Master of Arts in Education paves the way to new job, new skills and an invaluable network for Cedar Rapids teacher

When Matthew Brems ’13, enrolled in the Masters of Arts in Education (MAEd) program at Mount Mercy University, he had recently returned to Iowa following a nearly three-year teaching stint in Arizona. After he began his job search in Iowa, he quickly realized that full-time teaching gigs were not easy to land in the Cedar Rapids area, and he began picking up substitute teaching jobs while he continued his job search and, like many other graduate students, began taking MAEd courses to help him get a leg up on other applicants. With a great grandmother who was in one of the first graduating classes from Mount Mercy and parents who met at Mount Mercy, the university was a natural fit for continuing his education.

“Matt initially started the program looking to earn his reading endorsement and get his foot in the door for a full-time teaching position,” said Dr. Dawn Behan, associate professor of education and program director for the MAEd. “As he progressed in the program, his mindset changed, and he was incredibly coachable and almost thirsty for feedback and learning.”

Brems did not know when he enrolled in his first class that his graduate coursework would ultimately be the ticket to the job he holds now.

That desire to improve as a teacher quickly changed his educational pursuits from a means to an end into an incredible opportunity to jump start his career. However, what Brems did not know when he enrolled in his first class was that his graduate coursework would ultimately be the ticket to the job he holds now – 5th grade teacher at Coolidge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids.

“I actually met my current boss, Greg O’Connell, in Dr. Marc McCoy’s education leadership class,” said Brems. “He came to speak with us one night, and then I applied for my position at Coolidge and realized that I already knew the principal through the graduate program.”

That serendipitous meeting with Principal O’Connell was not the only impactful connection Brems made during his studies at Mount Mercy. He also uncovered an invaluable network of faculty mentors and other teachers who he could rely on for support and advice.

“The biggest way my Mount Mercy education is helping me be a better teacher is through the community I gained,” said Brems. “Whenever I have a problem or need a resource, I know I can email anyone I graduated with or any of the professors I had and get that help.”

Brems believes his success and the success of his peers can be attributed to more than just great professional connections – it is a product of great faculty and curriculum designed to be implemented in real classrooms with kids who perform at varying aptitude levels.

“The Mount Mercy community is interested in seeing you succeed,” said Brems. “The professors are always willing and ready to help you. Almost everything we did I could also take and use in my classroom the very next day. In other classes I took through other schools or continuing education programs, it’s a lot of theory, and I really wanted something I could apply right away.”

Dr. Marc McCoy works with a group of MAEd students at the CRST International Graduate Center.

From what Behan and McCoy have found through their many years of mentoring and educating teachers, Brems is not alone in his desire for a relevant education that translates easily to real-life scenarios.

“Teachers really crave a professional development experience that lets them answer, ‘How can I use these tools with these two girls that I’m going to see at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?’” said McCoy. “I think this program tends to provide that to a much higher degree than other programs that are out there.”

Thanks to the practical courses Brems feels like his education has really helped him shape and expand his teaching skill set and the resources he uses in his classroom.

“This degree has given me a chance to reevaluate my teaching style and methods. My thesis was on the integration of technology in the classroom, and as a result of that project, my class is one of only a few classes in the district that does online learning as a part of their standard classroom experience. My kids are also usually on tablets, laptops and desktops 30 to 45 minutes every day doing assignments and other exercises.”

Brems, like many other teachers, is continually looking for new ways to integrate technology into his classroom and lesson plans. One way he does this is by using interactive white boards in his classroom,  and he was impressed Mount Mercy’s faculty has the foresight to install SMART Board technology, which combines the simplicity of a whiteboard with the power of a computer and lets teachers deliver dynamic lessons, write notes in digital ink and save their work.

Matt Brems fields questions from his 5th grade students at Coolidge Elementary School.

“It was very beneficial that Mount Mercy had SMART Board technology,” said Brems. “The ability to prepare a lesson plan or presentation for Mount Mercy and then take it and use it right away in my classroom the next morning was a huge plus.”

In every possible way, from technology to curriculum to networking, Mount Mercy’s Masters in Education has been designed to help teachers like Brems seamlessly transition what they’re doing in their courses to their classrooms, most of which are in school districts within a 50- to 60-mile radius of Cedar Rapids. Consequently, more and more Eastern Iowa teachers are better equipped to serve their students.

“Our classes are problem solving classrooms for our students,” said Behan. “A lot of times our students have these moments where they go, ‘Oh my gosh! I just learned this, and it solves a problem in my classroom.’ The education they encounter here is just very applicable to the situation that they’re in right now.”

Beyond completing his master’s degree this year, Brems is also proud of the progress his Coolidge students made and the bonds he’s forged with them.

“This year I had one student who increased her reading level by five different levels in one year, which is just one reason I find my job so fulfilling,” said Brems. “I just try to develop a great relationship with all my students both in and out of the classroom so that they get to know who I am and are comfortable with me.”

As a way to motivate student philanthropy, Brems grows his beard out for several months and allows the student who raises the most money during a Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser to shave his beard. Last year, the winning student shaved stripes into his beard.

His students would also be quick to mention the various ways Mr. Brems makes class fun – whether he is giving out high fives before school, making every Tuesday extra special by wearing a tie, grooving with his class during dance party study breaks, or growing an impressive beard from November through March just so he can let the student who raises the most money during the school’s Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser shave his beard any way he or she wants.

“The girl who raised the most money this year carved racing stripes in my beard,” said Brems. “To show the parents how much I want to be involved and a part of each student’s accomplishments, I went to five parent-teacher conferences that night with my racing stripe beard.”

Brems, who got married in August 2013, hopes to spend his summer relaxing with his wife Shaunette who is currently enrolled in Mount Mercy’s accelerated program and working toward her bachelor’s degree in business. When he returns to his classroom at Coolidge in the fall, he will have a brand new group of students to impress not only with his newly acquired teaching skills but also his high fives, tie collection and killer dance moves.

If you would like to learn more about the Master of Arts in Education program, which will add a third emphasis in teacher leadership for Fall 2014, read more online.


Written by Sara Baughman