Lisa Schmalhausen did not attend graduation at the University of Texas at Arlington after she earned a Master of Education in Curriculum & Instruction — Literacy Studies online in 2010.
So, she had her own ceremony.
“I thought, ‘I don’t really know anybody,'” Schmalhausen said. “In your cohort, you get to know their names but you don’t meet them. I live in Houston. UTA is four hours away. So, I wore a friend’s cap and gown. I ordered all of the stuff — the ribbons and the medal — and I walked across my family room with my whole family watching. I had a ceremony with just my family.”
It was a fitting end, considering the Houston native never had any plans of going back to school once she completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1985.
“I was going to be a teacher and a mom,” Schmalhausen said. “As I got to the stage where my youngest son [Andrew] was getting close to graduating from high school, I started thinking about what I might want to do once I finished teaching in the classroom. I know I’m not going to want to just stay at home and retire.”
She said she developed a passion for working with student teachers for the last 15 years. She has worked with about 10 student teachers since the start of her tenure in 1999 at Katy Independent School District, near Houston.
“I’ve had a lot of student teachers, and I’ve enjoyed teaching teachers,” she said. “I always thought it might be nice to go to a university and work with a student teacher program. I know a lot of the universities require you to have a master’s degree.”
In addition to planning for her future, Schmalhausen wanted the opportunity to earn more money with a master’s degree. Plus, she knew she did not want to go into administration. She heard about the UTA online program from an email to Katy ISD teachers.
“It was an easy way to earn a degree while working full-time,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to go to classes and take traditional exams. It fell into my lap while I was thinking about what I wanted to with my future. It was the ideal way to get a master’s. It was still a lot of work, but it was definitely doable while I worked full-time.”
Schmalhausen said she developed a routine during the 18 months she was enrolled in the UTA online M.Ed. program.
“I would basically come home and do schoolwork an hour or two every evening,” she said. “On the weekends, I would usually put in four or five hours a day. The way it was set up when I did it — you did five weeks, then had a week off; you did five weeks, then had a week off. It was only one class at a time, so I could focus on whatever class I was taking.”
Schmalhausen had two big advantages when she went back to school — familiarity and experience.
“A lot of the curriculum correlated with what I was doing in school anyway,” she said. “I got my master’s in triple literacy, and that’s exactly what I do in my job. So, I was able to utilize a lot of it. When I had to observe in other classes or do a project, a lot of times I just used my students or whatever I was doing at work.
“I probably got more out of it — because I had a lot of years of experience — than I would have if I had gone and earned my master’s right away after getting my bachelor’s. I think it paid off to have a lot of experience in the classroom.”
The UTA online M.Ed. program offers three different areas of specialization within literacy, and Schmalhausen took advantage of the opportunity to earn certification in all three areas: Reading Specialist, English as a Second Language and Master Reading Teacher.
Born to Teach
Schmalhausen discovered at a very early age that she had a passion for education.
“When I was younger, I always loved kids,” she said. “In high school, I did a Future Teachers of America program and worked at a daycare after school.”
However, she went to Plan B when she initially started school in Austin.
“I went into business,” she said. “I was going to go out there and be a businesswoman and make a lot of money. I did one year of that and worked in a lawyer’s office one summer and realized that being in an office at a desk is not for me. I need to be up and about and moving around. My favorite part of teaching is being with the kids, which is why I never wanted to go into administration. It’s part of my DNA to be a teacher.”
Schmalhausen taught first grade in Alief ISD, located in southwest Houston, for two years before becoming a stay-at-home mom for more than six years. She got back into education as the director of a preschool in 1994. She returned to the classroom two years later and never looked back.
She still has a few more years before she can retire with a full pension, but she also feels confident that having a master’s degree will help her find the perfect job once she leaves the classroom.
“Having a master’s makes you more knowledgeable,” Schmalhausen said. “Your bachelor’s degree prepares you a little bit to be a teacher, but not much because most of the classes are just the classes everybody has to take. But, when I got my master’s, every single class pertained to my degree. That makes a huge difference when every single class you take has something to do with what you’re doing in your job.”
Timing Is Everything
Another big reason Schmalhausen was so successful in the M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction — Literacy Studies online program was because she started when her two sons, Andrew and Daniel, were nearing adulthood. Daniel was already in college, while Andrew was gearing up for his senior year of high school when she started in 2010.
“I’m a Longhorn and they’re both Aggies, but, you know, what can you do?” she said. “I would strongly suggest, if you have kids, to do it when they’re a little bit older, more independent. I wouldn’t do it when I had little tiny ones. And you have to be pretty organized.”
Schmalhausen said her entire family was very supportive of her return to higher education.
“They were all very excited,” she said. “My sons, of course, were very proud of me. My dad is a lawyer, so he had an advanced degree. My mom never graduated from college. She thought it was just fantastic I was going on to get another degree.”
Schmalhausen said there was never any doubt her children would also go to college.
“I was raised, and I raised my children the same way, that college was not really a topic for discussion,” she said. “It was what you were going to do. It was, ‘You are going to go to college.’ Luckily, both of my sons did well in high school, so they had no trouble getting into college. They just kind of knew the same thing: ‘You will get a college degree.’ I didn’t really care what they got it in, but I thought it was important to have one.”
Schmalhausen said two of her favorite courses in the master’s program involved learning more about communities and cultures, which especially hit home because the school where she teaches, Bear Creek Elementary, is a Title I (low socioeconomic) Bilingual campus.
“I don't live in the same community that I work in. When you drive to work every day, you don’t really pay that much attention to your surroundings,” she said. “You’re on autopilot. You get in your car and you drive. This one particular class required me to learn about the community around my school.
“I had to go out and take pictures of the shopping strips and businesses. I started realizing this area has all kinds of stores with signs written in Spanish geared toward the Hispanic population, which I had never even noticed. That was an interesting thing to learn more about my school community.”
Another course focused heavily on understanding cultures.
“It made me more cognizant of the way others are treated,” she said. “It’s hard to put yourself in other people's shoes. All around, a lot of the classes were really interesting and taught me more about my student population and ways to help my students learn.”
As a result, no matter what road Schmalhausen travels after she finally leaves teaching in the classroom, she’ll be a more well-rounded person. And a proud UTA graduate.
“I’ve actually contemplated ordering myself a T-shirt,” she said. “I wear my UT Longhorn T-shirt all of the time, but I don’t have a UTA T-shirt. I need to get one.”
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