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Teachable moments

by Andrea Bennett
After practicing labor and employment law, Dee Danner earned an online degree at USC that led to teaching.
After practicing labor and employment law, Dee Danner earned an online degree at USC that led to teaching.

After a successful 25-year career in both law and consulting, Dee Danner MA ’12 decided to become a student again.

With dreams of returning to the profession she had originally pursued and for which she still yearned, Danner enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program at the USC Rossier School of Education in 2010.

Danner, a Chicago resident who earned her bachelor’s in English and first teaching credential from Yale University in 1982, said she always knew she was destined for teaching.

“Growing up in Southern California, I definitely wanted to be a teacher from the seventh grade on. All through high school, I had inspiring teachers who were incredibly dynamic and engaged with the material and with me,” she said. “Everyone knew I’d come back to teach.”

Indeed, she did. In 1982, she taught English in Brentwood, Calif., and then at her alma mater, La Canada High, for several years, and loved it. But she wanted to try something different, too, so she went to law school and moved to Chicago to practice labor and employment law — “the people side of law,” she noted.

After seven years in law, Danner made another career switch and ventured into change management consulting at Accenture, where she could focus on big-picture, strategic issues and work on large-scale transformation projects around the world. In that role, she focused on “the people side of change,” helping companies prepare employees for mergers, reorganizations and the integration of new business systems.

“It was an exciting time, and I got to engage with people in a lot of different industries,” she said.

After running a nonprofit and working in corporate training and development, Danner had a revelation.

“I realized that I missed teaching. I had to go back,” she said. “I wanted to learn what had changed in the last 25 years — how I had changed and how the kids, curriculum and schools had changed.”

Danner was impressed with the immersive learning model of USC Rossier’s MAT Online program, which includes live synchronous classes with faculty and peer students, as well as real-world fieldwork as a teacher in Chicago schools.

“The power of that experience — even without ever being on campus — was amazing,” she said. “Plus USC is such a great university, and I was able to finish in just 18 months.”

For some, going back to school later in their careers might be an intimidating prospect. Danner, who graduated from the MAT Online program in 2012, found it a joy.

“Because I had been a teacher before, I could read about the theories and appreciate them at a different level,” she said. “I was also able to get a lot of insight from my younger classmates about my high school students since they are closer to one another in age. And I could help my classmates because I had been where they are going and could share from my previous experiences in the classroom.”

After so many years away from the secondary classroom, Danner found the MAT program invigorating and eye-opening. She was especially engaged by a new media literacy class taught by adjunct professor Kalim Rayburn EdD ’11 that revealed significant technological advancements in education since her days as a teacher.

“Back then, there were two Betamax machines in the whole school, and that was progressive.”

She added: “It was exciting to be on USC’s cutting-edge technology platform and taking an education technology class at the same time. It taught me how to engage students with technology that did not exist 25 years ago and how to utilize technology tools to influence learning in the classroom.”

Danner said she was amazed by the practicality of the program.

“It was marvelous how the theory could immediately inform my practice,” she said. “We would literally be discussing a concept in class Tuesday night and the next day I was using it in my classroom. Then the next week, I’d report back to my USC class about how it had worked.”

As she reflected on her return to teaching and a renewed involvement in education, Danner borrowed the words of a literary master to describe her experience: “As T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ ”

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