Master’s student Charlie Cornelius, right, teaches a 10th-grade class at Dunbar High with fellow teacher Henry Johnson.

Today’s teaching degrees are anything but cookie-cutter. The industry trend toward not-so-textbook master’s programs helps education professionals specialize in what secondary schools need most: Strong school leaders as well as teachers who can reach students from a variety of backgrounds.

These focused teaching degrees offer more flexibility in finding a job — and perhaps a bigger paycheck.

Even some teachers-in-training might not know the full slate of possibilities, says Christopher Kamar, 28, who will earn a master’s in education leadership from George Mason University in December.

“People who have been through their first career and are looking into teaching or some field in education are looking at a lot more options than just being in the classroom or being certified in a specific subject,” says Kamar, who was poised for a pharmacology career before he started substitute teaching.


Education Leadership

Kamar’s options led him to enroll in GMU’s master’s in education leadership with an eye toward leading one of Fairfax County’s six pre-professional academies, which are high schools with classes that help students enter the workforce. Kamar now teaches a pharmacy technician course at one of them, West Potomac High in Alexandria.

The education leadership program targets teachers who want to work in school administration, perhaps as a principal or a superintendent. The George Washington University, Howard University and the University of Maryland also offer education leadership degrees.

“Most people will be looking for an assistant principal job right out of our program,” says S. David Brazer, associate professor and coordinator of George Mason’s Education Leadership Program.

With the master’s degree and an eye toward a job that’s higher on the totem pole, education leadership grads stand to earn more money than your average teacher, Brazer adds.

It takes most of the program’s 275 students, who are typically full-time teachers, two years to complete the program, which includes an internship. Besides covering such education-degree staples as curriculum development, students learn to manage both finances and employees.

“They learn how to analyze schools and school districts from a more general perspective than the view of an individual classroom teacher,” Brazer says.

Next, students identify problem areas at the schools where they’re interning and create and implement action plans to address them.

“The internship piece is really what appeals to me,” Kamar says. “The activities they have outlined for us and the standards that we have to meet really give us an advantage as far as what it’s like to be a real administrator.”


Urban Education

Not all teachers want to leave the classroom to be an administrator. Those passionate about helping at-risk students can hone their skills with a master’s degree in urban education from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland or the University of the District of Columbia.

Urban educators learn how to teach effectively in a classroom where many students arrive unprepared, several grade-levels behind and with life challenges that distract them from school, says Julie Sweetland, director of the Urban Teacher Academy at UDC’s Center for Urban Education.

Second-year students in UDC’s urban education programs work in local schools.

Of course, Sweetland is quick to point out that “most things about urban education are the same as rural, suburban, private — whatever you want to say. The heart of great teaching stays the same no matter where you are.”

In the first year of their two-year program, UDC’s master’s students are in class full-time studying theories of urban education. They spend the second year as employed, paid teachers, while still enrolled part-time at UDC. “That allows us to bring a mentor to your classroom to support you through your first year of teaching,” Sweetland says.

“What I like about our program is it feels like specific training for teaching in D.C.,” says Charlie Cornelius, 29, who will earn a master’s from UDC next spring and teaches a 10th-grade world history class at Dunbar High School in Northwest D.C.

“There’s a lot of what I’m learning that wouldn’t be applicable to teaching in the most affluent place in the world, but is really applicable to what we’re doing.”


Special Education

Special education is another in-the-classroom job with a twist. Special-ed instructors focus on traditional subjects such as math, science and history, but they adapt the teaching methods to work for children with mental and physical challenges.

“The special educators who come from this program understand how to service the community in which they teach,” says Teressa Papproth, 48, who is studying elementary special ed at the University of Maryland and wants to start a nonprofit that provides after-care to special-needs kids. “We have specific classes that we take on understanding how students transition not only from elementary to middle and middle to high school, but out into the community and workplace.”

At UMD, students can specialize based on the type of disability or based on the students’ age range. Everyone takes classes in subjects such as math, social sciences and English before moving into special-education classes. The students also spend two or three mornings a week helping out as teachers in a classroom.

“Our special educators know how to collaborate … they know how to modify the materials, they know how to adapt or help students access it,” says M. Lynn Brown, who works for the program.

You can also earn a degree in special education at George Washington, GMU, the University of Virginia, American University and Howard.


English as a Second Language

If you want to teach in a classroom and have a knack for language, check out programs in teaching English as a second language (ESL). It could make landing a job easier.

“There’s a high demand for ESL teachers here, which is a big perk in the job market,” says Jennifer Hanger, 27, who will earn an ESL master’s from Marymount University in December and wants to teach middle schoolers. “There are so many immigrant and refugee students and students who have been born in the U.S. but don’t speak English in their home.”

Another perk: ESL teachers can teach anywhere in the world, making this one of the most flexible degrees in the field. Marymount grads have taken jobs teaching English in Defense Department schools in Japan, Korea and Bolivia, among other nations.

You can earn a degree in ESL at Marymount or Maryland, while other schools such as GMU and UVA offer graduate certificates.

Marymount’s program, which started in 1992, was the first in Virginia to lead not only to a degree but also a license.

Besides classes in course design, students also work with linguists. “It’s a little more technical than teaching English because you get to break the language down, which I think is really interesting,” says Hanger.

Whatever their reasons for going into teaching, the students say furthering their own educations is a way to help the next generation.

“I really like the idea of doing something good,” Cornelius says.