Head of the Class

Randolph’s MAT program boasts a 99 percent job placement rate

Altra Witt '14 teaches children in her Madison Heights Elementary School classroom.

Altra Witt ’14 teaches children in her Madison Heights Elementary School classroom.

When her son Ari was in kindergarten, Altra Witt ’14 MAT read a troubling statistic: Only 47 percent of African-American males graduate from high school.

As she watched her son innocently play, she began worrying about his future. Did he really stand only a 50 percent chance—or less—of finishing high school? She was determined to improve the odds.

A student in Randolph College’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, Witt was required to conduct a research project. Her choice of topic was easy: she wanted to discover ways to engage African-American males in the classroom. “It affects me personally, and it affects everybody,” she said.

The result was award-winning research that showed an effective way for teachers to help any student, regardless of race, become more interested in learning.

As a second-grade teacher at Madison Heights Elementary, Witt continues to apply what she learned from her research. “I feel like I am able to have a new perspective on a real educational issue, and I’m trying to be a part of the solution,” she said.

Randolph College’s MAT program helps students prepare to enter the education field, even if they earned an undergraduate degree in another discipline or worked in another field. Despite a job market with limited teaching positions, Randolph’s program has been successful in its efforts to prepare its graduates for the workforce. In fact, the program has a 99 percent job placement rate, and it is common for MAT students to be offered positions even before they graduate.

Many of them, like Witt, have chosen to put their education to work in Central Virginia’s schools.

Raised in Amherst County, Witt attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. She later moved back to the Lynchburg area to work as a teacher assistant. Very quickly, she realized that she wanted to teach full time. “When I went into the school system and saw what kind of difference I could make in the lives of children, I knew it was my calling,” she said.

Witt enrolled in Randolph’s MAT program in the summer of 2012. A few weeks later, she found herself teaching in front of a class of elementary school children.

Altra Witt '14 teaches children in her Madison Heights Elementary School classroom.This real experience in the classroom is a key reason Randolph’s teaching graduates are successful, said Peggy Schimmoeller, Randolph’s director of teacher education and former Lynchburg City Schools teacher and teacher leader.

“We get them into the classrooms very early, and they have a lot of required hours in the field,” she said.

The MAT participants complete practicums in several schools, receiving constant feedback and correction from Randolph professors, before getting their 12-week student-teacher assignments.

Another important part of the program is a research project that encourages the graduate students to find a solution to a problem affecting those whom they teach. “Effective teachers use data to inform their teaching,” Schimmoeller said.

Witt studied cultural differences that could affect learning. Some research indicated that cooperative learning, in which students work in small groups to try completing a task together, might get African-American boys more engaged in academic discussions.

In her student-teaching, Witt started separating students into different groups, each with a group leader. Together, they would study or work on a task.

Her research indicated the practice resulted in improved quiz scores and was also preferred by the students. After experiencing cooperative learning and traditional lectures, 8 out of 10 students preferred cooperative learning.

A year ago, that research project won the Teacher Candidate Award for Excellence in Research from the Virginia Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

In addition to making a unique contribution to the field of educational research, Witt’s work reflected her passion for teaching, which likely helped her earn a job offer before she had even finished Randolph’s program, Schimmoeller said.

Randolph’s program has attracted students who seek their MAT in order to change careers as well as those who take advantage of the opportunity to earn the degree in one year after graduating with a bachelor’s.

Sam McGarrity '13, '14 MAT works with a student at Brookneal Elementary School.

Sam McGarrity ’13, ’14 MAT works with a student at Brookneal Elementary School.

As the son of an elementary school teacher, psychology major Sam McGarrity ’13, ’14 MAT had a great respect for the teaching profession. And as a standout soccer player—who helped Randolph’s men’s soccer team clinch the 2011 Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship and fight its way to the Sweet Sixteen—he also wanted to coach.

He knew that a teaching career would allow him to combine all of his interests. Just days after graduating, McGarrity began the one-year MAT program in special education. That area appealed to him because of his background in psychology as well as the teaching style it allowed.

“Special education seemed to be a more creative track,” said McGarrity. “It’s less focused on what you’re teaching and more focused on how to deliver it in a different way.”

When McGarrity started his student teaching, it was obvious that he naturally had what Schimmoeller calls the “art of teaching.”

“He was able to develop a rapport almost instantly with children,” she said. “That allowed him to really be successful with students from the very beginning.”

Randolph’s graduate program also helped McGarrity learn more about the “science of teaching”—lesson planning and curriculum development.

Today, he is a special education teacher at Brookneal Elementary School in Campbell County and is the head varsity soccer coach at Rustburg High School.

McGarrity’s experiences in the MAT program changed the way he views himself, and he is considering continuing his education in order to better serve his students. “I definitely see myself as a lifelong learner,” he said.

Graduates like Witt and McGarrity say Randolph’s program gives its graduates more than just teaching skills.

“It’s an intensive, one-year program,” Witt said. “It can be taxing, and you have to be dedicated. It is something that will change your life, which is exactly what it has done for me.”