Education has been transformed by COVID-19. Teachers throughout Connecticut are rapidly adapting and innovating to prioritize the growth and development of their students. At the University of Saint Joseph, we give teachers the tools they need to be agile and responsive to whatever challenges come their way, including a pandemic.

“Teachers need to take care of themselves so that they can take care of their students. By focusing on their own learning and growth, teachers can fuel their vision for the future of their classrooms and their careers,” says Dr. Dianna Wentzell, Director of Clinical Practice at USJ.

“Studies have found a direct link between teacher’s attainment of advanced degrees and improved outcomes for their students. Additionally, teachers can improve their employability and salary potential through attaining Master’s degrees in high needs areas such as Special Education and TESOL (Teaching of English as a Second Language),” Dr. Wentzell explains. Many of our programs are available in formats and schedules that fit with the demands of teacher’s schedules.

As a result of our commitment to academic excellence and social action, a large number of USJ graduates have gone on to become “Teacher of the Year” in the towns in which they teach; some have gone on to become state “Teacher of the Year,” and one, Jahana Hayes, was named “National Teacher of the Year” in 2016 – and that served as her platform for running for and winning election to Congress in 2018.

We asked some of these alumni how their experience at the University of Saint Joseph helped them become the successful educators they are today.

Sheena Graham, 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year:

Sheena Graham is a performing arts and choir teacher at Bridgeport’s Warren Harding High School. She completed her graduate education courses at USJ in 1987. “The most valuable lesson that I learned at USJ is that being yourself is okay. At Saint Joes, our unique individual personalities were honored in a way that taught me that that’s what I needed to do with my own students.” Graham noted that USJ’s personalized instruction is what sets them apart from other schools: “I felt like the classes were tailored to me, they were everything I needed at that point.” As Graham heads into her 37th year of teaching, she knows that education is changing. “In some ways, now might be the best time to pursue a Master’s degree. I have no doubt that the instructors at USJ are going to be adapting to prepare you even more so for the changes going on in education.”

Kelly Bainer, 2020 Watertown Teacher of the Year:

Kelly Bainer is a special education teacher at Polk Elementary School, and a 2015 graduate of the University of Saint Joseph, where she earned a Master’s degree in Special Education. Bainer emphasized that it was USJ’s hands-on approach that really prepared her for stepping into the classroom. “Being a teacher, sometimes you get into the classroom and are like, “I didn’t learn that in the book!” but at Saint Joes, you do learn about the hidden jobs of what a teacher does… it gives you that leg up when you are applying for jobs.” Bainer says that USJ instilled a deep love of teaching in her: “Every day, you know that you’re there for the kids, and it doesn’t matter what school you’re going to.”

Shakira Perez, 2020 Hartford Teacher of the Year

Shakira Perez is an English teacher at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School, having graduated from USJ in 2000 with a BA in English. Perez started her college career as a nursing major. After watching a particularly gruesome episode of “Trauma in the ER” on the Learning Channel, she decided to change course and reconnected with her passion for teaching. Her mother remembers that at 5 years old Perez would teach her stuffed animals – she still remembers all of their names and what she taught them! Perez carries many lessons with her from her time at USJ, but she carries something physical as well: her notebooks and anthologies from her classes at USJ. “My professors taught me with such a passion for English and literature, and that stayed with me. So much so, that what they taught me, I taught my own students.” Specifically, she remembers referencing her notes on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Dr. Kerry Driscoll’s American Literature class to inform her own teaching on the same subject. Perez notes that if there’s one thing that USJ professors and administrators want out of their students, it’s for them to be successful: “If there’s anything that you can’t accomplish because you feel like you can’t do it, they will tell you that yes, yes you can, and they’re going to help you do it – I felt that way the entire time I was at Saint Joes.”

At the University of Saint Joseph, we offer many Master’s programs for any individual who wants to become a teacher and has a content area Bachelor’s degree. We also offer many Master’s degree programs tailored to the needs of teachers who are serving in Connecticut Public Schools.

We believe that teachers are life-long learners, living the connection between learning and doing. Now, more than ever, children need teachers who can help them thrive in the most difficult and uncertain of circumstances. Our Master’s degree programs will provide teachers with knowledge and confidence they need to help them mold the young minds that will go on to lead change in the world.