Lisa (Weber) Willey knew she made the right choice when she gave up her job as a computer programmer to become a teacher. However, it wasn’t until she began the online M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction in Mathematics Education program at the University of Texas at Arlington that her career began to really fall into place.
“It’s the missing pieces to the puzzle to make it all work,” Willey said of the graduate degree. “When you first start out with your bachelor’s degree, you’re learning the basics of how to function in a general sense. This takes you to that next level where it’s more about being really good at teaching the content versus just running a classroom.”
Willey, who teaches various levels of math at the Jackson Technology Center for Math and Science in the Garland (Texas) Independent School District, will graduate with her master’s degree in August 2017. She has been teaching since 2006.
“The very first week I started my master’s degree, I had new information I could use in my classroom,” Willey said. “It was the same every week since. It’s improved my teaching skills. I’ve taken a lot of what I’ve learned at UTA to my campus, and now other teachers are using those same things, too. I’m beginning to be recognized in my district for a couple of things I’ve done that are used district-wide now, as far as teaching concepts.”
Willey earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1989. She worked in the corporate world for a dozen years before she moved into teaching after she volunteered at her children’s school and worked with student ministries in her church.
“I just got a lot of exposure to working with kids,” Willey said. “I thought, ‘I really like this.’ I got a lot of good feedback from kids and a lot of good feedback from parents. I thought, ‘Wow. This is fun. I like it, and they like me. This might work out.’ Teaching came to me; I didn’t come to it. I would have never thought of myself as a teacher.”
She began her career as an educator in Spring ISD, in the Houston area. Willey began working for Garland ISD in 2010. She remarried four years later. Her husband Sean is a Desert Storm veteran.
“I knew that I loved teaching, but I just felt like I really didn’t know how to do it unless I was told what to do,” Willey said. “Ever since I started my master’s degree, I feel like the opposite is true.”
Willey said the experience she gained in the classroom has been essential to her success in the master’s degree program. With two courses remaining, she holds a flawless 4.0 grade point average.
“A lot of it has to do with life experience as well as classroom experience,” she said. “If a brand new teacher comes out of college, I think it’s going to be harder. For a veteran teacher, it’s a great program where you can instantly have it all make sense.”
Willey said she would eventually like to work for the district office in Garland ISD.
“I never even thought about it until I was getting my master’s,” she said. “I feel like I have a whole lot more confidence in myself. Now that I’m working with my peers with ideas on what I do, I think, ‘Wow, I really could go work for the district offices and create material for the whole district.’ I’d like to write more or be on a committee that helps other teachers.”
Staying in the System
Willey ended up attending her second school in the University of Texas system after she did research on online master of education degree programs.
“There were a couple of reasons I decided on UTA,” she said. “One was the testimonials. I thought, ‘OK, hey, that’s me.’ Because I was trying to decide whether or not to get my master’s, whether or not it fit my life and whether or not I felt like it was a reputable school with a good teaching program. That’s what got me interested in going to the website and learning more about the program.
“A lot of times you go in and read about the program and you think, ‘OK … but.’ It fills in the gaps for me of knowing if this fits my life. I read a testimonial, I see a little bit about the program, look around at the different courses, and ‘conclude, ‘This is what I need.'”
Willey said she has been able to balance her busy schedule and home life with school.
“What I love is that you can work ahead and give yourself extra time, like if you have a long weekend, spring break or Thanksgiving,” she said. “It worked out that I could get ahead when I had those extra days. When I had fall testing, it was a real crunch for me working a lot of overtime doing tutorials. So, getting ahead allowed me to hold back during the week. I could come home on Friday, work through the weekend and still get it done on time.”
Typically, Willey said she makes time for her online M.Ed. program around her schedule at work.
“The first week is a warmup week where you’re getting used to the professor and used to the topic,” she said. “Then, it progressively gets more complex as you go. The first week, I spend maybe 10-12 hours. I’m a perfectionist, so I spend more time doing it. By the very last week of that class, I’m probably spending more like 12-15 hours, but I’m also getting 100s. As I’m going through the program and getting used to how the whole concept works, I’m spending less and less time because I understand how it works.”
Willey said all of the coursework in the master’s degree program has been applicable to her job.
“I really liked the algebra-based course,” she said. “I got a ton out of that one. I really enjoyed them all. It’s really hard to pick a favorite. It’s not like you learn it and don’t use it. You can use it the same day or the next day.”
Willey is the first person on either side of her family to earn a college degree, which she believes makes her a good influence on her three children — Leslie Sullivan (23), Patrick Sullivan (21) and Shelby Sullivan (16). She’s especially proud she’ll be adding another degree soon.
“My friends and family are all extremely excited,” she said. “My son is really motivated; he just finished his third year of pre-med. It’s been really great for him to see his mom perform well in school, and we have connections because even though I’m older than him, we have that in common. He tells his friends and everybody. My daughter tells her high school teachers that her mom is about to get her master’s.”
In addition to work and school, Willey said she enjoys volunteering for community service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Plano, Texas. She is also vice president of the Garland Education Association, a local division of the Texas State Teachers Association.
She hopes to attend commencement at UTA in the fall. Regardless of whether she walks the graduation stage, Willey will be thrilled to frame and hang up her degree.
“For a while, I never thought a master’s degree was more than just another piece of paper,” she said. “I never felt there was a reason for it, but as I was starting to teach, I started to realize, ‘There’s a lot I really don’t know and people around me don’t know.’ After all of these years, I’m finally getting what I need to be really good at what I do.”
Learn more about the UTA online M.Ed. in math education program.
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