Many students attend graduate school in the spirit of lifelong learning—returning to school to earn an advanced degree which will not only enhance their marketability and job opportunities, but also keep them on the cutting-edge of their chosen field. John Raber is an example of a professional who returned to school in order to add to his credentials and opportunities as one of our nation’s educators.
Raber was working as a teacher at the special-needs Crossroads School in Paoli, Pennsylvania, when he decided to enroll in a graduate program focused on reading at West Chester University. Raber details his educational journey, which has led him to a job he loves as a reading specialist.
GradSchools: What was your undergraduate degree?
My undergrad degree is a Bachelors in education/English. So, although I have my Masters in reading and am a reading specialist, I’m also a certified English teacher at the high school and middle school levels. However, I did not get a teaching job right out of college and went into social work. Social work is a great field to work in. I worked for Children and Youth Services. It was very stressful, but unbelievably rewarding … an amazing experience. However, I wanted to teach and, after five years of social work, I found a teaching job at the Crossroads School, a private school for students with language- based learning differences.
GradSchools:What made you decide to take your education to the next level and earn a graduate degree?
As a teacher, I am required by law, in order to keep my teaching certification, to continue my education and professional development. It makes a lot of sense to earn a graduate degree in a specific program rather than accumulate a bunch of unrelated credits. Since my graduate degree also gave me the opportunity to become certified as a reading specialist, I was able to find work in public education teaching reading after working at Crossroads for six years.
GradSchools: How would you characterize the job market?
There are not a great deal of reading specialist positions to be had. In the three counties that I felt comfortable traveling to, I found only three positions to which to apply.
GradSchools: What is the level of commitment and difficulty in the field?
It’s really hard to say. As with most careers, you have your “lifers” and those who are gaining experience and moving on. The job description does vary, within districts and among districts.
GradSchools: How did you get your career started?
My graduate program at West Chester University was great, and I was able to apply everything that I was learning at the private school where I was working. Teaching at Crossroads gave me the hands-on experience that I needed to apply all that I was learning. I truly believe that this combination of work experience and the graduate training has made me a better teacher and reading specialist than I have been, working in a public school from the beginning of my career.
GradSchools: What advice would you give students in graduate education programs?
I think there is often a disconnect between what a job really is and what a graduate program may prepare you for. In my experience, that was not the case because I was working in a private school that was already based on best educational practice, and I could apply all that I was learning. So the “best educational practices” that I was learning about in graduate school, I could apply to my day job, which working teachers may not always have the opportunity to do.
So my advice would be to find a way, whether it’s volunteer work or whatever, to immediately apply what you are learning. Also, take a day to shadow a person in the career that you want to do. That will be more informative about what a job really is, than a written description of that job. There is also the reality that there are certain aspects of any career that you cannot be prepared for, by a grad program. Some things are just “on-the-job” training.
GradSchools: Are there any subjects you wished you had studied for your job?
Actually…no! However, I didn’t realize that one of my last classes would have been so informative and beneficial. It was a class that dealt with the management of curriculum and staff training/relations. I learned a great deal about how to be a leader, how the change process works and how people respond to change.
GradSchools: Did you join any organizations as a student that helped you with your career?
I haven’t necessarily participated formally in any organization, other than join memberships/subscriptions to educational groups/publications.
GradSchools: How much training did you receive in graduate school for your career?
My program was 36 credits, with the bulk of it focused on the best practices of teaching reading. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most beneficial classes was the one about curriculum and leadership. Again, the job of a reading specialist varies so greatly … from reading teacher, to literacy coach, to literacy leader. I think my grad training was unbelievably beneficial because I was basically working as an unofficial reading specialist in my private school job.
GradSchools: What is the most rewarding aspect of your career? Most challenging?
I obviously enjoy seeing students make gains. It’s so exciting and cool to see when a student applies skills and learns to read! However, I also enjoy working with my peers and helping them with their learning about the teaching of reading. This is also the most challenging. Although I am seen as the “literacy leader,” I am technically a peer with all teaching staff, so it is a balancing act to coach teachers in the areas of reading and not be seen as threatening evaluator.
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