Professional Learning

Celebrating AOEU’s First Graduates (Ep. 255)

With AOEU’s first-ever graduation ceremony happening earlier this month, we had a unique opportunity to celebrate those teachers who earned their Master’s Degree. In today’s episode, Tim talks to Dean of Admissions and Student Services Shannon Lauffer about the AOEU graduate program. They then both interview alumni Lizz Rodak and Suzanne Farr about their experiences in the program and what they learned while working toward their degrees. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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"All of my coursework has been incredibly helpful, and so much has come back to my classroom. I of course loved the studio courses, but I was completely enticed by all the methodology and theories too." --Suzanne Farr


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

As you know, we have an amazing day at the NOW Conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the best parts of the day, one of the things I want to highlight was the first ever AOEU graduation, this happened right after the NOW Conference. And in between, we had a chance to talk to a couple of AOEU graduates about their experiences with the program. And you’ll hear that conversation in just a bit. But first, I wanted to invite Shannon Lauffer, our Dean of Admissions and Student Services at AOEU back to the show to give us a little bit more information, a little bit more context about the graduation, about this interview. So Shannon, welcome back. How are you?

Shannon: Thank you. I’m doing great, Tim. How are you?

Tim: Great. Happy to talk to you as always. Happy you’re back on the show.

Shannon: It’s been a while.

Tim: You’re always popular but people love hearing from you. So it’s good. Now, I guess, to start with, can you tell us a little bit about AOEU’s first graduation and how we got there and why it’s such a big deal?

Shannon: Yeah, so this first graduation ceremony included 45 graduates who completed the program between March of 2020 and December of 2020. So we had really small classes kind of leading up because this was our first cohort. A lot of these students came in with… They had taken a lot of courses previously. They were familiar with AOEU when we launched the program. So then here we were, basically two years later, with 45 graduates.

So for these graduates, they were the first to go through the program. They really blazed the trail for everybody else. It’s easy to stand up and say like, “Okay, I’ll get my master’s somewhere that other people are doing it.” But it’s really hard to be like the first or the fifth to be like, “Okay, I’ll trust this.” So this was… We just felt really honored and humbled by this group of people who really put their trust in us when we were a really young university and knew that we would pull through. And so it was just a really wonderful day to celebrate all of them.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. It was an amazing celebration. I was super happy to be a part of it. Well, I’m not even that much of a part. I kind of hosted and said, “Here’s Shannon, here’s a graduation.” But it was cool. It was cool to see-

Shannon: It was great to have you introduce me.

Tim: Perfect. And then we’re going to play this interview for everybody, but can you talk a little bit about the interview? Just kind of set it up for us, like why we wanted to talk to Liz, why we wanted to talk to Suzanne as graduates.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. So for the past couple of years, there’s been so much us talking about the program. And that’s because we’ve been so young.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: And now we’re 700 students strong and now we’re 45 graduates strong. So it was really important to me that we sort of step back and allow people who’ve gone through the experience, who don’t work for AOEU to tell the story of what it was like for them. And Suzanne and Liz are just… They’re phenomenal. They’re so engaging. They’re so dedicated to art education. And both were familiar with AOEU, had taken courses with us prior, but really then sunk into the process.

So I love hearing them talk about how they balanced it all. It’s hard to go back to school and earn a degree, especially as an adult. You get out of the swing of college, it’s tough to make that jump to go back in. And also listening to them talk about what they learned and their research. It’s fascinating to think that teachers in general, are researchers every day. We’re collecting data, we’re analyzing it, we’re shifting how we instruct, but to listen to their passion projects and listen to them dig into that is just really interesting, really exciting. And that’s why we decided to interview Liz and Suzanne.

Tim: Yeah. That’s awesome. Perfect explanation. Perfect setup. And now we will go ahead and play Shannon and my interview with Lizz and Suzanne.

Shannon: Welcome Suzanne. Welcome Liz.

Suzanne: Thank you.

Lizz: Thank you.

Suzanne: Great to be here. Thank you for inviting us.

Shannon: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Thanks for joining us.

Tim: Yes. And I love the fact that you both have your AOEU t-shirts on. Like, again, there’s all this cool stuff that I can’t have, I haven’t earned one of those yet. So I guess I want to start, Liz, I’ll ask you first. The big obvious question is, why AOEU? Why did you select that for your graduate degree?

Lizz: It made the most sense. It’s almost the only program that I know of and I think exists that would work for me. At the time I had three little kids, now I have four. I was full-time working, financially I’m still young. My husband and I are both teachers. So this was really the only thing that made sense. And I was able to actually get it done in like a normal, timely manner versus I’m going to be in school the next 20 years of my life.

Shannon: Oh, reality.

Tim: So Suzanne, what about you? What made you select AOEU?

Suzanne: I had coursework other places and had kind of started and stopped. And I gained a lot of respect for the art of education before they even offered, well, I guess back in 2014, so I think some classes were starting to be offered in 2011. And so I dipped in and there was no turning back because my first class was just so engaging, inspiring, and it was applicable rather than just being theory. And just found my tribe here.

Shannon: I love that. Suzanne, what was the first course that you took? Do you remember?

Suzanne: My first class was Fibers with Amber Kane. And I use that stuff in my middle school classroom directly after that and very, very useful.

Shannon: That’s fantastic.

Suzanne: She’s super talented. So she was a great teacher.

Shannon: Awesome. I love to hear that. So then take me back to when you guys were making this decision to say like, “Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to take the plunge and get a master’s degree.” How long had you been thinking about it and what made you finally decide, okay, I’m doing it. I’m going for it? Liz, if you want to go first.

Lizz: I hadn’t been thinking about it very long. In fact, it probably was even only like a month or two, I was just going to go back to the University of Cincinnati where I got my undergraduate and I was going to go into counseling, which was sort of something maybe I’d be interested in like art therapy eventually, so that was sort of my weird indirect route. And then I got like a email or something popped up that I saw about like, we’re about to do a master’s program. And then I actually like had a phone call with, I think you Tim actually at the beginning.

Shannon: We were all admission counselors at the beginning.

Lizz: Yeah. And then I was like, I was sold. I was like, “Wow, this’ll work.” Like it worked with my district, and it felt like the biggest gift just like sat at my front door and I was like, “I have to do this.” And I did it.

Shannon: That’s awesome. Suzanne, what about you? How long had you been thinking about it and what made you decide to go for it?

Suzanne: My Track was I have a BFA in Graphic Design from UIC. Then I went back to get my Professional Certificate in Art Education, but you’ll notice that it was not a master’s.

Shannon: Sure. Yeah.

Suzanne: That was in 1996. So I’ve been kind of looking around for a long time and then looking at something that would fit in with my life as well. And I don’t like wasting my time on things that I’m not really going to use. So that’s why I started inquiring after my class, when are you going to have a master’s? And then I got this like little hit email, we’re going to have a master’s degree. My gosh!

Shannon: Yeah, it was something that was in the works for a really long time, many years of putting it together. So when we were finally able to like let the cat out of the bag and send those emails, it was so exciting.

Tim: Yeah, that was fun. Now, Suzanne, you mentioned your Fibers course that you took how applicable it was. I’m curious to know like did you have a couple other favorite courses that you took? Like can you talk about favorite ones and what you enjoyed about them?

Suzanne: Well, I got so much out of so many different classes. Instructional Strategies was really interesting. I took iPads for Art, which was great. Also in a lot of my different classes, I was able to create instructional videos, which when COVID came, was incredibly useful. I already had a lot of knowledge of what to include and some considerations that I may not have thought of if that hadn’t been included. Yeah, all of my coursework has been incredibly helpful. I have to admit, I really liked the studio classes, but I’m a complete work and I get completely enticed by all the methodology and theories too.

Tim: So a little bit of everything for you.

Suzanne: A little bit of everything, really. Yeah.

Tim: That’s awesome. Lizz, same question for you. Do you have a couple of courses that really stood out to you, whether they’re super enjoyable, really relevant for your teaching? Like do you have a couple that you want to talk about?

Lizz: Yeah. I also loved the studio classes. I took those later as well, and I did them over the summer. So it was like kind of more enjoyable for me. But the other ones were very relevant and I did them during the school year. So it was actually like perfect. I was able to focus on my own artwork during the summer and take the studio courses and the Instructional Strategies and all of that during the school year.

And I would say Fibers, and I took that with Jennifer Kay-Rivera and ceramics. I teach Ceramics for high school, and that’s my passion, that’s what I focused in and what my research was about. And then I really liked Photography as something that wasn’t really up my alley, but really challenged me as an artist and has been helpful in teaching my kids how to take good photos of their work. So that was sort of like a roundabout benefit in the classroom. And then I actually… I loved Mission of Teaching and the capstone like both of those ended up being really cool classes.

Tim: Nice. Shannon, can you give us a quick overview of Mission of Teaching and capstones so people kind of know what they’re about?

Shannon: Yeah, so that’s the very end of the degree. Those are the 600 level courses. And so that’s really digging into sort of teacher leadership and applicable research. So when we look at research, we’re looking at action research through the lens of a teacher. We’re looking at passion projects and stuff that you can use in your classroom the next day, but it’s still based in research and teachers conducting research in their classrooms. So those are the final two courses. Those are core courses, they are required, but I think it’s… I remember doing my own action research project and it helped me see that research is a piece of teaching. That we are conducting research in our classroom every day. It just puts a more formal lens on it.

Tim: That’s cool. Okay. So, sorry, I don’t mean to take over the interview here, but I’m very curious, just the research thing because I feel like teachers are, I don’t want to say scared, they’re intimidated by having to do research. It’s something that not a lot of people have done. They don’t know where to start or what they can do. So Liz, you mentioned that you did research in ceramics. Can you talk about what that looked like and just kind of what you did throughout that process?

Lizz: Yeah. That was a big question, especially at the beginning. I was like, “What? Data, research, ceramics.” Yeah, so I did art-based research and what that practically looked like was my own research and clay. So for me, I was researching how to use texture and then the medium of clay to create metaphors in my work. And I had a therapeutic lens throughout the entire course. And so, yeah, I was looking at how practically do these textures actually metaphorically relay emotions, experiences. And then I had my own research made out of clay, but then I also had my own like writings, poetry, reflection, journaling that was all considered data and research. And then also input from my panelists and from my classmates and Dr. Harmon just like giving me feedback on my work and how that was actually coming across. And it was really cool cause I had a variety of panelists in the art world and not, but yeah, it was all research.

Tim: That’s cool. And do you feel like that was more for your own personal work? Or do you feel like that went toward your classroom and your teaching a little bit more?

Lizz: Both. It has impacted both worlds significantly. I like push texture a lot more within the classroom. And now, again, I have a bunch of examples of my own work to kind of show students.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lizz: Yeah. And for myself, that was a really interesting season in my life. So I have this kind of cool monument to remember it by.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. So Suzanne, same question for you. Can you tell us a little bit about your research? What got you interested in it? Like why you decided on the topic you did?

Suzanne: So my capstone research, I narrowed in on in the mission for teaching class, which prepares you in terms of reconnecting with what is really important to you, and then you take that into the capstone class. And I researched the studio habits of thinking and my class and my colleagues and my professor helped me narrow that down to how I would use that. So I ended up studying the creative process and how to express and use that in the classroom. And the studio habits of mind are very authentic in terms of what artists go through and the processes that are happening in your mind. And then you’re interacting with your environment reflection and all of the parts of the eight habits of mind are really inherent in art making.

And so I related it to my own art experience and I reflected on that and it spurred my own art making and gave me confidence in my own art making and time to do it that I hadn’t allowed myself for many years. And then it’s really impacted the way I teach in middle school and using that vocabulary and using that framework for how I instruct. So the process was very intrinsic and very relevant to what I was doing in my classroom and as an artist.

Tim: That’s really good to hear. Okay, Shannon, I’m sorry for taking over. I’ll step back because I know you have things that you want to ask as well.

Shannon: Gosh, let me have the spotlight. Okay. So I guess what I’m wondering, thinking about going back to school is a huge undertaking and super relevant, exciting, but also I’m sure it was tough at times, earning your master’s degree is a huge milestone. So Liz, what was one thing that was difficult about it either academically or personally to make it through the program?

Lizz: I feel like it’s okay that I share this here, but like at the beginning of my capstone class, well context, I was 26 at the time I had three kids, a three-year-old, two-year-old, and a one-year-old, working full time, and I was pregnant, and I was due April 1st and my capstone class would have ended at the end of March. Yeah, so I was at the beginning of my capstone class and I called Jenny Borel or I think I texted her and I was like, “I need to talk to somebody.” And I was freaking out. I was like sobbing and I’m like, I’m a grown woman, but I’m like freaking out. I can’t do this. Like I have to write a 50-page paper, like what? And I was nervous. Like what if my daughter comes early, blah, blah. Well, she did come early. She had a birth defect. She was in the NICU. It was crazy traumatic. COVID hit. It was absolutely ridiculous.

But thankfully I was done with my research, like the ceramic side of it, but I finished my paper in the NICU. I don’t know that The Art of Education will ever know the blessing that they were to my family, to me personally. Dr. Harmon was so supportive through it. All my peers were so supportive and I was able to finish that. And I remember it was like, I think I was on my 117th page writing, I was just sobbing in the NICU and finishing it. And just the encouragement and the empowerment that I was given by everybody, everyone that I interacted with and the love. And I had like cards mailed to me from former professors in the program and, yeah, Jennifer Kay-Rivera, Jennifer Borel, Dr. Harmon, they all sent me letters and just, I don’t know. It feels like a family, even though it’s really distant and you don’t have this like face-to-face interaction, but I could not have done that had I been in any other program. And I know that.

Shannon: That’s amazing, if you’re at home, give it up for Lizz Rodak who did it all at once. That’s pretty amazing.

Lizz: I only did it because there was the support.

Shannon: Wow, I’m sure. I know a lot of those people are in the chat right now and cheering you on still.

Lizz: Thank you.

Shannon: So Suzanne, I’m going to direct the same question to you, and then we’re going to wrap up because we are almost at the start of graduation. So biggest challenge personally or professionally that you encountered during your master’s degree.

Suzanne: I have nothing like that to share.

Shannon: Sorry, I could have asked you that one first [laughter]. That’s okay.

Suzanne: No, I had to have a million post-its everywhere, but other than that, it was nothing like… Liz is amazing. Liz and I had a curriculum class together.

Lizz: Yes!

Shannon: I think you two took something together.

Suzanne: Yeah, before this. And I guess one of the great things about the capstone project was how connected we became with each other in that group. And it was a real, it’s still a support group for the four or five of us that were in that. That’s a really good experience, that class.

Shannon: Oh, that’s wonderful. Well, you guys are set to officially graduate here in a couple of minutes, anything special that’s on the horizon now that you guys are master art teachers?

Suzanne: Well, I got a pay raise.

Tim: Yes.

Shannon: Good for you. You deserve it.

Suzanne: And I’m doing more art now. I made a place for my own art and that really was in no small part to Jethro Gillespie and that capstone project and my team of peers. So shout out to all of you.

Shannon: That’s so great. Liz, what about you? Anything amazing on the horizon?

Lizz: Just let my kids get a little bit older and then you guys have to get a PhD program for everyone.

Shannon: We don’t have anything to share today, but maybe in the future.

Lizz: That’s awesome.

Tim: Suzanne, Liz, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, to share your experiences. I know it’s really valuable for a lot of people to hear from a couple soon to be graduates. So thank you.

Shannon: Yes. Thank you guys so much and congratulations.

Lizz: Thank you.

Tim: All right, Shannon. Just really quickly to wrap things up before we go. If people are interested in the master’s degree from AOEU, if they want to see if it works for them, what’s the best course of action for them? Like how should they reach out or start looking into the degree program?

Shannon: Yeah. So best thing to do is to reach out to our admissions team. Our admissions counselors are all art teachers and faculty members and just really knowledgeable about the degree program and can help you understand how it works, how you can reach your goals and make the best decision possible.

So you can reach out to us at or we can link the form that you can fill out and you give us a little bit of information, when you want to start, what your goals are, and right on that form at the bottom you can schedule a meeting. So those are the best ways to reach out and get more information to make a great decision.

Tim: All right. Perfect. Thank you Shannon so much for talking to me today, for organizing the amazing graduation ceremony. And thank you to Liz and Suzanne for taking time to share their experiences about the AOEU masters program. And of course, a big congratulations to all 45 people who are now alumni of The Art of Education University.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always for listening, and we will talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.