Teachers Become "Cohorts" to Pursue Degrees

Along with other Tennessee teachers, Mike Goolsby and Elaine Garrison faced a quandary.

To receive raises other than small annual salary increases, they knew teachers must complete graduate work or earn advanced degrees. Figuring out how they, an assistant principal and a wife and mother of two, could rearrange their lives to fit into a university's class schedule was the problem.

Goolsby, Monterey High School's assistant principal and Garrison, a Monterey High math teacher, solved the problem by turning to Tennessee Technological University and becoming "cohorts."

Since 1996, the university's College of Education has teamed up with the Extended Education Office to promote off-campus "cohort groups," groups of eight or more teachers working toward a specific degree. Classes, taught by Tennessee Tech faculty and select professionals, meet at a place and time most convenient for the group -- in their own communities.

"We are pleased to take graduate programs out to about 42 percent of our education majors by offering cohort groups," said Rebecca Quattlebaum, dean of Tennessee Tech's graduate studies and extended education.

Last year, 17 cohort groups, accounting for 277 teachers from 26 counties, worked toward master's or educational specialist's degrees. Site coordinators, usually educators associated with the county public school system, help organize the groups. After meeting with a university advisor, the group works together for the next five to six semesters toward their degrees.

"Our area coordinators do an excellent job helping students identify and meet their needs," said Tennessee Tech Extended Education director Susan Elkins. "Our full-time College of Education faculty and outstanding adjunct faculty are very student-oriented and support this program."

Advanced degrees mean more money for teachers; most agree money is their first motivation for squeezing graduate classes into their lives. In Putnam County, a teacher earning a master's degree receives about a $2,500 increase in base pay. Becoming an educational specialist means another $2,500 to $2,700 increase.

Goolsby won't deny the motivation of money, but finds it inaccurate to ignore other rewards.

"Money becomes secondary," Goolsby said. "The opportunity to become more proficient, to simply be a better teacher, is important. Then, you realize how many more doors are open to you. You qualify yourself to be an assistant principal or principal, and then you've improved your career and your worth to students."

Most groups choose to take two classes during the school year and as many as three in the summer. Students dedicate about 10 hours a week in total class time and study. Tennessee Tech has offered off-campus classes since the 70's, but cohort groups make the degree quest more manageable and enjoyable for teachers. They live close to each other and often work in the same school, making group projects and carpooling natural choices.

"Camaraderie among teachers from the same school system is valuable," said Sandi Smith, a Tennessee Tech instructor of curriculum and instruction. "The cohort program gives them common goals; the time they spend together is intense."

"Networking with teachers in other counties also helps us improve our system by learning what works in other systems," Goolsby said.

Students agree even though they still sacrifice some family and leisure time, they would not have considered going after an advanced degree in the traditional manner.

"The university offers classes when we need them, where we need them, and if a scheduling conflict comes up, they always accommodate our needs," Goolsby said.

"I pursued advance degrees because Tennessee Tech offered classes to fit my lifestyle," added Garrison. "I would never have considered getting a degree any other way."

"There's a built in support system; we learn to work as a team," Garrison explained. "We have the opportunity to stay in touch with progress in education and not become stagnant. That has to be better for our school kids."