Ten years ago, Meredith College launched a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program to build on the College’s well-established reputation for preparing standout teachers while helping to address the shortage of educators in North Carolina.
More than a decade later, the program has produced nearly 180 teachers while creating a supportive community to ensure they have the tools and connections to thrive in a profession that’s known to be both challenging and exciting.
The need for qualified, committed teachers only continues to grow; in North Carolina the number of teachers in nearly every subject area and grade level is inadequate. There is some evidence of growing support for increases in resources and pay, and new legislation requires school districts to pay their instructional assistants while they student teach as a way of helping teaching assistants transition into teaching roles.
Education Department Head and Professor of Education Jennifer Olson said Meredith’s MAT program provides a much-needed route into the teaching field.
“It is an ideal program for those who decide a bit later that they want to teach, early career seekers who are still trying to find their niche, and established professionals who want to change their career path in search of more satisfying work,” said Olson.
Program Changes Over the Years
Initially, the MAT offered concentrations in elementary education and special education. Concentrations have since been added in English as a second language and health and physical education, while scheduling became more flexible to better accommodate students working full time. And field experiences have been enhanced through a partnership with a local after-school program, summer camps on Meredith’s campus, and internship placements that extend beyond Wake County.
In addition, early MAT options have been created to help students within the Cooperating Raleigh Colleges system start their MAT coursework their senior undergraduate year. The MAT program also serves students seeking licensure through North Carolina’s new residency program; in high-need areas, such students can be teaching while earning their licensure.
As the program evolves, its strength is firmly rooted in Meredith’s long history of educating exceptional teachers. And its success is best measured by the teachers who are changing lives, one student at a time.
Tori Morton, ’10, MAT
4th Grade Teacher, Duke School, Durham, NC
Victoria (Tori) Morton knew she wanted to pursue a career related to social justice but wasn’t sure how, exactly. After completing several internships at nonprofits, she knew she wanted to serve others more directly and saw teaching as her way to make the world a better place.
“If people are well-informed and able to think critically, they’re better able to make good decisions,” she said. “Teaching is a way to empower people to make the best lives for themselves and for our world.”
Morton applied to the MAT program while living in Chicago. Her husband was planning to attend Duke’s medical school, so she explored programs in the area and found Meredith to be the best fit. Having attended UCLA as an undergraduate, she wanted a graduate program with smaller classes and more accessible faculty.
Ten years later, she draws on what she learned in her MAT program every day. One of her strengths as a teacher is her skillful classroom management, which she attributes directly to her MAT studies. And although Morton grew up thinking she wasn’t good at math, it is now among her favorite subjects to teach.
“Math was hard for me when I was younger, but the way I break it down is so deliberate and thoughtful – I’m teaching 8-year-old me.”
Morton has moved around the country with her family, teaching in schools from Durham to San Francisco and now back to Durham. While in California, she discovered a previously untapped capacity for leadership after recognizing that individual grades seemed to be operating in silos.
“I noticed we had the same planning block, so I started leading a “town hall meeting” every few Fridays – our community really came together,” said Morton. “Eventually I took that role over in a more formal capacity. It happened accidentally, but also because I was passionate.”
Morton values her lasting connection with her Meredith faculty members. When she earned national board certification, her professors were among the first to hear the news. And when she returned to Durham, she met with them to discuss how best to explore her passion for social justice as a teacher. Thanks to their advice, she connected with an anti-racist organization that led her to pursue professional development in the field and implement best practices in her classroom.
Connecting with other educators is a practice she recommends to new teachers, too.
“It’s important to find staff members or administrators who will be there to support you. It will be challenging so you need to be able to talk things through,” said Morton. “I’ve always made a community for myself – it’s part of my longevity.”
Abla Awadallah, ’19, MAT
ESL Teacher, Forest Park Elementary, Winston-Salem, NC
Abla Awadallah dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but after teaching refugees in Palestine, she discovered a new focus in teaching. Wanting to expand on her knowledge as an educator, she enrolled in Meredith’s MAT program. As an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, Awadallah found Meredith’s program provided the support she needed as a young teacher and gave her the confidence to be an advocate for her students. Now, Awadallah wants to be a voice for her students and implement better ESL programs nationwide.
“As an ESL teacher I can be the new welcoming face when the students are coming in. That’s very important because they’re coming here for a better life and I’m part of that, I’m giving them the necessary tools to succeed and gain a better life here in America.”
Larissa Bryant, ’13, MAT
4th Grade Teacher, Rand Road Elementary, Raleigh, NC
Larissa Bryant wanted to become a teacher because when she reflected back on her life, the people who had the greatest impact were teachers. While working as a teacher assistant, a colleague recommended that she pursue teaching because she had such an effective rapport with children. Meredith’s MAT program fit her schedule as a working professional, and she valued the opportunity to stay connected to her faculty after she graduated.
“My favorite part of teaching is connecting with my students as well as their parents. Each and every day I tell my students that I’m excited that they’re at school. I thank them for putting forth their very best effort and working hard for me. I tell my parents that we’re a team and our main goal is the success of their child.”
John Buccellato, ’10, MAT
5th Grade Teacher, North Ridge Elementary, Raleigh, NC
A life long learner, John Buccellato was inspired to become a teacher by his appreciation for the naturally inquisitive nature of children. When he was looking for a teacher education program, he was drawn to Meredith’s MAT in large part because he was familiar with Meredith’s “fantastic reputation in the education field.”
Buccellato was among the first cohort of graduates of the MAT program. He found the structure of the program ideal, with classes in the evening and throughout the summer, allowing him to complete his degree in just 16 months.
After graduating in December 2010, Buccellato was immediately hired by a charter school, where he taught fourth grade. Since that time he has taught fifth grade as well as sixth and seventh grade math, all within the Wake County Public School System. He recently returned to North Ridge Elementary where he said he is happy to once again be teaching fifth grade. He was also delighted to find that his current team includes two other MAT alumni.
In reflecting on his time as an MAT student, Buccellato remembers being surprised by the accessibility of the professors. Now a veteran teacher with nearly ten years of experience under his belt, he recognizes the value of Meredith’s approach to student teaching.
“In many programs, the student teacher enters the class well into the school year. At Meredith, beginning the school year with the teacher and class, and thus seeing the whole process of establishing rules and procedures, was a huge plus.”
Buccellato’s experience at Meredith was so positive that he encouraged his daughter to apply to Meredith as an undergraduate student. She is now majoring in mathematics at Meredith and preparing to join the family business as a high school math teacher.
No doubt Buccellato’s satisfaction with his own career choice was influential in her decision.
“It is a challenging profession with a lot of ups and downs, but if you persevere it is one of the most rewarding and satisfying career choices,” he said. “Nothing beats running into former students and hearing how much you impacted their lives.”
Omolola Aneke, ’12, MAT
Executive Director at the C.A.D.E.T. Academy and the Dew Drops Community Centre for Special Needs, Abuja, Nigeria
Years ago, when Omolola (Lola) Aneke was volunteering in a pre-school in Nigeria, she noticed that one of the students was unable to participate in the same way as his classmates. She later learned that he had autism and none of the teachers in the school was prepared to teach him.
“I thought deeply about the educational future of that child and other children like him with special educational needs,” said Aneke. “This realisation that some students had limited access to education inspired me to become the teacher that I am today.”
While spending time in Durham, N.C., Aneke was introduced to the Meredith Autism Program, where her two nephews were enrolled. After observing, she was allowed to participate as a volunteer, which led her to realize that she wanted to learn those same skills. She then applied to the Meredith MAT program with a concentration in special education.
Since graduating, she has moved proverbial mountains to bridge gaps in education by teaching students with special needs, training teachers and parents, advocating and creating awareness, publishing books, and running two organizations, including a non-profit that supports students from low-income families.
Aneke, who was recently recognized in Nigeria as the “2019 Her Network Woman of the Year in Education,” enjoyed the collaborative style of learning in her MAT program and the access she had to her professors.
“I was surprised by the way students were encouraged to be actively involved in discussions,” she said. “Most university students in Nigeria tend to only listen to the lecturers and purchase lecture handouts.”
Aneke has stayed in touch with MAT alumni and faculty. She frequently talks online with former classmates about readings and topical issues. And her faculty have provided guidance and expertise on both the school she established as well as books she has published.
Although she was initially challenged by the course content, volume of reading, and strict deadlines, the time management and critical thinking skills she developed are crucial to her success.
“Since I graduated from the Meredith MAT program, I have kept my focus on growing as a special educator,” she said. “In the process I have been able to keep learning how to represent, interpret, summarize, and rethink my whole concept of teaching.”