She came in and she really taught, she does her lesson plans, she does the discipline.” That was great for my credibility and the teaching section.

Then there were times when I did some of what I was learning with just my staff. Let's say I was going over data notebooks. I would do things that I'd learned in my graduate classes. So not only did I use it with the students, but also with the teachers.

How long did it take you to complete the program?

Three years. Most people do it in three.

How did it feel to complete the program?

I have all this free time, and I feel like I don’t know what to do with it. I was so used to staying up late in bed and checking into the online classes before I’d go to sleep. Now, I don’t have to do that.

Now that you’ve completed the Art & Science of Teaching master’s program, do you feel better equipped for your current position? Other positions?

I've used this program all along because I assess my teachers. They have to come meet with me to debrief after their assessments. During the talk, I give suggestions on how to improve. That's been an important thing for me all along. But I do feel equipped to be an online instructor with the program. I am going to apply.

What might you tell other educators contemplating a master’s degree?

I certainly think that for those of us who work under the Marzano protocol, it's an excellent way of making sure all of your work and effort are on the important things. You aren't spinning your wheels trying to figure out what's important. You know there are 41 elements and there's research behind it that shows that the improvement will be in this percentage, and this will help my children learn what they need to learn.

It also helps you be a better educator. I think administrators should definitely take the course because equips you to do a better job. Instead of helping 18–20 kids in your class, you're helping 500 students in your school by helping every teacher impact every student in their classes.

Don't be afraid because it's online. If a 65-year-old woman can do it, you can do it. I had community and it was great. I want to be an instructor for the program now that I’m finished because I want to make others feel as comfortable, welcomed, and enriched as I did.

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