“We sometimes hear complaints about the effectiveness of the K-12 schools in Mississippi,” says Ruthie Stevenson, doctoral program coordinator for Leadership K-12 in the MC Department of Teacher Education and Leadership. “But we cannot have effective schools without effective leaders.”
Training those future, effective leaders is the goal of the Mississippi College educational leadership program. Open to K-12 educators who wish to assume leadership roles as school principals or school system administrators, the program offers a master’s degree, specialist’s degree, or doctoral degree in educational leadership. A second doctoral program launched in 2011 offers a concentration in curriculum and instruction for those who wish to work on curriculum at the school district level.
The program prepares candidates to become strong, ethical leaders capable of guiding K-12 schools to new levels of success in an environment that’s becoming more and more challenging. Schools have always been a reflection of society; some current societal issues, including the breakdown of the family, lack of parental involvement, changing moral beliefs, and the evolving definition of “diversity,” are magnified in the classroom. Today’s school principals and administrators face challenges that their predecessors could not have imagined.
“It takes ethics and courage to be a leader and to make difficult decisions,” says Tommye Henderson, assistant professor of teacher education and leadership, who guides the doctoral program with concentration in curriculum and instruction. “In some school districts, that courage is gone.”
The educational leadership program attracts teachers with the courage to make a difference and a clear vision for where they believe K-12 schools should and could be.
“Our vision as a department is to produce the best prepared educational leaders in the history of the state of Mississippi,” says Doris Smith, who coordinates the master’s degree program. “We really work at being the best at meeting the challenges of today’s society.”
The master’s degree program combines class work, seminars presented by respected practitioners in the educational field, team building exercises, and in-depth presentations and projects. Each master’s degree candidate must also complete an internship in the school in which he or she currently teaches. MC program coordinators work with the principal in each candidate’s school to design an internship during which the candidate progressively acts more and more as the principal. For example, the candidate might handle disciplinary issues, run a parent/ principal conference, or serve as “principal for the day.”
The MC program is selective; of the 58 applicants who applied for the session that began in June 2011, only 18 were accepted. The master’s degree candidates are referred to individually as “cohorts” and collectively as “a cohort” and complete the program together, relying on one another for input, insight, and encouragement.
“As leaders in a school, these candidates won’t work alone, so they don’t work alone here,” Smith says. “Cohorts become each other’s best friends and support systems.”
“Your cohorts are always looking for ways to help, from offering to babysit your kids to walking you through their areas of expertise where you might not be as strong,” says DeSean Dyson, a teacher and coach at Clinton High School who graduated from the master’s degree program in 2011. “I remember us having these exciting combination conversation-and-study sessions. We threw ideas around and fed off of each other’s knowledge and energy.”
Those who earn master’s degrees continue to be an integral part of the program, with previous cohorts returning to campus to teach successive groups.
“What makes this program good – and I believe it’s the best in the state – is what we’ve done together,” Smith says. “We have tremendous support and input from practitioners in the field, including principals and supervisors. Students in one cohort share ideas for the next cohort. Once a year, we hold a review and invite all of our graduates to come back and get involved in the planning and tweaking of the program. This program belongs to its participants and to the people who are going to hire them.”
The specialist and doctoral programs in educational leadership build on the foundation laid in the master’s degree program. Participants include not only teachers, but also principals and administrators who already hold leadership positions, but wish to earn degrees that will prepare them for further advancement.
“The most rewarding part of the program has definitely been the instructors,” says doctoral candidate Amanda Harris '01, '09 who earned her bachelor's degree and her specialist in education degrees from Mississippi College and currently works as a technology coordinator for the Rankin County School district. “Not only are they experienced with educational issues that school leaders across Mississippi face, but they are well connected to current educational leaders and bring them in to talk with us in class. Through the program at MC, I’ve learned from current and retired superintendents, school board members, educational association leaders, legislators, and attorneys.
“After I finished the specialist program, I considered transferring to a larger university for the doctorate,” Harris continues. “But in the end, I knew that MC was the best choice to learn from experts in issues that Mississippi educational leaders face.”
Doctoral candidates also point to each other as a source of knowledge, inspiration, and new ideas.
The exchange of ideas with my classmates has shaped my philosophy of education,” Harris says.“We all come from different backgrounds and different districts, and hold various positions. We have a curriculum director, special education director, technology coordinator, teachers, coaches, and several school-based administrators – it’s almost like we have our own ‘school district’ as a group.”
“My view of ‘school’ used to revolve around my classroom. I never thought of anything outside my four walls. Now my view of ‘school’ includes every classroom and office on our campus,” says doctoral candidate Brad Johns, who teaches math in the Rankin
County School District. “Collaborating with others in the program makes me a better teacher and future administrator as I ‘borrow’ the best ideas and teaching methodology from my peers and translate them into my own practice. As a result, my students experience best practices from around the state of Mississippi.”
One thing all students from the master’s through the doctoral level agree on is the intense, demanding nature of the educational leadership program.
“The most challenging aspect was staying on top of the work load,” says Brett Robinson, a teacher and coach at Clinton High School who earned his master’s degree in educational leadership in 2009. “Being a teacher, coach, father, husband, administrative intern, and grad student could be extremely overwhelming. But this was a great lesson to learn because it’s just like being in an administrative position at a school. It’s a constant battle of doing things for others, handling student issues, handling teacher issues, and still finding the time to get your own work done.”
The program’s benefits are clearly worth the effort. In an era when educators are often overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated, educators are willing to make the sacrifices needed to succeed in the rigorous MC program.
“Our students have extreme internal drive,” Henderson says. “Typically, some experience or person in their lives has motivated them to want to make a difference in education.”
“My daughter is in first grade, and I have made it my responsibility to make sure she and her classmates have the best education possible,” says Keith Reed, who graduated from the master’s program in 2010 and has since been promoted from a teacher at Brandon Middle School to assistant principal at Puckett Attendance Center. “This program gave me the foundation I needed to lead people and students in creating a positive school environment.”
“My long-term goal is to serve God in the field of education,” Dyson says. “Having been through this program, I feel much more equipped to do so in a leadership capacity. I’ve met and seen like-minded individuals who have turned their passion into action, and now I have better insight into what leadership can and should do.”
“It’s my goal to influence the educational system from the inside out so that I can help all children and so that my own children have a successful system in which to learn, grow and develop,” Johns says. “My goal of becoming a school principal is more than just a position to me. It is the placement I need to create beneficial change for Mississippi’s children.”