We had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Tara Wilson, EdD, literacy program coordinator for our online Master of Arts in Literacy program. Her journey from kindergarten teacher to reading specialist to program coordinator serves as an inspiration to her graduate students, who are strengthening their understanding of literacy under her guidance. Through her students, Dr. Wilson hopes to make a difference in the lives of struggling readers—or as she prefers to call them, striving readers.
Getting a Push in the Right Direction
Like many of our graduate students, Dr. Wilson considered a career in literacy after witnessing kindergarten students struggle to grasp reading and writing concepts. “I personally never struggled with reading and writing,” reflected Dr. Wilson. “It just came naturally to me, so I want to help people who have difficulties, or help people who will help people.” Dr. Wilson taught kindergarten for seven years before becoming a literacy specialist and earning her Doctorate in Education in literacy from Sam Houston State University. It’s here where Dr. Wilson would be taught by one of her role models, Diana Nabors.
“I would not, and I know this sounds cheesy, be here if it wasn’t for her,” said Dr. Wilson. “When I graduated, Diana Nabors said, ‘Tara, would you like to teach a class for us?’” Despite Dr. Wilson’s initial doubts—she was a recent graduate and had never before taught an undergraduate course—Diana Nabors continued to encourage her. “‘You can do more than what you think you can,’ is what she told me,” said Dr. Wilson. “She opened the door for me, and I hope I’m like her to my graduate students.”
Joining UT Permian Basin
Dr. Wilson didn’t know exactly where she’d land after earning her doctorate, but she hoped to join a university where she could pass on her expertise to up-and-coming educators. Her hopes were realized after joining The University of Texas Permian Basin.
Dr. Wilson spoke of UT Permian Basin’s College of Education with pride, having been with the college for four years now. “The College of Education is the best college at UT Permian Basin,” beamed Dr. Wilson, “and I tell everyone that, the president, the provost, everyone.” According to Dr. Wilson, the College of Education is elevated by a tight-knit group of educators with extensive experience in the field. “I know that it might sound cliché,” she explained, “but the people here are like a family.”
Coordinating the Master of Arts in Literacy Program
The MA in literacy program allows educators across the State of Texas to strengthen their understanding of literacy in a convenient, supportive online learning environment. Through the program, graduate students learn how to assess reading strengths, create intervention plans, and collaborate with others for the benefit of striving readers. The goal of the program, as Dr. Wilson described it, is to empower educators to act in their students’ best interests. “Public school teachers are bound to a curriculum,” explained Dr. Wilson, “so we’re just trying to help our students realize that that doesn’t really need to be the case.”
The MA in literacy program further empowers educators by helping them meet the Texas Education Agency (TEA)’s requirements for reading specialist certification. “Right now—knock on wood—we have a 100% pass rate,” said Dr. Wilson. To what does she attribute this flawless pass rate? “We don’t teach for the test,” she explained. “We just make sure that what happens in our courses are aligned with the standards. And the standards, of course, are what are tested.” Lectures, reading assignments, and group discussions prepare graduate students to not only reach a broader range of readers but also earn their reading specialist certification. Graduate students are given a practice test and participate in a study session prior to being released to take the certificate exam.
The way Dr. Wilson described the MA in literacy program, with such enthusiasm and attention to detail, is a testament to why the program is a success.
“I am also in charge of trying to keep up with updating our courses,” said Dr. Wilson, “and [Assistant Professor] Dr. Landreth helps me with that, too, as standards change, as times change.” Thanks to the combined efforts of Dr. Wilson and Shelly Landreth, EdD, the online program incorporates the latest in literacy education and online best practices. “We try to keep our courses updated in relevance to what’s going on now and not when the dinosaurs roamed the earth,” joked Dr. Wilson.
Opening the Door for Students
Dr. Wilson spoke at length about her students, recalling names and recounting events with an affinity that denotes her dedication to their success. “We know our students,” said Dr. Wilson. “I can tell you their names. I can tell you where they’re teaching. We really try to get to know them as a person and not a number.”
Dr. Wilson shared an account of a graduate student who was able to work one-on-one with a striving reader in her practicum course. “She found what the issue was, and now she can help this particular student become a better speller,” said Dr. Wilson. “When the school year begins again, she has this in her toolbox to approach spelling in a different way, in a better way.”
Another student, Valarie Shreves, was able to become an adjunct professor at UT Permian Basin after completing the MA in literacy program. “[Valarie] had never thought about college level, and now that’s something she wants to pursue because of this program.” Dr. Wilson, who once had a door opened for her, now strives to do the same for her graduate students. “If I see a student who I think would be good at teaching a course for us, then I ask them. I don’t ask all of them,” said Dr. Wilson, “but you never know. I like to give them that opportunity because someone gave me that opportunity.”
Affirming the Importance of Reading Specialists
“I think every single campus everywhere should have a reading specialist,” said Dr. Wilson. “Could you imagine if you had a person who was dedicated to working with those striving readers, who could pull them out of class to do some coaching, some modeling, and they didn’t have to focus on anything else but helping those kids, those striving kids, get where they need to be?”
The need for reading specialists is apparent to classroom teachers who’ve witnessed students fall behind their peers. However, whether or not they hold a reading specialist position, graduates of our literacy program are better able to enrich the lives of students. “By going through the program,” said Dr. Wilson, “you’re learning how you can work with your striving readers and writers … You’re getting to learn best practices and go more in-depth with reading and writing issues.”
Advocating for Literacy Education
According to Dr. Wilson, many educators who join her literacy program to explore their love of literacy graduate with an entirely new outlook. “At the end of the program, you’re like ‘wow!’” exclaimed Dr. Wilson. “‘Now I know why students do this and how to approach that. I now know things that I didn’t know before.’” Graduates of our literacy program are able to apply their expanded knowledge in the classroom and intervene when a reader is having trouble decoding a word, comprehending a passage, or retaining information. For literacy advocates, there’s perhaps no better reward than seeing a student’s love of reading ignited.
Does Dr. Wilson have any parting advice for prospective students? “Give it a try,” encouraged Dr. Wilson. “You’re obviously thinking about getting a master’s because you care about students. This is a way to help strengthen your craft, and when you strengthen your craft, you’re helping the students in your classroom.” A literacy advocate, Dr. Wilson continues to help striving readers by empowering educators. We encourage educators interested in becoming literacy advocates themselves to apply to our online Master of Arts in Literacy program. In the program, educators find exactly what they need to succeed academically and professionally: a devoted teacher and words of encouragement.