Student Spotlight: Donna Stearns, Online CAGS AEL Program

Donna Stearns CAGS online studentDonna Stearns is a Maine educator enrolled in the UNE Online Certificate of Advanced Study – Advanced Educational Leadership (CAGS AEL) program. Here she talks about her experience in the program and imparts some words of wisdom.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what encouraged you to pursue your CAGS AEL online?

I’m currently in my 20th year teaching. I taught computer classes in the middle school for 16 years, and in the last five years I’ve been the technology integrator for the entire district. I go into classrooms and work with teachers and students on computer skills.

I also teach digital citizenship, which includes techniques around how to keep yourself safe online, how to make good passwords, and why it’s important not to share certain things. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest students, need to be reminded to be safe online.

What made you decide to get your CAGS AEL?

A friend of mine was earning their CAGS and highly recommended that I consider getting my CAGS as well, so I started looking into it and found UNE’s online program. I really liked what the program had to offer, and the fact that the program was completely online was important. I wanted my CAGS AEL because I’d like to get my administrative certification to someday be a technical director or even assistant principal or principal, and UNE Online looked like a really good program.

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Can you tell me about a standout experience you’ve had in any of your online classes?

Professor Marcotte is pretty amazing. I’ve had three classes with her so far, and she is a dynamo. She responds back to every student quickly, and is very encouraging. She was my first professor in the program, and think if I hadn’t had her for that first course, I don’t know if I would have stayed with the program. Her style is so motivating and exciting. It was fun getting back into being a student learner.

And it really has been fun! I got my master’s degree 20 years ago, so it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student. It feels fun to learn new things and to be motivated to learn.

Have you had a course that has surprised you?

You know, I loved EDU 702: School Law. I had no idea I would. It was a very difficult course, but I loved it! I even fleetingly considered becoming a lawyer! Finding out how the law actually operates and how cases play out was so interesting.

The EDU 706: School-Community Relations & Communications course was also great. Part of the course required you to design a project, outside of your normal realm of school activities, that benefited the community. It pushed you to go outside of your comfort zone and encouraged you to go out into the community. And that’s where I got the idea to transform an unused portion of our school into something valuable and useful to students.

Can you tell me more about your community project?

There was a space in one of the schools that was essentially used as a big overflow storage area for miscellaneous outdated equipment. It’s nickname was the Dungeon, giving you a sense of the atmosphere in there. The room has not been renovated since its original construction in 1938, and was actually the original cafeteria. Throughout the years there have been classrooms in the space, such as the art room, and a dojo, but it’s been largely neglected for the past 10-15 years.

I arranged for some funding from the PTO, I had students in the Alternative Ed building who came and did all of the painting, and sanded down some tables. I even had some UNE students volunteers pitch in.

At Old Orchard High, they have an internship program where they must complete 30 hours of work in a local business. Students choose something that they are interested in, and that they may want to move on and study later in life, and so I had six seniors who came in for a month straight, working on the space. In addition to cleaning and painting, the students designed a woodworking area, and used the equipment to trim out the room with baseboards.

Even though my School and Community Relations course ended quite a while ago, I’ve decided to continue working on the space. I’ve got it to the point where we call it the Imaginarium, and we’ve transformed it into a makerspace.

Imaginarium Wall

What’s your new Imaginarium makerspace like?

We’re planning on being fully functional by the beginning of the school year. Staffing is still up in the air at this point, but we are looking at incorporating as a supplement to the third through fifth grade science curriculum. I’ve got some coding robots in the space, and some littleBits, which are color-coded electronic building blocks that students use as a coding tool, where they learn to put things together.

The whole point of this makerspace is teaching kids how to learn. We don’t know what job skills are going to be in demand when they enter the workforce, even in the next couple of years. Who knew that Drone Pilot was going to be a job, even as recently as two years ago? We just don’t know.

This space allows kids to have everything at their fingertips. We want them to be creative, and persistent. Keep testing, if it breaks or if it doesn’t work, you have to keep trying, to make it work. Students of all ages need to be able to adapt, to collaborate, and to communicate. Today’s job market is more dynamic than ever, and students need to be able to rise to the challenge.

What is one practice or experience from your studies at UNE that you believe you will apply right away in your current role?

Some of my earlier courses looked in depth at curriculum, and finding out what is going on at your school. It gave me the opportunity to go around and interview classroom teachers, principals, curriculum directors – some of whom I worked with for 20 years – and my classes have given me the opportunity to observe all of the different facets of how schools are run.

School finance was one area that I found particularly interesting. I initially thought it might be a boring class, but I quickly realized that I had never truly understood the intricacies of a school budget before. I’d had to submit a budget for my classroom, but when it comes to a district-level budget, I was amazed. Part of that course was to go and interview the school’s business manager. I never had a reason to do that before, and it turned out to be a really great experience.

And there were assignments and opportunities like that in every course. I gained so many different perspectives, and a deeper understanding of how things work.

What aspect of the program have you enjoyed the most?

The discussion boards have been not only a great way to get to know classmates, but it’s been fascinating to learn what goes on in other schools, even across the world. It’s amazing how similar other schools are, and how similar issues are across the board, regardless of locale. I’ve enjoyed learning the rules from the different states and the different districts.

Many discussion topics open the door to talk about specific issues that your school is facing, and by reading about other people’s school situations, you learn what has worked in other places, and by extension, what might work at your school. The communication amongst the students is really interesting, and it makes the courses really personal.

What made you decide to get your CAGS online?

Logistically, I don’t think I could have made a brick-and-mortar school work for me. I just couldn’t see myself driving and sitting in a classroom after working all day. I simply wouldn’t have done it.

The flexibility of the online program really works for me. If I have to, I’m up at 4am working on something, or I spend my entire weekend writing my paper, I put a lot of time into my schoolwork, but it’s that flexibility that makes it work.

What would you want a potential student to know before starting this CAGS AEL program?

At the outset it may seem like a daunting thing, to get your CAGS online. But for me, it’s just been so interesting! The reading hasn’t been boring textbooks. It’s been recent, relevant, and intriguing material. It’s been fun to learn so many new things.

The other thing is, you don’t have to do it all at once. I’ve done it straight through, and it’s been an adjustment. You can’t just take off for the weekend – unless you have your homework done. But it’s completely doable – you just need to get into a routine. It may seem insurmountable before you get into it, but once you do you realize that you CAN do it.

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