view of the Reedville Creek

View of a creek in Reedville, Virginia, leading to the Chesapeake Bay
“Northumberland County is farming, fishing, and tourists, which is boating” — Sandy Newsome

Photo: Nikki Balderson

I live in Northumberland County (pop. 12,259), in eastern Virginia, and work in the small, rural school district there. Our one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school together serve about 1400 students.

I truly have a passion for teaching, and 30 years of experience to show for it. I became a French teacher and also have state certification to teach world geography, world history, and general mathematics. My dream though, has always been to teach geometry and to obtain my master’s degree.

I am a person who can do math in my head sometimes even faster than on paper. I keep statistics for our volleyball, basketball, and softball teams (only a person who loves math will understand this). I also tutor students in algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2, helping prepare them for the Standard of Learning tests they must pass to graduate. There is such a need for mathematics teachers.

senior french students

Seniors (and softball players) in Sandy Newsome’s French class, Northumberland County H.S., (l-r) Samantha Lewis and Kiley Walker
Photo: Nikki Balderson

But math requirements, both for students and for their teachers, keep changing. Math used to be a required class through algebra II. Some advanced students took trigonometry in high school. But today, sophomores are in pre-calculus, and high schools are teaching calculus, statistics and probability, and discrete mathematics.

Years ago, I attended Clarion State University of Pennsylvania and earned a B.S of Education with a degree in French. All my elective courses were in math or in classes that would also give me certification in History and Social Studies. After graduation in 1975, I attended California State University of Pennsylvania where I finished my social studies teacher certification.

Heathsville, Virginina mapI got my first and only teaching job in August 1977, at Northumberland High School in Heathsville, VA. I taught French 1-4 and U.S. History that first year. I also enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University and finished my mathematics teaching certificate. But in 1994, Virginia changed the requirements for teaching math; now I’m not allowed to teach in Virginia above eighth grade general math.

In 2005, when my youngest child graduated from high school, my dreams started to gnaw at me constantly. I decided to see if I could find a master’s degree that would help me teach mathematics.

First I started retaking mathematics classes at my local community college. I hadn’t had any math since 1981. Pre-calculus didn’t exist then, and I hadn’t studied geometry since high school; trying to remember trigonometry, statistics and calculus from the 1970s was a challenge. Rappahannock Community College has made tremendous changes in its teaching style and class offerings both online and with Interactive Video feed, but it is still too small to provide math courses beyond calculus. And RCC does not offer any masters degrees. It’s a great community college, but the fact is I just outgrew what they could offer me.

I started looking at schools that advertise on the Internet for online masters degrees: University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and IAU. There were degrees in leadership, curriculum, information technology, and other subjects, but none of these schools offered a Master’s in Teaching Mathematics.

Taking pre-calculus II in February 2007, I was looking for mathematics information online and saw a link for Western Governors University. The first four words caught my attention — “Online, Accelerated, Affordable, and Accredited” ““ so I investigated.

Western Governors University’s program, I discovered, is competency-based. Rather than counting classroom hours, it awards credit based on the competence students acquire and can demonstrate. I wouldn’t be sitting at my computer in a “virtual classroom” but carrying out assignments, like writing lesson plans or learning to use technology in teaching math.

I started September 1, 2007 and, in my first term, completed seven courses. Passing each course required completing assignments and/or passing an objective test. In total, my master’s program requires 23 courses, tests, a Capstone graduate project, and an oral defense.

From the outset I’ve tried to spend three hours a day working on the program. Some tasks are very short and I can do them in one sitting. Most of them take several days to complete. Just because the program is online, it’s not a cinch. WGU has a very strict and indepth format for lesson plans. Not once in my 30 years of teaching did I actually put together a lesson plan like the ones I’ve submitted for grading. In my first term I submitted 28 different assignments and received only three 4.00 (As). I took only one objective test on pedagogy and didn’t pass the first time. I had to retake it.

Sandy Newsome

Sandy Newsome keeps stats at the high school softball game, March 2008
Photo: Nikki Balderson

Students can go on academic probation, or even be dropped from the program if academic progress isn’t made. But each student is assigned to a Progress Mentor, a personal guide to succeeding through the tasks assigned. I receive a phone call once a week or biweekly at which time my mentor checks on my progress, fixes technological glitches, listens to complaints, and answers my questions. WGU master’s students also belong to student communities; I can contact other students in the same degree program and discuss our course work. As well, I can communicate with the head mentors of WGU’s mathematics degree program. WGU’s goal is to reach students everywhere and provide them with the opportunity to reach degree certifications. Even soldiers in Iraq are enrolled at WGU.

Western Governors University, a non-profit based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, information technology, health professions, and business.

My program, the master’s degree in teaching mathematics, costs $2,790 for a six-month term; that’s fairly low-cost, as master’s degree programs go, but in my case, money was tight. I was a single mom, raising three children and teaching in a rural school district. Thinking it would never happen otherwise, I decided to check out WGU’s scholarship opportunities and found the “Scholarship for Rural Mathematics and Science Educators.” This is available to people seeking certification to teach math and science in America’s rural school districts. I applied and was shocked when I actually was awarded the scholarship. The award, funded through a grant to WGU from the Department of Labor, is up to $7500, with $1500 applied for each term of study.

I urge others who want to teach math or science in rural districts ““ or who want to earn master’s degrees ““ to check out Western Governors University website and apply for scholarships. WGU has awarded 100 Scholarships for Rural Educators ““ one of them to a geometry-dreamer in Heathsville, Virginia.

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