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Making a Difference: A Q&A with Rural Educators

The School of Education’s SVP and Executive Dean, Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson recently recorded an episode in her podcast series Educator Well-Being: From Principles to Practice with Utah’s First Lady Abby Cox that focused on the needs of rural educators. In this Q&A, we get to know two WGU alumni rural educators who also happen to be husband and wife. They both recently received scholarships to help them complete their master’s degrees from the WGU School of Education and joined us to share some insights into their professional lives.

WGU: We understand neither of you initially set out to be teachers and earned your bachelor’s degrees in other fields.

Samantha “Sami” Piispanen:

Yes, we both earned bachelor’s degrees in other fields from Colorado Mesa University. I was working in healthcare and was tired of the repetitive nature of the work and the long hours with two kids at home.

Jake Piispanen:

I also was looking for a more stable career and a chance to have a bigger positive impact. Sami’s mother suggested we apply for teaching jobs in Vernal’s middle school and elementary, in the Uintah School District in Utah, and we didn’t need teaching degrees to do it, just bachelor’s degrees. We applied, received the offers, began in our classrooms, and simultaneously started learning through Utah’s Alternative Route to Licensure (ARL) program.

WGU: Other than the stability and family-friendly hours, what appealed to you about a teaching career?


My mom is a teacher and offered insights. I’ve enjoyed it because I have seen the impact I can make in students’ lives and I feel like every child deserves a great education, especially in public schools.


I wanted to feel like I could really make a difference in someone’s life while they were still looking for positive role models before life beat them down too much. I teach special education at the high school, and those kids can get down on themselves some days, so I have developed a strong belief that they need to know school isn’t just about what you learn, but also how you react when you struggle or face challenges. This has given me a chance to teach my students every day that how you react to learning and struggling is more important than if it’s just “easy.” Teaching can be the hardest job out there, but when you see a child’s face light up from finally understanding something it makes it all worth it. 

WGU: What motivated you both to decide to go back for master’s degrees in education?


Since my degrees are in radiology and exercise science, I always felt like I was lacking in the education field. Fortunately, the state of Utah started requiring LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), which gives teachers an excellent overview of the science of reading, so I felt like I was competent in that area. But I still felt like I was missing the background knowledge I needed to be a good math teacher, which is why I chose the Master of Arts in Teaching Elementary Mathematics degree program at WGU.


I had two major motivations for going back for the master’s degree. A graduate degree gets me a pay increase in my role as a teacher. Also, because I didn’t get my bachelor’s degree in a teaching field, I wanted a degree that would provide me with more information on teaching practices and instructional techniques.

WGU: What knowledge and skills do you think your master’s degrees added to your professional skill set? What’s changed for you since earning the degree?


I am so much more confident in addressing the needs of my students with the knowledge I gained from my master’s degree, along with the math curriculum from our district. I was excited to see our curriculum was implementing best practices. Since I’ve received my master’s and been through the district observation in my classroom, I have been asked to be on a district math intervention committee, a math adoption committee, and a panel for a math program at an upcoming educational summit! My longer-term career goals may see me more involved with district programs and administration.


After earning my Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction, I feel much more confident in instructional practices and curriculum design. I feel like my teaching “toolbox” is much fuller now, so I can make better-informed decisions on my teaching practices and have more confidence they’re making a lasting, positive impact on my students.

WGU: Sounds like you are both seeing a return on your investment in your master’s degree already. Why did you choose to attend WGU and what advice would you give to others considering doing the same?


We chose WGU for several reasons: 1) my mother who is a teacher recommended it, 2) the cost-effectiveness, and 3) the convenience of working at a pace that fit our lives as working parents of two kids.


Yes, the cost-effectiveness was extremely motivating. With the scholarships we both received, I think my entire master’s degree cost $3,200 and Sammi’s was $3,600. We were able to get through the programs very quickly as working teachers with classroom experience. As for advice, we’d say if you’re considering it, just get started. People often underestimate their ability to do graduate work and the way WGU offers the programs, you can power through and keep that light at the end of the tunnel always visible. You can do it if you’re motivated!

WGU: We’re so proud of you both and the difference you are making in your community. Speaking of community, as a rural educator what are some challenges and rewards you see working in a rural school district?


I’d say a challenge is getting enough community support for education. You don’t always have all the support you need from students’ homes to help ensure their success, but that’s a concern everywhere, it seems. Also, rural classrooms don’t always have the resources the city classrooms have for field trips, guest speakers, and creating real-life experiences for kids.


Agreed. And for rewards – teaching is a reward in itself because of the impact, but in rural schools, you get to continue to see your students grow throughout their schooling. It’s great to watch them grow and progress year to year. 

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