Former 5th grade math and science teacher Emily Cole (‘23, M.Ed.) wanted a career change “outside of the traditional curriculum path.”
She turned to UTA’s M.Ed. in Mind, Brain, and Education. The unique, online program helps educators delve into the science of how we learn.
“I wanted to impact the other side of education,” says Cole, who also spent time as a STEM content leader and instructional coach. “I didn’t want to just focus on instructional strategies. A school campus can be a very chaotic space to work in, and I knew that I wanted to support education at a systematic level. I wanted to bring research and best practices into the state and district levels of decision making.”
Cole leveraged her UTA degree to secure a position as a program consultant with the New Teacher Center, which works to support learning for underserved students by improving the effectiveness of educators.
“I set myself apart in the interview process because I spoke about the science of teaching math. Everyone in education is talking about the science of teaching reading, but no one is talking about the science teaching math,” says Cole.
“Your brain has a specific part that processes math visually,” she adds. “Learning about that helped me understand the foundational aspects of elementary math. Our class readings focused on the brain’s approximate number system and the idea that your brain is really good at processing numerical values in small visual representations.”
For Cole, Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl’s courses on neuroscience were particularly helpful.
“Our graduates present themselves extremely differently from typical teacher candidates,” says Tommerdahl, an associate professor in the College of Education.
“They can go from speaking generally about language impairment to engaging in a deep conversation about specific EEG patterns and even particular brainwaves that can often be seen in infants who will later go on to develop these issues,” she says.
The goal is to equip grads to use their teaching backgrounds in deeper ways.
“Many students think that neuroscience has come up with a ‘bag of tricks’ for teaching,” says Tommerdahl. “Instead, the study of neuroscience provides them with a much larger and simultaneously more detailed perspective into learning. Students are meant to leave the program with a researcher’s mentality, understanding that they are not applying tools that neuroscience gives them but that they are becoming a new type of educational researcher who seeks to drive the field further in our understanding of how humans learn."
Supporting Instructional Transformation
In her new role, Cole travels frequently to support schools throughout the Midwest. Her job is to help teachers close student achievement gaps with new pedagogy, techniques, and instructional tools. After an initial school visit, Cole completes regular check ins to ensure each individual classroom – and ultimately each student – is on track academically. Additionally, she says that customized professional learning for districts is an essential part of how she supports teachers. Whereas a typical teacher may impact a few dozen students in a school year, Cole’s impact is exponential.
“It’s a mix of remote work and travel with in-field coaching with teachers and district leaders over math best practices and instruction – but tailored to that state and district,” says Cole. “My work is helping teachers internalize what this will look like in the classroom. I get to walk into so many schools across the country. You see how many similarities there are in the classroom – whether it’s in Dallas, Chicago, or Tennessee.”
It’s a departure from her previous role in the classroom, but one she loves.
“I do miss the students quite a bit,” said Cole. “I always prided myself on being a teacher with such strong student relationships. Even though I’ve left the classroom, I feel like I make a strong impact with districts and states because I approach my work with the mindset of a teacher.”
“My hope is that our students feel awakened to the intellectual depth that they can develop and inspired by what their work can do,” says Tommerdahl. “We’re no longer talking about just having an effect on students in your own classroom. We are talking about opportunities to move the science of cognition and learning further, which will have global impact. Science knows no borders. Nothing in our program is about Texas schools or limited to learning about students who learn in a particular language. What our students learn is applicable to every human on the planet.”