Catching up with USM alumnus Sarah Holder

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Mon. 09/05/2022 – 09:38 | From: David Tisdale

Sarah Holder returned to Hattiesburg in 2020 via Los Angeles, California after deciding the career path she was pursuing there just wasn’t for her. A native of Mobile, Alabama, which has strong ties to the Pine Belt, Holder was in Hattiesburg two years ago visiting family when she met her friend Linda Bass, an online student support specialist for the USM Office of Online Learning. Holder told Bass she wasn’t sure what next steps to take in pursuing a career path. Bass encouraged Holder to investigate USM’s online Master’s in the Art of Teaching (MAT), and how through it she could be a high school science teacher, in which she earned her undergraduate degree, and use an alternate route layout for teachers to start working while she was pursuing MAT.

Holder applied to the MAT program in the 2021 summer semester, was accepted, and started her first three classes. She soon got a job at East Marion High School, teaching science, and continued her USM classes while teaching, and graduated with her MAT in 2021. Since then, she has been appointed as a teacher of the year at East Marion High School and Chemistry Teacher of the Year by the American Chemical Society. Southern Miss Now recently caught up with Holder to talk about her journey back to Mississippi and the accomplishments USM has helped her achieve.

NMS: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got back to USM and the Pine Belt.

INCUMBENT: I’m from Mobile, Alabama and started my undergraduate career as a chemistry major at USM before transferring my freshman year to the University of South Alabama in Mobile and changing my major to biology with a minor in related sciences. This move also resulted in a change from Pre-Med to Pre-Dental. In southern Alabama, I helped found the USA Pre-Dental Society and served as treasurer my senior year. I graduated in 2019 and moved to California to attend Western University of Health Science to pursue a Masters in Biomedical Science. However, after a semester, I realized I was homesick and decided to go back to Mobile.

I have ties to USM through several family members and family friends who attended there and from a young age I wanted to graduate from USM, and get my masters from USM was a big check off my to-do list. I have had many ties to the Hattiesburg area since my mother grew up in Bassfield. I love this neighborhood and have always found myself in the ‘Burg over the years.

NMS: Describe your experience with the MAT program and how you turned to a career in education.

INCUMBENT: When I left California, I was struggling to decide on my next move. I knew I wanted to use my biology degree, and I still hadn’t given up on dentistry. However, I was also burned out in school because I never took a break between high school, undergrad, and graduation. I took six months off and in March 2020 my friend Linda Bass contacted me about the MAT program. I was hesitant at first because I grew up with people telling me I would be a great teacher, but I always strayed from that. After working in a company for six months, I realized that this was not the life for me. I finally gave in and thought, “I can teach for a few years and then maybe try again for dental school.” I didn’t know… teaching is definitely my calling.

My experience with the MAT program has been the most positive experience with education I have ever had. It’s rigorous but still effective. You don’t just receive information and expect to memorize it for a test. Each course uses practical discussion and application of things that actually happen in a classroom. You actively apply everything you learn by creating projects and materials that you could use in your career.

I think the best part of my experience is that the internship year is not just as a student teacher in a classroom for a set number of weeks. I had my own classroom, content and students and learned as I went with the help of my counselors and teachers. It was a real way to become an educator and not just a simulated scenario. Is it hard sometimes? Absolutely. But education is tough and learning to be a teacher while doing it is the best way to go.

NMS: Individual USM teachers that you would like to recognize as mentors who have positively influenced your growth as an educator?

INCUMBENT: Dr. Jay Howell and Dr. Bridgette Davis were by far the best counselors and instructors I could have hoped for. Going from a program with little support to a program with more support than I ever thought possible was amazing. Both were always available. Anytime I had a question, all I had to do was message them and they would set up a Zoom call asap. They never sugarcoated or made it seem like a situation was something I couldn’t handle. They gave me concrete advice and always supported me.

NMS: What are some of the MAT courses that stand out?

INCUMBENT: Classroom management was by far the best course I could ask for. I have teacher friends who have never taken classroom management courses in their programs, and they struggle with things I don’t fight with from students. Sure, I’m by no means perfect, but I have an edge in my class because of what I’ve learned in this class.

NMS: Talk about what is currently happening in your daily life at work.

INCUMBENT: I spent my two years as a teacher at East Marion High School. I teach chemistry, human A&P and zoology to grades 10-12. I re-launched the National Honor Society at East Marion last year and counts about 50 students as members. This year we added a performing arts department to the school, for which I am the assistant director. I was voted teacher of the year by my school colleagues, which was a humbling honor. I don’t do what I do for rewards or recognition; I do this to give my students every opportunity they can have to be successful humans. I was also recognized as High School Teacher of the Year for the Mississippi Chapter of the American Chemical Society this school year.

NMS: What is your teaching philosophy?

INCUMBENT: My teaching philosophy is centered on compassion. I’m only 26 and spent 20 of those years as a student. I know how difficult it can be to juggle home life, exhaustion, extracurricular activities and classroom work. Yes, teenagers need discipline and structure, but they are still human beings. We cannot expect a 15 to 18 year old to think and do the same as us. Discipline for one’s goals is a learned behavior. I give my students every opportunity to succeed while keeping high expectations of them. I am a firm believer in social-emotional learning. I may be the only person to tell a child that I’m proud of them or that I’m having a good day, and I make sure to do that even when they’re not having the best day.

NMS: What advice would you give to others considering the USM MAT program and a career as an educator?

INCUMBENT: My best advice is to do it. The support that USM gives to its students is untouchable. They even send new job offers. Teachers will always be needed and taking the first step to becoming a teacher opens the door to many more career opportunities. It took me a while to realize that the little girl who used her allowance to buy textbooks and activities for her supposed classroom was born for education. However, the MAT program and the experience I had in my classroom made me realize that teaching is my calling. I may not stay in class for my entire career, but the love I have for teaching is greater than I could have ever imagined.

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