A Sun Devil education: Middle school teacher earns master's degree

Alexandra Paul poses with her toddler next to a bougainvilla shrub.

Alexandra Paul is graduating from ASU this spring with a master's in English. “I have pushed myself to the limits this year, being a full time student, full-time mom, and full-time, first-year teacher. Even though it was challenging, stressful, and not ideal, I'm blessed to have my students, my family and the opportunity to continue my education as a Sun Devil."


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

The advice to make lemonade when life gives you lemons certainly applies to how Arizona State University student Alexandra Paul has been managing these last few years.

The former Sarasota, Florida, resident moved to Phoenix three years ago to be nearer to family. It was also around that time that she realized she wanted to become a teacher. She decided on ASU.

"I started my undergraduate in 2018, shortly after having my son and losing my dad suddenly within two months of each other,” she said.

She threw herself into her studies, finding solace and inspiration in being able to soak up knowledge.

“Everything in my program was incredible and I learned so much. I was ready to become a teacher and couldn't wait until I was able to have my own classroom.”

During spring 2020, Paul was finishing her bachelor’s degree in education at ASU, having a ball while student teaching. She also had a job lined up for the next fall; she’d be teaching eighth grade English language arts. Life was good. “I said goodbye to my amazing students when they went on spring break.”

But then: “We never came back.”

While disappointed that she couldn’t finish her semester of classes and student teaching in a traditional way, Paul made the best of the situation and completed her degree that spring. She was also hooked on learning. Since she would be starting her new job virtually anyway, she reasoned, why not work toward another degree, this time online?

“I chose to apply for my master’s so that I could continue learning and being prepared for my students,” Paul said. She may have wondered whether she bit off more than she could chew, but she didn’t give up. “I have pushed myself to the limits this year, being a full time student, full-time mom and full-time, first-year teacher. Even though it was challenging, stressful and not ideal, I'm blessed to have my students, my family and the opportunity to continue my education as a Sun Devil."

Paul is earning her second pandemic-era degree this spring: a Master of Arts in English via ASU Online. She’ll also be participating in her second online commencement. She’s not thrilled about another virtual ceremony, but she’s still grateful she can celebrate completing her degree.

“It has been quite an adventure,” she said.

We caught up with Paul while she was catching up with her toddler, to find out a bit more about her two ASU degree stories.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: My “aha” moment is a little complicated because of previous schooling. I graduated high school in 2010 and immediately went to college for hospitality management. My first semester was met with a lot of tragedy and I tried to push through another year in that program before realizing how hard of a time I was having at that university. I moved away for an internship and took a break from school, just doing classes here and there. When we moved out to Arizona, I decided I should at least get my AA and found out I was only five classes away from earning that degree, so I did. After I earned my degree, I was trying to plan out what I should do, and my parents brought up the fact that I loved kids and English literature and it clicked. I decided that I was going to go into teaching and here I am. I wanted to further my education by going into the MA program because I want to make sure that I can provide as much information and understanding of English and literature to my students.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I truly learned so much while being at ASU but I was introduced to how widely spread out English is during my master’s program. I don't have a specific course during this program that surprised me because all of them introduced me to different aspects of English that I never imagined. I was introduced to stories that blew my mind because there were aspects of literature that I had never known about. I was shocked by how far back words went in the English language and how much language changed throughout time. I have been able already to take so many of the skills I have learned from the program and bring them into my own classroom. I can see the difference in myself as a person and in my views about English and literature in the classroom. It's not all about learning the same information that we've been taught; there is so much more that could be taught in the classroom and I hope that we can get to that point eventually.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: After deciding that I was going to go into teaching, I did a lot of research on what school would be the best for what I wanted to do. My decision was further made by not the most positive situation. We planned to move from Flagstaff to Phoenix because my dad suddenly got sick, and they were going to move to Phoenix so we could all be together. I looked into ASU and the other schools down here but just always came back to ASU. There was just some kind of connection whenever I looked at the school page and so I applied. I’m so grateful I got in and am earning both of my degrees with the school, I know my dad would be thrilled to know that I was going to ASU and that makes it all the better.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: That’s a difficult question because there have been so many during my time here. (Faculty Associate in education) Teri Thomsen taught me to make sure I understand that my students have lives outside of school. Sometimes they go through real life situations that can be difficult and (I should make sure) to give them grace and understanding. I have taken (this advice) into my first year and amplified it because of how this year has been. (Assistant Professor of English) Gabriel Acevedo opened my eyes to literature that students can connect to and encouraged me throughout the semester not to second-guess myself.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Breathe. I know this isn’t easy and there are going to be moments where you want to give up but just breathe. Try to stay present and focus on the now. You can’t fix anything in the past and there is no use worrying about the future every moment of your life. Stay present and breathe. You can do this.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: Pre-pandemic when I was on campus for my undergraduate, it was either in the library on the West campus or in the top floor study rooms in one of the buildings. During my graduate program, since it was all online, anywhere I could find peace from a three-year-old was ideal. It hasn’t been easy, but I have learned to appreciate the quiet moments.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My goal currently is to finish my first year of teaching eighth grade. I plan on continuing teaching at the middle school level for at least another year. I would love to get into a high school at some point because that’s my end goal for teaching. I want to try and find ways to use some of the research and ideas I have had this year to better schools and curriculum, but I know that’s a very, very long-term goal.

My short-term goal is actually trying to relax a little bit this summer. I’ve been going non-stop with schooling since 2018 (summer semesters included) and I am a bit tired. I’m ready to focus on being the best teacher I can be and putting my all into that and my family.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: This is a really difficult question because there are so many things that I would do with $40 million to help improve issues that we have on our planet. As an educator, there are daily situations that break my heart when it comes to my students’ lives, and I can't imagine how much more challenging those issues are in other countries around the world. I would use the money to make sure that children have access to food every day, no matter what. I have personal experience with students not eating at home, not having access to the right foods, but then being expected to function all day. I have provided breakfast for my students and snacks in my classroom, but they come to school with only having eaten school lunch. Though this year lunch and breakfast is free, I would use the money to make sure that students don't have to ever pay for breakfast and lunch. I know that it is a struggle with children around the world and children should never have to worry about making it through the day without nutrition.

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