Earning college degrees together was nothing new for John Michael and Michelle Hall, but that didn't make the experience any less special for the husband-wife duo.
The Halls graduated from the Master of Education in Educational Administration online program at USC with 4.0 grade point averages in 2016. They also earned bachelor's degrees and master's degrees together at Anderson University in South Carolina after meeting there as undergraduate students.
"John Michael and I are definitely a team," Michelle said. "We bring different things to the conversation and think of things differently, but going through this program at USC brought us closer together and made us stronger. I'm glad we did it together versus separately."
The couple have taken successful career paths since graduation day. John Michael is in his first year as an assistant principal at Crescent High School in Anderson School District Three in South Carolina, while Michelle is in her second year as a middle school instructional coach in Anderson School District Two.
"I've always had a passion for leadership in schools," John Michael said. "For me, it seemed like a natural thing that I wanted to progress and do something in administration. I had a lot of great role models within my school.
"When Michelle initially talked to USC about the program, the woman she spoke with said, 'The only time you are going to have to come to Columbia is if you want to walk at graduation.' We did walk at graduation, and I really cherish that memory. It was a great accomplishment for us both to be able to knock that out together."
One of the first courses in the program, EDLP 703: Supervision of Instruction, piqued Michelle's interest in shifting her focus from disciplinary administration to instructional coaching.
"Having this degree made me a good candidate for my current job," she said. "The school never had instructional coaches before -- this was a position they created. I work with helping teachers get better by doing professional development, observing and giving feedback, helping them plan lessons and teaching them. I really love it. It's a great job."
Apple of Their Eye
John Michael and Michelle both knew at an early age of their desire to make teaching their profession. He earned a bachelor's degree in English secondary education, while hers was in secondary math education.
"I grew up in a family of educators," he said. "Other than my sister's children, who are toddlers, literally every person in my family is a teacher. My dad, my mom, both siblings, my brother-in-law and my brother's girlfriend are all educators. It's a family trait. I also had some excellent teachers who encouraged me to pursue teaching. I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Michelle grew up playing school with her stuffed animals and initially decided she wanted to go into elementary education.
"I did the Teacher Cadets program my senior year of high school with an elementary class and discovered that was not for me," she said. "I could not deal with the little ones. I also had an amazing math teacher, Anne Ledford at Fort Mill High School, my junior year and senior year. She was my Teacher Cadets teacher and my pre-calculus teacher and inspired me to go into math education."
The Halls knew they needed a leadership graduate degree to take the leap into administration after gaining experience in the classroom.
"There was a leadership class in our first master's degree program [at Anderson University] that triggered our interest in leadership and administration," Michelle said. "I remember the teacher telling us that within five years of teaching in the classroom, you can be out of the classroom if you make that your goal. Three years into teaching, we knew that's what we wanted to do."
That's when the couple decided to pursue the USC online Master of Education in Educational Administration program. The fact that the Halls do not have children was another good reason to return to higher education while their lives weren't too hectic.
"Maybe one day we will have kids," John Michael said. "That was honestly why we had a little bit of urgency about it. We said that we want to knock out all of the education now that we're interested in. It worked out well. There are many times when I say at work, 'This is something we learned about in our administrative master's degree program.' I fall back on it frequently."
Both John Michael and Michelle benefited greatly from the guidance of Dr. Joe Flora in the online M.Ed. in Educational Administration program.
"I loved the two-semester practicum that was our [High School] Principal in Practice course," she said. "Dr. Flora, who was a principal and a superintendent, did a great job of making it very realistic with the assignments we had to do and the discussions we had in class every week. He took such an interest in helping us personally.
"When I had my first interview, he wanted me to call him ahead of time and talk through some interview questions and gave me some tips. He said he wanted to be a reference for me. He was super helpful as far as the content of the class and being a reference and a mentor."
Added John Michael: "Having Dr. Flora's guidance as we were going through the clinical was big. He said, 'Here's what you need to do' and 'Here are the experiences you need to make sure to have.' 'These are the things you need to look for.' We weren't just following people around, we were looking for specific things. He had a good wealth of knowledge to share with us."
The flexibility of the online format at USC was exactly what the Halls were looking for in a master's degree program after graduating from a general M.Ed. program that was primarily on campus in 2011.
"I knew this was going to be an even bigger commitment that includes having to do the clinical part of it," John Michael said. "I was a little bit nervous about it when I heard about certain programs and what they required, but we were able to do our clinical at school and work with the professors online.
"We thought the cost was fair and affordable. The flexibility was really big for us. Honestly, I don't know if we would have done it if we hadn't had that option because of time constraints. Being able to have the flexible course schedule was very helpful. We went with USC, and I am glad that we did."
John Michael and Michelle were not alone this time around. One of John Michael's former colleagues, Matthew Hagan, went through the USC online M.Ed. in Educational Administration program with them.
"It really wasn't planned, but he worked at the same high school where I worked at the time, T.L. Hanna High School. It was great having him, too, as someone else we could talk through different things with and work through stuff and bounce ideas off each other.
"My wife would usually come to my classroom and we would stay there at school after hours. I'd pull up the video on my projector and we would watch the videos for the program. It was kind of nice. Sometimes Matt would come in and sit down with us, too. It was really like we were having class -- just a little different."
John Michael and Michelle took extra courses each semester to graduate in a little less than two years.
"Some semesters were easier than others, but the reason we chose this program was the online aspect," Michelle said. "We don't live super close to anywhere, and we love the convenience of being able to meet in his classroom after work and being able to do the class then versus having to drive somewhere to a cohort. It was a lot of work, but it was worthwhile work. Everything that we learned in our classes has been very helpful in our careers."
Caps, Gowns, Caribbean
The shared graduation experience was a special one for John Michael and Michelle since it was their first one at USC. They had a pretty scenic victory lap, too.
"It's something we look back on and say, 'I just can't believe we got through that,'" said John Michael, who hopes to eventually become a principal and then a superintendent. "Once we finished the program, we took a nice trip together for our anniversary and to celebrate being finished. We went to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we had gone on our honeymoon. We were sitting there thinking, 'We earned this.' In many ways, we felt very accomplished to be able to get that done."
The Halls also recommended the online M.Ed. in Educational Administration program to colleagues and friends because of their positive experience. Their brother-in-law, Gary Stone, is nearing completion of the same program.
"If you're interested in a program that works flexibly with your location and your time, this is a great one for you to consider," said Michelle, who wants to stay in instructional leadership and maybe move on to a job in a district office someday. "I couldn't recommend it enough. I loved it."
John Michael believes the key to success in school -- and in marriage -- is dedication.
"Just because it's online doesn't mean it's not going to demand your time, attention and effort," he said. "You're not going to be able to say, 'Well, it's online' and just halfway do it. You have to be willing to work hard. It's a great program."
With all that John Michael and Michelle have accomplished together, they believe the sky is the limit for what they can achieve in their careers.
"I did my Gifted and Talented endorsement separate from John Michael, but he did his eventually and said, 'We should have just done that together, too,'" she said. "We work so well as a team. I loved doing the master's degree program at USC with him.
"When I told a lot of people that my husband and I were doing this program together, they said, 'Oh, I can't imagine.' John Michael and I build from each other and learn from each other, so it was a really great experience to get to do that together."
Learn more about the USC online M.Ed. in Educational Administration program.
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