Contact: Lisa Sollie
(MERIDIAN) - Rudy Leffler of Hattiesburg is Mississippi State University-Meridian’s Outstanding Graduate Student for the Division of Education for the Fall 2020 semester.
Leffler, who spent 14 years in the Army National Guard and 24 years in paper manufacturing before enrolling in college, has completed—at 64—an MSU Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary Education degree. Now a teacher at Stone Middle School in Wiggins, he said in his earlier life, he “never thought about art as a career, let alone teaching it.”
Leffler decided to pursue a fine arts degree after teaching himself graphic design and video editing software while working at a church and after he saw his wife return to school to pursue teaching. Other life experiences have encouraged his love for art and learning, including a Bob Ross painting kit and drawing classes he and his wife took together.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in art, and my dad was an artist,” Leffler said. “The classes got me into art, drawing and watercolor and propelled me to go back to school.”
His college career has included coursework at Jones College, the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University, where he completed an undergraduate degree in fine arts in 2016. Just as his love for art deepened, he also began to realize his interest in working with students.
“In the Army National Guard, I was enlisted for five years before attending Officer Candidate School,” Leffler said. “As an officer, I was responsible for teaching those under my command and realized that while others who had gone before me struggled to convey the information, I didn’t. I don’t know if I had more empathy or a better understanding of how to break down the material and get it across, but I was able to do it. And then I thought how nice it would be if my wife and I could have the same holidays off, including the summer, and so I decided to go back to school.”
Leffler decided, at the age of 61, to enroll at MSU-Meridian and pursue a teaching license through the MAT-S alternate route program.
Students who already have a bachelor’s degree in a discipline other than education and want to enter a new career path—or alternate route—enter the MAT-S program to become licensed, secondary education teachers. MSU’s alternate route education programs also help Mississippi’s public school districts address the state’s critical teacher shortages.
According to Kim Hall, division head of Education at MSU-Meridian, those who complete the program and an internship are eligible for a five-year renewable teaching license with master’s-level pay.
“Although there are other options available to those enrolled in the degree program, we feel students like Rudy, who take all the required coursework for this MSU master’s program and complete the internship, have the training and necessary tools to be the most effective educators they can be,” Hall said.
Leffler acknowledges the coursework was rigorous, but he’s glad he completed the program.
“My instructors at MSU-Meridian were very involved with us learning the material. They truly cared, and it showed. It wasn’t about doing a lot of busy work. We were presented with material that I didn’t know, but needed to know, and I think I’m a better teacher for learning it,” he said.
Although Leffler admits after three years in the classroom it’s still challenging to teach middle schoolers, he feels he’s “getting the hang of it.”
“It was quite an adjustment my first year when I taught art at Northwest Junior High School in Meridian Public School District, not only teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, but making the daily 90-mile, one-way trip. I never missed a day though,” Leffler said. The last two years in Wiggins have put him much closer to home, and he’s added social studies to his teaching duties.
One lesson Leffler has learned over his past few years of teaching is that middle school students are very relational.
“These kids are at a stage when they really need someone to understand and help them. It’s more than teaching them art or social studies. Although I’m very serious that they learn the material, I also want them to grow to their potential,” he said. “I love these kids. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be teaching.”