“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
These words will sound familiar to many educators — and everybody’s journey to achieving that dream is different.
For Dr. Elizabeth “Libby” Butler, the dream now includes teaching teachers to become better teachers as an instructor in the University of San Diego’s online Master of Education degree program.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“I remember being like 5 years old and playing school,” said Dr. Butler. “I can’t ever remember thinking I was going to do anything else.” At that point, she did not have a plan for what subject or grade level she would teach, but she knew she wanted to be in the classroom.
Finding Her Path in Math
From a young age, she understood that math came very naturally to her, “but it just wasn’t fun.” She remembers feeling “like a machine,” a math nerd who could easily solve problems but without any context about how they might relate to her life or the world around her.
“Math has always been my strength, but I never enjoyed math in school.” That is, until 10th grade when she had that familiar experience of encountering a special teacher who “kind of tossed the book away and taught us contextualized, meaningful mathematics” in a way that made the learning more fun and real.
That was at Pacific Palisades Charter High School, where she graduated in 1988. Five years later, she was back at Pacific Palisades as a teacher — having earned a bachelor’s degree in math and a master of education (MEd) with a special concentration in secondary mathematics.
Not surprisingly, she takes an innovative approach to teaching math.
“Schools are broken when it comes to mathematics,” she said. “There’s this canon of math that gets tested,” but much of the teaching “is about memorizing routines and not about critical thinking.”
When you look beyond the formulas and equations and structures, you realize that “everyone explores the world and solves problems in ways that involve mathematics naturally,” she said. Dr. Butler believes in “rehumanizing math” for students in ways that make them more likely to become “creative problem solvers.”
As her career continued, she developed a growing interest in educational research — becoming a passionate student of the different educational theories and teaching models “that impact school achievement in diverse learning environments with a social justice lens.”
In 2011, she earned her Ph.D. in urban education and leadership.
Today, part of her practice is focused on educational innovation, with a strong interest in new and progressive ways to effectively connect with diverse populations of students and engage them in their own education.
Part of this is “trying to make sure that a general education classroom is a safe space for all neurodiverse learners,” she said. In terms of how this connects to math, “my focus has specifically intensified toward equitable mathematics instruction and redefining core math learning.”
Teaching Teachers at University of San Diego
Teaching at the university level was a natural progression for Dr. Butler, whose areas of specialization at the University of San Diego MEd program includes Curriculum & Instruction, Literacy & Digital Learning, Inclusive Learning and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics).
When she started at USD in 2014, “That was right when they were adding the ‘A’ into STEM, and it all just really made sense because real mathematical thinking is artistic if you allow the opportunity for it.”
In terms of the on-campus vs. the online educational experience, Dr. Butler had previously gained some experience teaching in an on-campus setting and says that when she joined the team at USD’s innovative, online MEd program, “I was shocked at how well I get to know my students.”
This was before videoconferencing became commonplace, so the connection was not formed from regular face-to-face interaction. Instead, “I got to know them from the standpoint of their writing, and their reflections — and so I really felt connected to the students.”
“I love being able to watch the progression of learning and understanding unfold for students within the different courses,” she said. But it’s not just about writing to please the teacher. “The design of the courses really gives students opportunities to engage with each other.”
The USD program features built-in discussion boards that each student is required to participate in. This means each student gains valuable perspectives from fellow educators working in different subject areas and locations, sometimes sharing insights on how they handled a similar teaching challenge.
“There’s really no way to hide in an online class,” she said, because students are continually challenged with mandatory writing assignments. “In the discussion boards everyone participates, whereas in a classroom it’s very easy for a student who’s unsure of their ideas to just listen and not actually share, and I think that learning happens through dialogue.”
Another advantage of the asynchronous, online format of the University of San Diego’s Master of Education program is that it is designed to create maximum flexibility for busy classroom teachers or administrators to earn their degree in as little as 20 months while working full time.
“Engaging with students through the online platform is convenient and flexible,” said Dr. Butler, noting that the school also “provides structure and digital tools that help me to build relationships with students as I support their learning.”
For educators who may be considering earning their MEd the University of San Diego offers five distinct specializations designed to give advanced degree candidates the opportunity to take an even deeper dive into key areas of interest. Areas of specialization include:
- STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics)
- Inclusive learning: Special Education and Universal Design (UDL)
- Curriculum and Instruction
- Literacy and Digital Learning
- School Leadership
“This program is very accessible for any student seeking to increase their capacity as an educator,” explained Dr. Butler.
Any final words of advice?
“Make sure you have adequate time to fully engage in the course materials and with your fellow students. Take advantage of office hours. The instructors in this program are eager to engage with students, with individual interactions being the most enjoyable part of the work. Do not hesitate to reach out, even if it’s just to chat.”