Putting Your Elementary Education Degree to Work

Students are working on an informative writing project in Benton's first grade classroom.

Students are working on an informative writing project in Benton's first grade classroom.

“Teachers are so much more than just teachers,” says Troy University alumna Gabriella Benton. Benton is a 2022 graduate of TROY’s elementary education specialist program that prepares students for leadership roles in education. She’s been putting her elementary education degree to work in a first-grade classroom in Brunswick, Georgia.

“One of the greatest challenges of teaching at the elementary level — but also rewarding — is serving students who struggle to have their basic needs met daily,” says Benton. “I have to remind myself daily that I have no clue about the situations my students face outside of the school. Many come to school hungry, unclean and needing love. This challenges me, as the teacher, to serve students academically but also provide them with their basic life needs and love.”

Teachers have the unique opportunity to care for those who’ve been entrusted to them, and it’s crucial that they have the skills they need to be successful in their role. TROY is preparing teachers for all levels of leadership through the K-6 education master’s certification program.

Additional Education Is Important for Professional Teachers

Anyone who’s a teacher is a learner first, so adding education is important for continued success.

“If you are truly an educator — and most educators are called to this profession — you’re a lifelong learner,” says Dr. Lisa Etheridge, Assistant Professor in TROY’s Department of Teacher Education. “You never stop learning. It’s just in our nature as educators to continue to go to school and continue to learn. Beyond that, it’s important to add to our education because our children are coming to us every day wired differently. Technologically, they’re more advanced than some of us are. And we have to keep up with what’s latest and greatest out there so we can still reach and teach every kid.”

In addition to staying ahead of the students in their classrooms, professional teachers need to keep their students competitive across a broader landscape. “If you look globally, we have to be able to compete with other students on an international level,” says Dr. Etheridge. “Here in Montgomery, for example, we have the Hyundai manufacturing plant. Their base is in Korea. When they first came to Montgomery, they had a hard time finding enough qualified applicants to fill all their positions. They reached out to the governor and the state school board saying, ‘Listen, we need to rethink some things.’ So, we have to keep in mind the need to compete not only nationally but also internationally.”

How the Elementary Education Master’s Enhances Skills and Expands Opportunity

The TROY K-6 education master’s certification program is an opportunity for teachers to add to the skills they already have. “It’s not so much helping teachers improve on the content level but helping them master their pedagogical skills — how to teach,” says Dr. Etheridge. “The questions teachers are always asking are, ‘How do we reach every student with the vast array of needs students have?’ and ‘How do we reach and teach every one of those kids so that they can be successful?’”

The master’s program helps answer these questions. “The master’s is really fine-tuning their teaching and instruction skills to reach and teach all students,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “What works for Student A may not work for Student B, so teachers have to figure out how to reach all children in their classroom. The elementary education master’scertification develops their skills. It also allows them to begin moving into foundational steps of leadership. As master’s level educators, teachers are held to a higher standard than novice teachers coming into the classroom.”

“The next step is the education specialist,” says Dr. Etheridge. “When someone moves into that area, they’re already looked upon as having the background to be an effective teacher. At that point, they’re asking, ‘What can I do to enhance my field as an educator? Then they’re looking at research, leadership and data. Because everything is data-driven, education leaders need to know how to collect data, analyze it, interpret it and use it to make formal decisions across the board for a school or a school system.”

“Someone in an education specialist’s role becomes a vital leader,” Dr. Etheridge says. “The specialist certification can lead to positions such as instructional coaching, grade level team leader, department chair or team lead on a leadership committee for the school or district.”

Benton has already added value to her team as she’s stepped into new leadership roles following her graduation with an education specialist degree. “I currently serve as the team leader for my grade level,” says Benton. “In addition to that, I serve on a number of committees for the district after being selected as my school’s Teacher of the Year for 2022-23. I am very excited about a new position on the Community Engagement Council for my district. This is newly developed and will allow various members of the community to meet and discuss curriculum options for our district. At my school, I also serve as the co-chair for our Relay for Life committee, as that organization is very dear to my heart.”

Why Studying for a Master’s in Elementary Education Online at TROY Is a Good Option for Working Teachers 

The opportunity to prepare for leadership roles by studying in a fully online elementary education master’s program is unique. “TROY is one of the few universities offering the master’s in elementary education completely online with no on-campus components,” says Dr. Etheridge. “This allows students to take classes at their convenience, which is especially helpful for working teachers. As educators, they’re already swamped with day-to-day stuff, and on top of that, many have families with children. Putting it all online for them offers convenience.”

Through the years, online programs have become more robust, and TROY’s elementary education master’s programsare no exception. “The quality of the instruction does not differ from a face-to-face program,” Dr. Etheridge says. “In some cases, our online degree might be a little bit more rigorous, depending on what the courses are.”

Students can be confident that when they complete the program at TROY, they’ll be prepared for advancement as a professional teacher. “We’ve heard from local leaders that we produce the most qualified, ready-to-work, confident and efficient teachers,” says Dr. Etheridge. “We run a very tight program. Students can be confident they’re going to be ready to go when they leave here. And that’s the biggest thing that I believe students truly want.”

Accountability and strong relationships are built into the elementary education courses and contribute to the success of TROY graduates. “We hold feet to the fire to some degree,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “But we also value relationships. Most of our students are working. They have families. They have children. They have to run to baseball games and basketball games and they wonder how they’ll ever go back to school. We work with them to figure out a way to make it work within their schedule.”

While they’re held accountable for staying on top of their work, students are also given flexibility within the parameters of meeting assignment requirements. “I have my students submit assignments every Sunday by midnight,” says Dr. Etheridge. “They’ve got all weekend and all week to work on it. It’s that kind of flexibility that lets them get it done when they need to get it done. It’s not me dictating for them when they should be doing their schoolwork.”

Benton experienced TROY’s program firsthand. “I have friends who completed the program a few years ago and highly recommended it,” she says. “After much research, I felt the TROY program was going to be manageable with my schedule and budget. It has met all my expectations. Each class I took was different in focus, but I have been able to take something from each course back into my classroom.”

For those who may still be wondering if they have the time or budget for an elementary education master’s degree, Benton says, “TROY’s Elementary Education Specialist program is the perfect fit for full-time teachers who are working on a budget. The program is very manageable in taking just two courses per term. It is also very affordable!”

Elementary Education Jobs for Teachers with an Advanced Degree

There are several program options for full-time teachers like Benton, and they lead to different opportunities in the workplace. “Students can do elementary education and early childhood education (ECE) in the same master’s program,” says Dr. Etheridge. “It’s just that ECE is more pre-K through third grade and that elementary is K through sixth. There’s a little bit of overlap but not too much. Teachers will work as classroom instructors in elementary or early childhood education settings. Some of the instruction will be grade level, and some will have a little bit of a foundational leadership piece to it.”

Foundational leadership is taking skills to a higher level. “It means teachers getting their feet wet with some leadership responsibilities,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “With an elementary education master’s, they can be team leads on their grade level or serve on different committees that make decisions for the school or the district. They can also serve on curriculum committees and make decisions for what curriculum is going to be brought in. Those are the kinds of doors a master’s degree will open.”

“Then for the education specialist, we have a teacher leader certification, and that’s specifically looking at instructional coaches, being leaders on a leadership team — they may be the right hand of the administrator in the building or work at the central office for a school district,” says Dr. Etheridge.

The Journey to Becoming a Professional Teacher

Elementary education teachers like Benton and Dr. Etheridge come to the field from a variety of backgrounds. Benton grew up with the desire to lead in the classroom. Dr. Etheridge’s journey was a bit more winding.

“From a very young age, I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” says Benton. “My teachers throughout my grade school career left lasting impacts on me, and I wanted to be able to do the same for students. I questioned this calling as I started studying for my elementary education degree at the University of Georgia, but with a lot of prayer and patience, the Lord reassured me that I was to serve students and their families as a teacher.”

Dr. Etheridge started out on a different path before settling into a career as a professional teacher. “I was an animal lover my entire childhood,” she says. “And I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I could never do it because I cannot stand the sight of blood. So, for my next option, people kept telling me that I’m a natural in a classroom. I didn’t really want to hear that, so I majored in psychology for a little while. At that time, I didn’t want to study for a Ph.D., which I would need to get ahead in the field, so I changed my major and went with an elementary education degree. I fell in love with it.”

Things worked out well as Dr. Etheridge finished her undergraduate degree and went on to her first of many elementary education jobs. “In my very first teaching position, my principal did one of the best things she could have ever done for me. After the first year, she wrote on my professional development plan, ‘You will go back to school and start your master’s program.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘You’ll thank me later.’ For me, pursuing my elementary education master’s wasn’t a choice!”

“To this day, I do thank her,” says Dr. Etheridge. “I still talk to her quite frequently, and I thank her because her comments on my professional development plan made me come back. And then after I got my master’s, I taught in the classroom for 16 years. Later, I was afforded the opportunity to come back to school to get my education specialist certification through a program the state was offering, so I did that.”

“With that program, you have five years to complete your ed specialist — I completed it in a year and a half and automatically rolled into a Ph.D. program,” she adds. “So that’s how I’ve gotten my Ph.D. One thing leads to another then to another — and we’re lifelong learners who just never say no, right? That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am.”

Experiencing the Rewards of Careers in Elementary Education

Dr. Etheridge has gone on to teach in many different roles throughout the course of her career. “I’ve taught third grade, fourth grade, sixth grade,” Dr. Etheridge says. “I’ve been a math interventionist, a math coach, gone back to third grade and then come to higher education — I’ve run the gamut.”

Now she’s living every day influencing other teachers. “This has been one of the biggest blessings,” she says. “Seeing students be successful, seeing them achieve something that they’ve been working hard to achieve, and then seeing their graduation and the light bulbs go off. We see comments on course evaluations that say, ‘I’ve never thought about teaching this content this way.’ And that’s what it’s really about — sharing and seeing what works for different people and having them be successful with their students in their classrooms.”

The most rewarding moments are those light bulb moments. “It’s wonderful to see students make the connections with the content to the application and then see them succeed when they implement it in their classrooms,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “Having their students be successful as a result of their work in our classrooms is so rewarding. It’s indescribable just to see their faces when they have the light bulb moments. Those are the innate rewards you get from knowing that somebody ‘got’ what you were teaching. Somebody implemented it and applied it correctly, and it’s working for their kids. Now those kids are successful, too.”

One of those students who has made the connections, applied them and found success in her own classroom is Benton, who happens to agree with Dr. Etheridge about the joys of teaching. “Goodness… the rewards,” she says. “There are so many! My most precious reward of teaching is watching students develop into lifelong learners, community members, and friends. I constantly teach the importance of loving and serving others, and I often see that pay off throughout the year and as they progress throughout elementary school. I also love watching students grow academically and meet goals that they set for themselves.”

To learn more about the career options available to put your elementary education degree to work for you, visit the Education Certification Programs page on our website.