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Saint Leo 360 Podcast

Episode 31: Dr. Holly Atkins on Saint Leo’s BA in Education

Posted by Greg Lindberg on March 23, 2021

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Download Episode 31 Transcript

Speaker 1:
Saint Leo 360, a 360 degree overview of the Saint Leo University Community.

Greg Lindberg:
Welcome to another episode of the Saint Leo 360 podcast. This is your host Greg Lindberg. On this episode of the podcast, we are speaking about the undergraduate education programs here at Saint Leo University. And to help us do so, we have a wonderful guest joining us here on the podcast. Her name is Dr. Holly Adkins. And she is the chair of undergraduate education here at Saint Leo University. Dr. Atkins, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Thank you, Greg. It's so glad to be here.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. I'm really looking forward to this conversation here. So first off, Dr. Atkins, just give a little brief bio overview of yourself, your background, and then perhaps we can get into how you actually came to Saint Leo University.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Okay. Love to. I've been here at Saint Leo, this is going to be my 10th year. My background is as a sixth, seventh and eighth grade, middle school language arts teacher in Pinellas County where I was born and raised and had a wonderful career teaching. Teaching's been at the heart of who I am professionally. And so that really led me to Saint Leo as well to pursue that passion for student teaching and learning.

Greg Lindberg:
Wow. Hey, I'm also Pinellas native. I know they're not too many of us out there. So that's pretty cool.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Yeah. It's a long commute, Greg, but I tell people, "I love where I live. I love where I work." It's an hour between the two. But that's okay.

Greg Lindberg:
So as far as the undergraduate education program at Saint Leo, talk to me about the history of this program, how long it's been around, and just a general overview of it.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Okay. Well, we've been around at Saint Leo since 1967. So we've got a long, firm history here at Saint Leo. And again, I think that makes sense because we are a teaching institution, while our faculty all engage in rigorous research. Teaching is primary, that's at the heart of what we do as an institution. So the fact that our undergraduate education program designed to prepare future classroom teachers, I think it makes sense that we've been around at the university for as long as we have. We have a number of programs. Our largest program is the elementary education program. This prepares future teachers to teach kindergarten through sixth grade. We also have a middle secondary program, and this is for individuals that want to teach sixth graders all the way up into seniors in high school.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
For those middle secondary programs, we have specializations in English, and in social studies. And we also are excited to partner with the College of Arts and Sciences to offer SEM focused degrees. So I'm one of the co principal investigators for a grant, the Robert Noyce Foundation grant, which specifically prepares students in the STEM field to teach at the middle and high school level. So those degrees involve majoring in either mathematics or biology, and then obtaining a minor in education. We also will be graduating our first students in our fully online Elementary Education Program soon, and we've added a Early Childhood program. So really birth to grade 12, we've got education covered.

Greg Lindberg:
Wow. Yeah. That's certainly a nice array of options that we offer and tracks and everything and pretty much something for everyone, I guess you could say.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Well, I think that's in line with the mission and focus of the university, and our programs are here at the main campus, and that they are also at a number of our education centers. And again, as I said, we've also just completed the development of a fully online Elementary Education programs. So it's all about a high quality experience, meeting the needs of our students and being accessible to all.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. Well said. In terms of the admission requirements for this program, and the various tracks that we offer, talk to me about just the general requirements to be admitted.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Part of being a state certified program, this is true for all programs throughout Florida. To be formally admitted to the program, students have to have passed one of the three certification tests. The first one, which is the general knowledge test, and that assesses basically skills students mastered in high school in the areas of math, reading, writing and English language skills, which would be grammar. We're a little bit unique from other programs, though, in that we allow students to actually begin their first semester, junior work in the education program without being formally admitted. Almost every other state approved program will not let students actually begin those education classes until they pass that test. We want to bring students into the experience and really give them support in taking and passing that test, while they're still working their way towards graduation.

Greg Lindberg:
I see. Very interesting. As far as the students that we have had go through the program in the various tracks. I'm curious, is it primarily the traditional students right out of high school or do we get a nice number of adult learners as well?

Dr. Holly Atkins:
We have a wonderful diverse array, and I would use that diversity term to encompass age, race, ethnicity. So here in our daytime campus program, typically that's more of the traditional student. We also on the campus have an evening program, and that's really designed for more of the non traditional students. These are students that perhaps have jobs during the daytime, they may be married, have children. So the evening program works better for them at our centers. And we have education programs at the Ocala, Lake City, Jacksonville, East Pasco and at the Tampa Center. Those are evening because again, those students there are more non traditional. Adding the online program again, it adds that accessibility, now individuals that have families, they don't have to make that drive to one of the campuses, they prefer the online environment.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Our program online is a little bit different. Because every semester students have synchronous and asynchronous classes. And just real briefly, that would be synchronous or live online. So they actually have a class meeting. For example, it could be every Tuesday night at 6:30. And the reason we have those courses in that format, is it's really hard to learn how to teach first graders mathematics, without watching a faculty member, demonstrate using manipulatives, etc. So we're always balancing that idea of making our program accessible, with making sure that it's rigorous, and that ultimately we're preparing the best teachers for the K12 classroom. Well, we also have in the past few years began, a very popular, successful program. It's our para to pro programs. And those are partnership programs with districts. We're partnering with over 19 school districts right now. This is-

Greg Lindberg:
Wow.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Yeah. And it's growing and the numbers are wonderful. This pairs that the instructional assistants in the school districts. And most of them will have some college. Some of them have A.A. degrees, but they don't have a four year undergraduate bachelor's degree in education, allowing them to be classroom teachers. And so that's what we do. We take them for where they are, we provide them with the coursework. And what's really powerful is those field experiences that I'll talk about soon, has been one of the highlights and strengths of our programs, those paraprofessionals can complete those field experiences, where they're working. So again, it's always about, "How can we break down those barriers?" And having to leave a job to go to another school, that's obviously a barrier. So it's a life changing experience. Many of these paraprofessionals they want to be in charge of their own classroom, and that goal just hasn't been realistic. In a financial sense, it's the possibility of changes a family dynamic.

Greg Lindberg:
In terms of the program, and just the length of the program, the credit requirements, let's dive a little deeper into to those.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
It is actually the education classes students can take, as we have a set of electives that students can take in their freshman and sophomore year. We have classes like human growth and development, teaching diverse populations, and educational technology course. We want students to be able to feel right from the start, that they're part of this education program. And those again, I'm referring to the students that come to us as freshmen. The education courses themselves begin that first semester of the junior year. We refer to them as blocks because the courses are all taken together. They are interconnected. And they're all connected every semester with a field experience. So our students are generally taking about 15 credits a semester. Some decide because of various reasons, they'd want to slow things down, they'll take 12 credits, and they'll pick up some of those other courses, we call them out of block courses. They'll pick those up in the summer. So there's flexibility to try to help meet the needs of all of our students.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Every semester that they're in the program, we require at least 90 hours out in a school because you have to be applying what you're learning in the classroom, the university classroom out in the K12 classroom, that's essential. And that is far beyond the requirement that state statute requires for all state certified programs. The state requires a final internship where students are out teaching full-time, our students do that. But again, in each of the three semesters before that they're out at a school, actively teaching, and not just observing. So when students are graduating principals report, Saint Leo graduates are more like a teacher or finishing their first year of teaching, rather than someone just graduating from a program.

Greg Lindberg:
Wow. That's wonderful. So they really do get that exposure early on in the program and literally walk away with a nice amount of experience in addition to the degree.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Absolutely.

Greg Lindberg:
Nice. I am curious, we should definitely touch on the Mursion technology. I know I've research that and I'm really fascinated by these simulations that we're able to do for some of the courses. If you could just speak about that a little bit.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Of course. We've actually been using that. I think Greg we're in our seventh year. We have a site license now at Saint Leo, just because we've used it so much and it's been used successfully in other programs. Again, you have to learn to teach by teaching. So the avatars will never replace a student going out and working in a classroom with real students. But here's where it fits a niche. So we'll have a student either online through Zoom or standing there physically in a classroom, engaging with these avatars in real time, right? So it's not a video game, it's real time. And avatar's been here and see you, etc. And so a student will stand up, they'll teach a lesson. Let's say the lessons not going well. Our student can say, "Pause classroom," turn to their classmates, their faculty instructor and say, "Help. What could I do better?" They get suggestions, they say, "Resume classroom," and then they can apply them right there. Now, I was a middle grades teachers as I told you for many years, Greg. And I would love to have been able to say, "Pause classroom," with those 13 year olds.

Greg Lindberg:
Yeah.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Yeah. So that's not possible. So this is what we can do, right? That's our approach with technology throughout the program. It's not technology for technology's sake. It's about a teacher's expanding toolbox. And this Mursion mixed realities tool is one of those many tools, right? So we look at that area of what we need to fill, a niche we need to fill in this is the tool that we can use it in.

Greg Lindberg:
Right. And very interesting. And I understand that, that specific technology has also been very beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic, just when things have changed so much. And I'm sure access to the classroom, in some cases has been a bit of a challenge.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Well, it has incredibly so when we first became... We were all everybody was thrown off, right in March. And now we're waiting, how are we going to really prepare these students and now everybody's going virtual, etc. We were ready to meet those challenge. I'm not going to say it hasn't continued to be challenges. But because we had tools like Mursion because we infuse the use of technology with our students throughout the courses, the transition to these virtual environments was a little bit easier for our students. So right in March, when our students still needed to complete their experiences out in the field, but the schools were all shut down. Again, you're right on target. That's where Mursion really came in. They could still practice honing their teaching skills, using the avatars.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
And I've observed a number of our students that are working in Florida Virtual School, Pasco East schools, we've got students in placements, and in Brick and Mortar, and in those online environments. And so again because we've got these tools integrated in our program, preparing them for what goodness knows, we never thought we would have to prepare them for, was really going on all the time. So we're grateful for that at all. And I'll add that every month, the Florida Association of Colleges of teacher Ed, has monthly listening sessions, and sharing sessions. And so I worked with our folks that focus on the simulated experience at Saint Leo. We did a presentation to other faculty from colleges all over the state of Florida, about how we've been using Mursion. So it feels good to be leading ad edge. And it also feels good to be able to support colleagues in our shared goal of providing the state with quality teachers.

Greg Lindberg:
No question. Yep. Correct point. Let's talk a little bit more about the faculty and the program in terms of their backgrounds. I know you mentioned your background many years teaching at the middle school level. And talk to me about some of the other faculty and their backgrounds as well.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Okay. All of our teachers are full-time faculty, are adjuncts they've all been classroom teachers. That's a requirement. And not only have they been classroom teachers, but their evaluations have always shown that they've been exemplary teachers. They all have state certification. So they have teaching certificates and then of course, they also have the academic background. So it's always about that theoretical academic background, and the proven ability to put those theories into practice. So they are all full-time faculty have the majority have doctoral degrees, and others have master's degrees. Everybody is demonstrated as a high quality, experienced, educator. And again, that's true for our full-time faculty, as well as all of the adjunct instructors.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
We're grateful for our partnerships with local school districts. And so many of our adjunct instructors come from the current K12 environment. So we have administrators. I have a principal of a middle school over in Hernando. He teaches one of our seminar classes, he also teaches one of our mathematics methods course. He sent me a text over the weekend that a student had sent him just really expressing gratitude for how he shares not only the content knowledge, but really about how to best take and apply that content knowledge to meet the needs of students. So again, having current practitioners in the field that's critical in helping to grow exemplary teachers.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. Well said. I know that Saint Leo, we certainly pride ourselves on the below students to instructor ratio, and just the availability and access to instructors. And if you could just speak a little more about how that can apply to this program. And then what students can expect in terms of access to their instructors?

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Well, again, just that text I think, says a great deal, right?

Greg Lindberg:
Sure.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
So the accessibility is key. We take that word advising to be much more than just registering a student for class. Those are deep, ongoing conversations that we each have with our advisors advisees. But it extends to the students that we have in our classes. So accessibility is critical. I know that... I'm teaching an education online class, all of my students in the class are paraprofessionals. There's teaching assistants. I understand that being accessible to them is really going to be evenings and weekends. And so that's where I shift my focus for them because I know that's when they're going to need me to be around the most. So I think that's critical for us is really understanding that maybe the needs of some of our traditional age students, versus students that are with families and working adults, they're different. So we need to know our students, and know how we can be there to really support them throughout the program time.

Greg Lindberg:
Right. I see.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
I think Greg, our students know the difference, too. I get this comment quite a lot from students that transfer from other programs. They're very surprised at the role that we play. They're more used to faculty, who at a research one institution, that of course, they're teaching, but the research part is one of their primary focus. And again, as I said before, while we continue to engage in scholarship, for us, the primary focus is about teaching. The students come first. And I've had many conversations with students really surprised at that level of one on one commitment between themselves and the faculty.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. That's wonderful. I know we've already talked a little bit about the field work requirements and whatnot, in terms of the program. But if you could just touch a little further on specific connections that we have to local school districts, and just how beneficial those connections really are for us.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Absolutely. I just had a meeting this morning with a student that I'm supervising, and her what we call it cooperating teacher, their mentor teacher. So every one of those semesters, it's way more than saying to a student, "All right. You need to keep a log of those 90 hours." They are assigned by the university, that mentor teacher. The mentor teacher has to have had specific training in working with undergraduate students teachers, they have to have demonstrated exemplary accomplished teaching by their districts. And then the students are also assigned a university supervisor, and the university supervisor, it can be a full-time faculty member. It is often a retired principal. But the university supervisor then comes out and conduct observations in each one of those semesters. So they get ongoing feedback, "Here's what I see is your strengths. Here are areas I'd like to see you work on." And that happens in each of those semesters.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
So again, our students that are arriving at that full-time final internship, they've already completed at least 270 hours of active teaching, not watching, actively teaching. Because you can't learn to teach by sitting behind the desk, you got to get up and go in front of the desk, and talk to and teach the students. So they're ready for that final internship. These are comments that we consistently hear from our districts. And I'll tell you, Greg, in a time of the pandemic, K12 teachers right now are under an extraordinary amount of stress. The workload that's always been significant, is just been exponentially increased. So having a final internship, we understand this, this is a gift that these cooperating teachers are giving back to the profession.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
And so I'm thrilled to say that we have all of our students place. We have 275 students either at the main campus or one of our centers that are out there in K12 schools, Brick and Mortar, Florida Virtual School, Pasco East school, but they're out there doing their field placements, each one. And so without the partnerships, that wouldn't be possible. We hear from districts, or from other colleges of education, that they've had districts tell them, "We're sorry, we just cannot accommodate your students." We're really grateful we haven't been told that from districts. And again, I believe they know that our students are going to be assets to this cooperating teacher right now and assets, most importantly to the students that are currently in that class, rather than one more thing to have to do.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
So we're grateful for all of that, the reputation. And frankly, Greg, they will want to have our students in those field experiences because they want to hire them. And we love seeing that. Most of our students, that's where they get their first year job. They've been there, they've done their final internship, the principal says, "Hey, I've got a position opening up next semester." And again, that's where they get hired. So the districts and the schools have a vested interest too, to bring our students in and get them part of the community, watch them teach, and then have them transition into full-time employment there.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. Very well said. As far as the career outcomes, and what an individual, a graduate could actually do with an education degree. Certainly a traditional teaching roles is certainly probably the most common. But are there any other roles, any potential career tracks, maybe something a little different, that you want to mention that someone could actually do with this degree?

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Absolutely. Well, even with the traditional tracks, some of our students will say, "I'd really like to teach abroad," and that's what they will do. Our English education students, are in high demand in foreign K12 schools. They like someone who speaks up the American English, right? They want to learn that. And our students have those aspirations and so that's a great area to pursue. There's so much of what careers involve teaching, right? I know teachers who have taken a little step away from traditional K12 teaching, and they've worked for institutions, such as Raymond James, in doing corporate training. Because the foundational principles of teaching are... There's a set of information that you have, that you need to convey to another group of people. That's really the foundations of teaching.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
So these corporations like to hire classroom teachers, people who have had that teaching experience or teaching education background because again, they get it, they get the foundations of how to convey content in a meaningful way. So that's definitely an avenue. Many of our students that are majoring in middle and high school teaching, really want to go on and teach in a community college. They want to pursue a master's degree. And we also have a number of robust four plus one or two plus one programs connecting undergraduate with graduate education that make that type of pursuit possible.

Greg Lindberg:
Very interesting. And I guess on that note, if you could just touch on how this bachelor's program prepares graduates for, if they do want to go on to get the masters. Of course, we offer many masters options, and even the educational specialists, the Doctor of Education, fairly new program there. I would imagine we do have some students that want to get the full swoop and then go for multiple degrees from us.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Oh, absolutely. There's a Saint Leo family, for sure. And we see many of our undergraduate students they've gone out there. To get to be part of an Educational Leadership Program at the masters or doctoral level, you do need to have at least three years of successful teaching experience because these are people who are going to be principals, a school leader. So of course, you need to have the classroom teaching experience before you can move into those positions, but they come back. They come back because they felt that they were part of a very positive experience. There's many students that transition directly into the graduate program. For example, many students want to specifically focus on working with students with exceptionalities. So they'll go from getting their undergraduate, they'll pick up, they'll be in the four plus one two plus one program.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
And they'll transition into that Master's, of ESA. Same thing with a Master's of reading. They want to become a literacy coaches, and very adapted being able to do that. So they'll stay on and extend for that year. So whether they transition directly from the undergraduate to the graduate program, or they go out there and they get that teaching experience, we love to see how many end up coming back. And then again, that cycle becomes complete because once they have those advanced degrees, many of them come back and become adjunct instructors for us. So it's a wonderful cycle and all part of that Saint Leo family.

Greg Lindberg:
Sure thing. No question about that. In terms of alumni, I'm curious. Are there any specific alumni you'd like to give a shout out to or we can even just speak more generically about maybe some of our recent alumni in the last several years and just some specific roles that they've gone on to achieve?

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Well, it's that time of the year right now, Greg, where districts are selecting their Teachers of the Year. And so it's always exciting for me to open up my email, look at my text, get the phone calls from all over the state with faculty or students reporting, "Hey, guess what? I was selected Teacher of the Year." And we just had that just last week, the Citrus County School districts Teacher of the Year, and when you think about this is district wide. So this is kindergarten through 12th grade, this student was selected to represent the district at the state level. And the students email was just beautiful. And it really praised her experience at Saint Leo. And it was wonderful to see her also say she hopes too, one day she can come back and be part of helping us grow future teachers.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
So we're so proud of those Teachers of the Year. And throughout those 19 school districts that I mentioned, we have partnerships with, every year, we have a long list of students that are awarded that honor at the school and at the district level. And then many of our graduates have moved into those leadership roles that I talked about within the district. That's where they want to pursue giving back to their profession. So we have principals, assistant principals, again, throughout all of those districts.

Greg Lindberg:
Right. That's awesome. And I think that just speaks so much to the caliber, the quality of this program. Of course, attaining a degree is one thing, but being able to use that degree in so many ways and have such a positive career experience afterwards just says so much.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
I love walking into a principal's office and seeing Saint Leo banners and a Saint Leo degree out there. And they display those proudly. And we have a gentleman who is out in the Hernando district, he's a principal, he has had a career also in human resources out in Hernando. He is actually, I was honored to write a letter of recommendation for him. He's going to be applying for one of our master's program actually wants to go back into human resources. So he's getting a master's in our MBA program. So that's exciting. So there's multiple pathways, and we're here to support our students, hoewever we can.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. Yeah. So I did want to wrap up here with a question about the pandemic. And we did speak a little bit about this earlier. But I'm just curious, your take on just the current state of say, K through 12 education, specifically, virtual learning and how that's factored into being such a big thing with the pandemic. And perhaps even the future of virtual learning, even after the pandemic is all said and done. And then just what's your perspective on all that?

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Education is never going to go back to the way it was pre pandemic. We have many students in the K12 world that their parents decided the best place for them would be in a virtual setting, some are returning, some are still in those virtual settings. And while some of them hope to return to Brick and Mortar, there's many more that have found that this is actually a successful experience for their student. In my conversation with a classroom teacher this morning, she's teaching in Pasco East School. And she reported very much the same thing, that a parent has said, "This has been a real blessing that our son feels more... That the virtual environment allows him to focus more." He's in an e-school, so much of the school work is completed at their own pace. So they will continue with that environment.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
And so our role in preparing teachers is a constantly evolving endeavor. We have to look at that question. What does it mean to prepare teachers? And we can't be all things to all people. But really being intentional about how strong pedagogical practices look like, in a Brick and Mortar environment, and also in an online environment, will continue to be something we'll look at as a department. We will infuse into our courses and again, it's about really preparing teachers for an ever changing future.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. That's a great, all great points. And we're certainly proud to be able to be such a cutting edge program that I know we can certainly prepare our teachers for any type of modality that they may face.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Absolutely.

Greg Lindberg:
Are any of the... Again, we've been speaking with Dr. Holly Atkins, the chair of undergraduate education here at Saint Leo University. And Dr. Atkins, I just wants to thank you so much for your time, for joining me here on the podcast. And really appreciated the insight and certainly just the nice overview of the program and the wonderful opportunities that we offer to students here.

Dr. Holly Atkins:
Thank you so much, Greg. Nothing I like better than to brag about my program. Thanks for the opportunity.

Greg Lindberg:
Absolutely. All righty.

Speaker 1:
To hear more episodes of the Saint Leo 360 podcast, visit saintleo.edu/podcast. To learn more about Saint Leo's programs and services, call 877-622-2009 or visit saintleo.edu.

Episode Summary

In this episode of the Saint Leo 360 podcast, Dr. Holly Atkins joins the conversation. Atkins, the chair of Saint Leo University’s undergraduate education program, discussed:

  • Her teaching background in K-12 schools in Pinellas County and how she came to Saint Leo University
  • The long and successful history of the undergraduate education program at Saint Leo
  • Admission requirements of the program
  • The Demographics and types of students who have enrolled in the education degree program and their career interests
  • Where this program is offered
  • The length of the program and credit requirements
  • The various program tracks and minors
  • An overview of the faculty who teach in the program and the one-on-one access students have to their instructors
  • Field work requirements and connections this program has to local schools and organizations
  • Examples of career opportunities with an undergraduate education degree
  • Examples of alumni and their careers
  • The graduate education programs at Saint Leo and how this program prepares students for graduate studies
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education and the future of remote learning for pre-K and K-12 students

Links & Resources

Learn more about the bachelor’s in education degree and its many options at Saint Leo University.

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