In an age when online technologies have disrupted the way many organizations conduct their business, educational establishments haven’t been immune to the changes the internet has introduced at work and in day to day life. Learners have never had access to so much freely available educational content, often accessed with a couple of taps on a smartphone screen or the click of a mouse. Despite this seeming ea, the importance of gaining a formal education has never been more critical.
Ask Dr. Lori Piowlski, Chair Associate Professor at National University’s Teacher Education Department, the question: “Why do we need education now more than ever?” and she’ll give you some pretty definitive answers.
The Importance of Education
According to Piowlski, achieving a specific qualification as part of a formal educational program is often the only way to demonstrate that you have reached a standard level of competence in a particular field of expertise. This qualification ultimately gives you “permission” to follow a career in your chosen profession.
“You wouldn’t want a doctor or a lawyer that wasn’t prepared effectively to help you,” says Piowlski. “It’s exactly the same in teaching and many other professions.”
Piowlski highlights the importance of accreditation in guaranteeing these levels of professional preparedness.
“In teaching, there are accreditation standards that we have to meet to be a teacher,” says Piowlski. “These standards ensure that all teachers are prepared in the same manner to be able to effectively teach every single learner.”
But this doesn’t mean that education is an immovable force and should not welcome change or adapt to experiences formed outside of the classroom.
“Education needs to change and we recognize that here at National University,” says Piowlski. “Particularly with adult learners, I think we have to acknowledge everything they have done prior to coming back to education and look for useful connections. If we can help them bridge the connections between what they’ve done and what they are going to do, it will create more relevant and more engaging educational experiences for everyone.”
A Passion for Teaching
Change is something that has always excited Piowlski, who moved from the K-12 educational environment to higher education, crossed state lines, and embraced new online methods of teaching. However, Piowlski didn’t always want to be a teacher.
“I always said I would never be a teacher,” says Piowlski. “I grew up in Minnesota where a lot of my family members were teachers. I honestly didn’t want to do what everyone else in my family had done. I wanted to make more money! I was really inspired to be a lawyer.”
Despite her aspirations to follow a career in law, her “true” calling in life began to nudge at her — and she couldn’t ignore it.
“I started teaching piano when I was just a sophomore in high school,” says Piowlski. “I loved every minute that I spent with my students, watching them grow and struggle. I think you learn the most when you face your struggles and that was one of the things I wanted to instill in my students. I wanted to say, ‘It’s OK to struggle, it’s OK to have that conflict inside of you that says this is hard, learning’s hard — but that’s when you grow the most.’ So I think that piano teaching gave me that and instilled the love of teaching in me.”
While at college, she reflected on her time as a piano teacher and realized she had to follow her calling to teach.
“I gave in to my calling and became an educator but I couldn’t decide between special education and general education — so I got my bachelor’s in both,” says Piowlski. “After graduating, I went to a job fair and the whole state of California was there recruiting. I had never even left the state of Minnesota, so I found a contract and moved out here and taught my first classroom in first grade.”
Piowlski stayed in California for 14 years, teaching special education and general education to students from pre-K level all the way through to 12th grade. She then moved back to Minnesota to raise her family. While taking this career break, Piowlski decided to study for her Ph.D.
“I got my Ph.D. because that’s something I’d always wanted to do and I wanted to show my kids that with perseverance you can do anything,” says Piowlski. “They were in school, so it wasn’t easy.”
Life as an Adult Learner
Piowlski believes her experience of studying for her Ph.D. while raising her family helped prepare her for her role at National University where the majority of her students are adult learners.
“I think I lived the life of my students here at National,” says Piowlski. “So I think I can relate to them much easier in so many respects. I had to do the same things as them, juggling study with family life after not being in school for the past eight to ten years. I think I can understand their experience pretty well.”
Piowlski believes her own experiences as an adult learner make her more sympathetic to the challenges of returning to education and better placed to offer support and advice.
“The struggle and challenges for an adult learner can really put a lot of stress on them, making them question ‘Why is college important?’” says Piowlski. “They have so many things to balance and manage, and time is their enemy mostly. I think most of my conversations with our students right now are about figuring out their time management — and not feeling guilty about putting time and energy into their preparation work and classes which takes them away from their families.”
Piowlski explains to her students that successful time management is often more about making good use of the time you have and not trying to find more of it.
“I worked on my homework when my kids were doing their homework,” says Piowlski. “I was up in the stands and on the fields at football games with my computer doing my work. I never missed anything, I was there, I was present but I was also having to multitask on my own stuff. I think one of the challenges with adult learners is giving them permission. It’s OK to feel that way. It’s OK to know that I’m being pulled in two directions and have that guilty feeling of not giving 100% into either. You’ve got to give yourself permission that it’s OK.”
Discovering National University and Moving Back to the Ocean
With her family settled in Minnesota, Piowlski had no plans to uproot and move back to California — until she was introduced to an opportunity at National University.
“I was at a conference and all of these NU professors were there presenting,” says Piowlsi. “I ended up talking with them and having a lot of really great conversations. They had this love for National University that was just contagious. They had a common bond of understanding of what they wanted to achieve as agents of change in classrooms across the whole country and I thought this was really interesting.”
This chance encounter led to a job offer that Piowlski initially declined.
“They let me know that there was a job opening as a chair of the largest teacher training program in California and I went ‘Oh — I’m not ready for that’,” says Piowlski.
It took a great deal of persistence and some gentle persuasion to make her change her mind.
“They kept pestering me and sending me pictures of the ocean,” says Piowlski. “Finally, after four months, I applied. Here I am now and I’ve never looked back.”
Online Learning and the Four-Week Class Format
Piowlski believes the opportunities National University’s flexible online degree programs offer adult learners —helping them balance work and family commitments around their studies — are invaluable when it comes to time management. In particular, Piowlski highlights National University’s unique four-week class format as something that makes returning to education more accessible for more people.
“I hear it over and over again,” says Piowlski. “The four-week class format allows them to focus on one course at a time. Being able to focus on one topic, even though it is intense, is much more manageable for many of our adult learners than having three classes going on for four or five months. It definitely helps.”
This greater level of flexibility creates opportunities for a more diverse student population at National University. This is something Piowlski and the wider faculty are very proud of.
“There is no typical student at National University,” says Piowlski. “It’s so wide-ranging, we have people that are from ages 24 all the way up to 60. I know that National University is producing the most diverse teacher workforce in the state of California than any other program, which is exciting in itself.”
According to Piowlski, helping to create a more diverse population of teachers is empowering and will help foster changes that create greater educational opportunities for marginalized communities.
“The typical teacher right now across the country is white, female, and middle-class,” says Piowlski. “We are talking about 80% of the teaching profession. Our program is very diverse and that’s something that we need to be proud of. We like to call it dynamics of difference. How do we empower cultural differences rather than marginalize them?”
Piowlski believes this approach makes National University stand out and creates a welcoming environment where students and faculty members can challenge themselves.
“I think we are a different type of university than any other university out there,” says Piowlski. “I’ve learned that the diverse student population that we have at National University really sets us apart and helps creates an environment where everybody looks outside of the box. When you work in this environment, you can make change happen faster.” Empowering cultural differences is just one area that Piowlski believes needs to change in education.
“The mind shift in teachers needs to change,” says Piowlski. “I think it’s changing with the new generation of teachers who are embracing looking at students from an asset lens rather than a deficit lens. What I mean by that is that you don’t talk about struggling readers or IEP (Individual Education Plan) students, we talk about students who are supported in our IEP. Similarly, we look at our EL (English Language) learners as having an asset that they are bringing to the table not that they don’t have English language proficiency. Looking at where students are coming from is so vitally important.”
Why Do We Need Education?
Piowlski recommends that anyone considering a return to education should first ask themselves a few simple questions to ascertain the importance of education in their future lives.
“The biggest question is: ‘Why?’” says Piowlski. “‘What are my motives? What are my passions?’ — because you’ve got to have a passion for education to survive. ‘What are my capacities? Am I doing it for personal fulfillment? Am I doing it to increase my income?’” She adds that it’s important for prospective students to understand the dynamics of the challenges they are going to face. “Do they have that perseverance and that resilience and that self-advocacy for what type of program they are going to choose?” These answers are an important part of the decision-making process.
The decisions made after answering these questions can be life-changing. Piowlski finds a great deal of inspiration in the journey many of her adult learners.
“They constantly inspired me with their stories,” says Piowlski. “You just listen to their stories and what they are doing to overcome their struggles, to get to a better place, or to achieve their dreams —it’s incredible.”
All of this dedication and hard work are rewarded at graduation.
“Being at graduation is amazing,” says Piowlski. “Watching their families and their pride, walking across that stage is just great. These students have such perseverance, stamina and desire to do better. They inspire me constantly and I think they inspire the faculty.”
Piowlski regularly counsels the faculty to look to the student body to remind them of the importance of education.
“At every faculty meeting, I make sure I bring the student voice with me,” says Piowlski. “I think that sometimes we as faculty can get into a day-to-day drudge of just working through all the challenges that we have. But if we bring it back to the student voice and understanding exactly why we are doing what we are doing, it changes the perspective and the conversation — and that’s what inspires me.”
Rediscover the Importance of Education for Yourself
If you have a desire to rediscover the importance of education and work towards your true potential, National University offers adult learners a wide variety of online and on campus degree programs. To learn more and begin your journey back into education, visit the program finder page on our website.