When David McElhannon landed a job as a middle school director, he made the strategic decision to earn a master's degree.
"I felt like I needed to have some paper to back it up," he said. "I did a search on the internet for price versus quality in graduate programs. University of Texas of the Permian Basin came up as being one of the better programs in terms of bang for your buck. I agree with that assessment."
McElhannon graduated from the Master of Arts in Educational Leadership online program at UTPB with a 4.0 GPA in May 2019. He is now teaching ethics and history at Westminster Schools of Augusta in Georgia.
"The program is rigorous but also relevant. While I was working on my degree, I found it interesting that the classes I was taking generally had some kind of application to what was going on at the school."
Long before McElhannon returned to college, he was using strategy in gaming as an educational tool, a hobby that has grown stronger throughout the years.
"I have about 30,000 miniature figures I put on a table to recreate battles," he said. "I have Civil War figures, World War II figures. It engages my students. I will often sponsor a strategy club where we also talk about the history behind it. It's pretty cool."
The flexibility of the online format allowed McElhannon to earn a degree while running a K3-12 school, spending time with his wife, Leslie, and reimagining history.
"The ability to work on weekends and work at home in the evenings was big," he said. "As a traditional student, I would not have been able to do it. I have a house payment and a family to provide for. There's just no way I could have kept a full-time job and gone to school if I had to come to campus."
After growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, McElhannon enlisted in the United States Army, where he served in the armored cavalry.
"I would have kept doing it, but it damaged my hearing," he said. "There were lots of bangs and lots of loud noises. I did three years in the Army and was done, which sent me back to school."
McElhannon graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and history from Tennessee's Cumberland University in 1991 and became a cartographer.
"I realized that I was losing my mind sitting in a cubicle drawing maps all day long," he said. "A friend of mine suggested that I substitute teach once a week and get out of the house.
"There was a private Christian school I had a connection with because I was a guest lecturer there a couple of times. I thought there was no way they were going to hire me, but they did. This is my 19th year of teaching, which is my third career."
Judy Cripps, who gave McElhannon that first teaching opportunity, eventually encouraged him to strive for an administration role.
"When you look at the education field, there is a ceiling on what teachers can make," he said. "My wife and I discussed it, and we decided it was time for the next step. That's when I got a position as a middle school director and did that for two years."
McElhannon enjoyed the entire curriculum in the online MA in Educational Leadership program as he was getting his feet wet in leadership.
"All of the courses were good," he said. "I especially liked the practicum. I got to know Dr. Kevin Badgett well. We talked via Skype for a couple of hours once a week. It was almost like being in class but not having to really be in class.
"The UTPB faculty was very responsive and accommodating. They said on the front end, 'We understand you have a real world.'"
Even though McElhannon is back in the classroom, he believes the graduate degree has already created opportunities in his career.
"The school I am teaching at is pretty prestigious," he said. "Christian schools come in a couple of varieties — some of them are less academic and more of an alternative to public schools. This one has more of a prep school feel to it.
"I worked at a small school that had small-school problems. I am a little burned out. I am glad to be teaching again, but I wouldn't mind stepping back up into administration someday and being head of school."
In the meantime, McElhannon has plenty on his plate. He and Leslie have been taking annual mission trips for the last nine years.
"That's another way I think UTPB is accommodating," he said. "After one class started, I could take 10 days and go to Budapest, Hungary. My professors accommodated that because it wasn't like a vacation. I was working over there."
Attending UTPB also led to an unexpected three-week trip to China shortly after McElhannon graduated from the master's degree program.
He got an email from Dr. Badgett about a UTPB graduate who was looking for volunteers for a summer program in conjunction with an international baccalaureate experimental school.
"We lived with a Chinese family and worked with them one on one," he said. "We didn't get paid, but they paid for most of the trip. The whole thing cost us $800, including the visas, hotel and transportation. The purpose was educational, but there were mission elements to it."
McElhannon is happy with the entire experience of returning to college and solidifying his career as an educator and an administrator.
"My mom, Sue Brown, was particularly proud," he said. "She always wanted me to go on for a master's degree. I finished up undergrad, got married and went into the workforce. I am the first one in the family to go to college. Now, I am the first one in the family to have achieved a master's degree."
As for McElhannon's advice on strategy for potential MA in Educational Leadership online students?
"I would say be as organized as you can be, and be ready to run on day one. The program runs along at a pretty good clip — every seven weeks, it turns.
Learn more about the UTPB online MA in Educational Leadership program.
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