School of Education Blog

Mastering Elementary Education: Getting Your Master's in a Growing Field

Teacher working with two young male studentsWe are living in a time of sweeping changes, not only to the way people work, but to the career paths that most urgently need qualified professionals. There’s always been a demand for exceptional elementary education teachers; now, however, the tumultuous events of 2020 have put into stark relief just how vital it is to recruit and keep teachers who are equipped to thrive amid the challenges of 21st century education.

With so many industries uncertain or endangered by the COVID pandemic and rapid cultural and technological change, elementary education has a tremendous amount to offer those entering the working world—or looking for a meaningful change of career. It’s a field of growing opportunity with a need for a diverse workforce, providing more long-term stability than many professions, and combining that with a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment and the chance to become a leader at the forefront of real social change.

For people with a strong liberal arts background, Loyola University Maryland’s Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Elementary Education program offers a clinically-focused, social justice-oriented path to a teaching certificate and a rewarding career—a life-changing experience that can be completed in as little as one year.

The Need for Top-Notch Teachers in Elementary Education

Equitable access to high-quality public PK-12 education for all children is vital to their success in life, and it’s a cornerstone of a thriving and just society. Dedicated and well-prepared teachers will always be needed for those crucial early years up through 6th grade, but the demand is growing and that need will be even greater in the years soon to come.

There is already a documented teacher shortage, particularly for schools in high poverty areas, that’s compounded by a growing student population. The coronavirus crisis and the debates around what in-person instruction will look like over the next year or two suggests a need for additional teachers to make smaller, socially-distanced classrooms and staggered school schedules a realistic option.

What’s more, teachers entering the field need to be qualified in more than just the subjects they teach. They need to be well-versed in distance learning technology and pedagogy. They must be prepared to meet the needs of ELL students and special needs learners. They need to be active, informed partners in their schools and districts, advocating for their students as they are uniquely equipped to do.

They must also have a deep understanding of the impact of children’s wellness on their ability to learn, and able to create a learning environment that supports the whole child. This begins with physical hygiene practices and healthy, consistent social structures in class, but it includes knowledge of the effects of nutrition, sleep, and home environment on attention and learning. It includes an educated, nuanced awareness of racism, of the stress faced by immigrant families, of systemic poverty, of all the issues of equity and social justice that affect children’s daily lives and educations. That’s why Loyola’s School of Education’s framework brings competence together with conscience and compassion—to empower teachers with the vision and skills to step into not just the teaching position but also into a leadership role in challenging injustice and shaping a more equitable education landscape for all children.

How Loyola’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program Prepares Elementary Teachers

“This is a high-touch program,” says Afra Hersi, Ph.D, chair of the teacher education department and associate professor of literacy education. She’s referring to the low candidate-to-instructor ratio in the classes, the extensive alumni and mentor relationships with candidates that begin during the program and extend beyond graduation, and the intensive involvement of Loyola faculty with the partner mentor schools where every candidate will gain clinical experience in two active teaching internships towards the culmination of the program.

The MAT, Elementary offers two options: An accelerated one-year program for those who can commit to a full-time course of study, or an evening-based, part-time program designed to meet the needs of teachers working locally that can be completed in anywhere from two to five years. Classes are offered as a hybrid of in-person and distance learning, and class size averages roughly 18 candidates. At graduation, candidates are eligible for a Maryland State teaching certification in grades 1-6, which also grants them access to the NASDTEC Teacher Reciprocity Agreement for certification in other states.

The curriculum forms a cohesive pathway developed out of Loyola’s Jesuit values and commitment to creating leaders. It begins with a comprehensive social-historical perspective on schooling in America, equipping candidates to be culturally and linguistically responsive and to understand their students’ life contexts. From there, it examines the pedagogical core of elementary education. With that foundation in place, candidates get a coordinated hands-on experience in a Baltimore-area partner school.

“It’s not easy to teach. There’s so much theory, but how does that translate into the real world? How do we close the equity gaps?” says Dr. Hersi. “One of the things that the research on teacher education tells us is that there needs to be a focus on intensive clinical practice, because you as a teacher have to be able to translate everything into practice. We’ve moved away from the idea of ‘student teaching’ to field experience, with our students co-teaching in the classroom with their mentor teachers.”

This robust engagement with partner schools is one of the things that sets Loyola’s MAT, Elementary program apart. It’s a two-way street, with Loyola providing professional development and resources to the schools as well as the schools coming in to work with Loyola’s classes. Loyola’s faculty is involved with the candidates and the schools beyond scheduled classroom observations—they will attend meetings, visit informally, and make themselves available to debrief with candidates about what’s going on in their classrooms.

After graduation, the newly-certified teachers continue to receive support from faculty, alumni, mentors, and their fellow graduates with whom they’ve worked so closely. Online professional communities like ASPIRE, social media groups, virtual meetups, and even an anti-racism book club offer valuable ways to stay connected, and it makes a tangible difference for those first years. Says Dr. Hersi, “In our recent class, nearly all of them have jobs. All of them can pass their exams. They can persist in their field. That’s the commitment we’re looking for to see if we’re making a difference—making sure that they’re prepared, supported, and staying in their profession.”

A Focus on Teacher Wellness

The challenges and demands of teaching are real, and resilience is key for any teacher’s longevity in elementary education. Loyola understands that meaningful self-care, strong professional and personal networks, and healthy coping strategies are essential building blocks of that resilience, and the program is designed to empower teachers to manage their own wellness as well as that of their children.

“The professors are really invested in their students here,” says Laura Alpaugh, professional development school coordinator. “They get to know each other really well. Availability is part of our commitment to embodying the care of the whole person.”

Sign of the Times: Connecting with Students in a Virtual Environment

Over the years, more and more schools have been exploring distance learning options, but the events of this year have intensified the need for digitally-literate teachers even at the earliest levels of education. The MAT programs have always been committed to remaining timely with the needs of teachers, and this is no exception: Candidates in the program are learning to be effective remote instructors, to become a Google Certified Educator, and to see first-hand from their own online classes the principles of online instructional design in action.

At least as important as their technical skills, however, is the understanding they receive of the social inequities present now in remote learning. The challenges of virtual teaching—as the nation discovered this past spring when the pandemic shut down schools everywhere—are not limited to which students have access to a computer or reliable wi-fi. They include language barriers, social and behavioral challenges, and the need for more customizable tools to meet the needs of diverse learners. Loyola’s commitment to social justice and ethics prepares elementary education teachers to advocate for access and change in their school systems, to provide more equitable education to all their children, and to model the standards of ethical digital citizenship for their students and colleagues.

If this is the Career Path for You…

“I get feedback from alumni all the time that they have been prepared for things in the classroom that they couldn’t have anticipated otherwise,” says Laura Alpaugh. “They find that they can navigate situations effectively, work with families, work in urban settings, they can foster community and support the schools. Loyola really creates leaders,” she adds.

If you have a passion for elementary education, for driving change, for social justice, and for impacting your students in ways that will endure for a lifetime, answer the call. Read about our programs, sign up for one of our virtual information sessions, or contact us for more information about the Masters of Arts in Teaching, Education program.