Graduate Experience

A reflection on one teacher’s graduate school experience.


Skip Olson, English Teacher

When Lauren approached me about writing about my graduate experience, I thought, much like I’m thinking now, “How exactly am I going to do this?” But, I agreed and here we are.

I struggled with a focus: I didn’t want it to be all sunshine and rainbows (it wasn’t), but I didn’t want it to be 800 words of my bitter bitching about isolated events (I’ll save that for my tell-all memoir). I didn’t want it to be an endorsement to UNI (no offense meant) and I didn’t want it to be the same thing we’ve read a thousand times before.

So, long story short (I’d give my whole train of thought here, but the last time I explained my thought process to someone they decided to have a stroke instead of listen to me), here is my reflection of life before and after my Master’s journey.

Before grad school, I understood education based on student-teaching and my current job.
After grad school, I have met roughly 20 other educators from around the state – some teaching everything (they literally are the English department) and some teaching one class for eight hours (thanks but no thanks). From our discussions, I’ve seen so many viewpoints, beliefs, methods, and stories of triumph and failure. This is something you can’t get from a book and it’s something that’ll stay with me forever (or until dementia sets in).

Before grad school, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what “the research” says.
After grad school, I realized there is a lot (read: a lot) more. I was introduced to the likes of James Squire, James Britton, James Moffett (seeing a pattern), Louise Rosenblatt, and Kelly Gallagher. I’ve learned about the absolutely maddening experience of English research and how contradictory, while at the same time similar, ideas can be when teaching this hot mess of a subject.

Before grad school, I thought English Language Arts was pretty cut and dry.
After grad school, I understand more clearly that this subject is a worn out burlap sack of authors, materials, traditions, methods, theories, and research. I didn’t know that this subject is actually pretty new (relatively speaking) and that, despite just over 100 years, no one still knows what the hell they’re doing. You could teach 1,000 different things using 1,000 different methods for each one thing…and you’d still be right. You can teach The Hate U Give or To Kill a Mockingbird and you’d be right. English is a multi-headed beast, with each head having its own backstory and spinoff series, meaning it’s a little overwhelming trying to figure everything out.

Before grad school, I was pretty good at trying new things.
After grad school, I’m even better at it (and now can cite names like I know what I’m talking about, much like how Gallager said in his classic text…). I’m pretty proud of myself when it comes to reflecting on what I do and what I can do to change. But now I’m trying new things, little things but still things, to make my classes a little smoother, my content a little more crisp, and my delivery a little more engaging. I’ve started using the question, “What’s your response to this?” because of Louise Rosenblatt’s reader response theory. I’ve started incorporating more reading to build knowledge capital after reading Gallager. I’ve started retooling my literary analysis papers to include research and reflection because of…well, a lot of different people.

Before grad school, writing terrified me.
After grad school, writing still terrifies me but less so. With the IWP and constantly having people look at your work, writing becomes much more manageable. And after doing my research on rural areas, I’m starting to see that I have a vision now of what to write about and that writing about it, and more importantly sharing it, isn’t something to fear, but to embrace. I’ve “practiced” via lengthy Facebook posts that blew up and am now starting to think that writing can just be writing, it doesn’t always need an audience. Or maybe I can write and send it out to a larger (maybe less hostile?) audience via a blog. 

Before grad school, I knew teaching at a rural school was unique.
After grad school, I see that unique is an understatement. From my grad paper, I see how little research is done regarding English content and rural school districts. I have started to see that rural narratives are hard to come by, so I’m making an effort to incorporate rural narratives in my classroom. Moving forward, I plan to do more to better serve my rural students by having them think about their communities, reflect on who creates the rural narrative, and question what can be done moving forward.

There’s more, of course, but I have a word limit. Bottom line: I’m better for this experience, but that doesn’t mean if you haven’t gotten your graduate degree or don’t plan on getting it means you’re a failure. For that matter, do what’s best for you and your kids (especially during Covid – ya know, that old thing). Oh, and go to the ICTE conference, I went two years ago and it’s definitely worth it.