Unable to find a job teaching social studies, University of Wisconsin-Superior Master of Science in Education (MSE) -- Special Education online program student Thomas Behrens instead found a true calling teaching special education.
"I have an intellectually disabled cousin, so I had a lot of experience working with her," Behrens said. "When I couldn't find a social studies position, I said, 'Let's try special education.'"
He began teaching special education nearly eight years ago and has never looked back.
"I'm going to stick with special education because I am enjoying the path that it's taking," he said. "It's rewarding. It's challenging. There are definitely days when the stress makes you want to step away for a little bit, but it is rewarding.
"Honestly, if you go in with a blank slate each day, there are some wonderful things that you can experience."
Behrens teaches middle school and high school special education at Scales Mound Unit School District #211 in Scales Mound, Illinois. Previously, he taught at two different school districts in Wisconsin.
"My goal is to make these kids successful," he said. "We're developing skills to make the students grow, develop a positive work ethic and help them be well-mannered individuals who can do wonderful things outside of high school."
Behrens started college as a civil engineering major and a member of the baseball team at UW-Platteville. A torn rotator cuff ended his college playing career, while waning interest in engineering led him down the education career path.
"I found out really early on that engineering wasn't for me," he said. "I switched majors after the first year to social studies comprehensive with an emphasis in education. I was too much of a social individual to find myself sitting, looking at a computer screen and doing formulas. I'm not knocking it at all. It's admirable -- it's just not my personality."
Behrens completed his first bachelor's degree in 2009, then graduated with a second bachelor's degree in special education and teaching from St. Mary's University in 2011. In addition to working full-time, he is a volunteer EMT and coaches adult amateur baseball. He and his wife, Abbie, have two daughters -- 3-year-old Elliotte Loraine and newborn Rosalie Lux. Abbie works as the study abroad coordinator at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
"I was looking around and contemplating whether or not I would go back for my master's," Behrens said. "We had just had our first daughter, and we knew that we wanted a second child. I had too many irons in the fire.
"I got the licensure for special education, but I wanted to go back to get that master's degree. The MSE in Special Education online program at UW-Superior seemed like it could work, and I wanted to try it."
Indeed, it worked. Behrens manages to fit 18-20 hours of schoolwork into his busy schedule thanks to the flexibility of the online format, and is slated to graduate in Fall 2018.
"I've noticed that the people involved in this program are motivated, so they are pushing themselves. You get out of the program what you put in."
Behrens remains impressed with the UW-Superior faculty, including instructor and thesis development adviser Dr. Maryjane C. Burdge, and the master's program itself.
"Dr. Burdge is a wonderful lady who wants to make this program practical for us in the classroom," he said. "So instead of doing additional work, we're making ourselves better educators. All of the faculty in the special education department go above and beyond.
"The professors are so incredibly accommodating. They instantly provide feedback. I've learned more in this master's program than I have through the rest of my education and post-secondary schooling."
Another benefit to the program for Behrens involves working closely with fellow online students.
"It's a collaboration with other special education individuals in the program," he said. "It's evidence-based. We're going in and trying these methods. It's experimental, to a degree, because it is research-based, but we're also finding out what works for us."
One course in particular, SPED 769: Collaboration and Transition: From School to Community, provided exactly what Behrens hoped to learn in the program.
"Financially, the program is extremely affordable and the value of what you get is great," Behrens said. "Plus, UW-Superior offers an emphasis in transition with specific classes about transition and how to help develop communities or groups to help your students be successful when they graduate. A couple of things that I learned in just the one transition course made it worthwhile for the rest of my teaching career."
The course helped Behrens develop a website to assist his students in preparing for life after high school.
"I can help them create their own online portfolios," he said. "They will have with their own personal accounts for the rest of their lives. The website has their resumes and all of the other things they will need, rather than a flash drive or a CD. That course has had a direct relationship with successes that I am having in my school district."
All the Way Home
Now that Behrens is nearing graduation, he is considering a return to UW-Superior for an MSE in Educational Administration after such a positive experience in his current program.
"A master's degree had always been in the plans," he said. "I just needed some administrators to actually motivate me by saying, 'Hey, why don't you consider going for it?' It seemed like the right time to really jump back in."
The communal experience of the MSE in Special Education online program helped Behrens broaden his horizons and apply more knowledge to his career.
"Whether it's building rapport with students or collaborating with other teachers and developing connections with other professionals you work with, the communication that occurs within the program is extremely valuable," he said. "Most professors require at least two replies on a single discussion. The typical person replies to 8-10 different posts, which shows you that the majority of people are going above and beyond. They're willing to help out, as well. Everyone does the online thing, but Superior does it very well."
Earning a master's degree has been a fulfilling experience for Behrens. Abbie and the rest of his family have been extremely encouraging along the way.
"It sounds corny, but even my parents are proud of me. They said, 'Wow, you're going back to school?' My mom has an associate degree and always pushed education. My wife is all for higher education," Behrens said. "Like I tell my students, there are a couple of things they can't take away from you -- work ethic and an education."
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