This blog post was written by guest contributor Rebekah Poe

I remember a day in 2017 when I was working as a special education paraprofessional. A student I was helping was mad because he had so much work to do for homework and “these teachers just don’t understand.”

Imagine the look on his face when I told him that I had homework, too.

Students view teachers as just that: teachers. They see us teach information, assign work and grade tests. However, it is especially important that they see us learn.

I remember being in elementary school. I thought my teachers were magical creatures who knew everything and not only taught in the school, but probably lived there, as well. Seeing a teacher outside of his or her natural habitat, in the grocery store for example, was like seeing a unicorn. Plus,I had to make sure to tell the teacher I saw her the next day in class.

I remember being in middle school. Awkward growth spurts, impossible-to-remember locker combinations and class schedules. I thought teachers were out to embarrass me by asking me to read part of a chapter aloud in front of everyone. Ugh, the nerve!

And then came high school. AP classes, dual-enrollment endless assignments — I thought my teachers were robots, trying to input as much knowledge as they could into my brain, which was already jam-packed with college application essays and visions of prom.

No matter the grade, I never really thought about ways my teachers and I related to one another. They were the teachers. They told us what to do and we had to do it. They had the college degree and the career. They had achieved what I believed to be ultimate adult success — they never had to go to school again.

Fast forward to me, a 27-year-old wife and mom, realizing I had dreams beyond a bachelor’s degree. Things I wanted to achieve. And I wouldn’t unless I went back to school.

I was working full time as a paraprofessional, but my dreams were bigger than that. I saw changes in special education that needed to be made, but I wasn’t in a position where I could make them. So, I decided to enroll in an online master’s degree program that offered me the flexibility to continue to work and not have to sacrifice all my time with my family. I could set my own schedule and work on assignments when I wanted. It was the best choice I could have made.

And I realized something. My teachers, from elementary to middle to high school, were just like me. They worked all day. They had families. They had interests outside of teaching (shocking, I know). And like me, they desired to be the best they could be for their students.

Working as an educator during the day and living the student life at night sounds like an oxymoron. During the day, I created lesson plans. At night, I read my professor’s syllabus. During the day, I lead small groups for academic instruction. At night, I participated in group discussion boards. During the day, I graded papers. At night, I watched my online classroom constantly for my grades to be posted. It was like a secret identity.

Only it wasn’t a secret. Most of the students I saw knew I was going back to college.

“Aren’t you too old for college?”

You’re never too old.

“I thought you were a mom.”

Yes, and a student. It’s possible to be both.

“Don’t you already have a degree?”

Yes, but I want to learn more and get another one so I can do more.

I fielded all those questions all the time. And most of the time, the students’ responses were something mind-blowing like “Oh ok, cool.” But every time I answered their questions, I was setting an example.

When we are learning to teach, we are taught to model concepts for our students so they can learn to do them the correct way. It’s the same when we go back to school. We are modeling being life-long learners.

We have the unique opportunity to lead our students by example. Our students watch everything we do. Why not let them see us taking pride in ourselves and our careers? Why not let them see us work hard to achieve our goals? Why not let them see us go back to school?

Going back to school makes teachers more relatable to students. That student I mentioned earlier? We ended up having a lengthy conversation about the fact that I was in school just like him. I had assignments to turn in and tests to take just like him. We talked about the fact that even though it’s hard, it will help us in the long run. We were in this together. He respected me for it.

It also shows students that teachers do not know everything. It used to be that if a student asked a question, and I didn’t know the answer, I felt like a fraud. But I realized that students need to see their teachers not know stuff. We need to set the example for what to do when we don’t know the answers. “I’m not sure; let me do some research, and I’ll get back to you.” Then I learn something new and can pass it on to my students, who also learn something new.

Finally, it shows our students that learning new skills isn’t something that stops just because you reach a certain age or grade or degree level. There is always something else to learn. Something else you can improve upon. Another goal you can achieve. Education isn’t about reaching a finish line; it’s about the journey. Going back to school shows our students that our own journey isn’t finished. And it can push them to go further than they ever anticipated they would.

So be the example. Model being a life-long learner. Show your students that you won’t settle, and neither should they. They’ll remember you for it.

One of the best ways to continue being a model for your students is to learn from practitioners with experience in the field. The University of West Alabama offers two online Master of Education in Special Education for grades K-6 and 6-12. Through the convenience of the online classroom at one of the most affordable institutions in the state, you’ll be prepared to intervene and effect positive, lasting change in your students’ lives. Learn more about the programs today and inspire your students through your academic journey.

Rebekah Poe is a sixth-grade teacher in Birmingham, AL. You can follow her on Instagram.