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By Stephanie Pett MPP/MBA '25

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Stephanie Pett headshot
Stephanie Pett MPP/MBA '25

In Fall 2023, I transitioned from being a 7th-grade math teacher to becoming a Master of Public Policy student at Sanford. I was no longer the one assigning homework or grading tests. Instead, I was on the other side, scrambling to pull out my notebook as class began, and dreading exams. Suddenly, I found myself at the will of my professors’ syllabi, no longer the one setting the pace.

As a teacher, there is an overwhelming amount of expectations, some reasonable, some incredibly unrealistic. Transitioning from teacher to student, I have found myself recognizing the efforts of some professors, giving them more grace, and also recognizing flaws in professor methodologies and pushing back more than I would have as an undergraduate student.

Student-teacher relationships and classroom culture are often stressed as crucial foundations of student success. I have found myself noticing and being grateful for all the efforts my professors have made to build a strong community at Sanford. For example, in my first semester, my Policy Analysis professor organized a class happy hour so we could all get to know each other. Later in the semester, that same professor hosted a dinner at his house for the class. The professor’s intentional efforts to form strong relationships with his students increased student engagement, built trust, and allowed him to challenge our ideas knowing there was two-way respect.

My time as a teacher not only gave me an appreciation for what my professors do well, it also defined my understanding of what they could do better. As a teacher, I was an incredibly fast grader. My students would receive their test scores back the following day. I have found myself impressed by professors who return assignments quickly, allowing students to review feedback on an assignment they remember completing. At the same time, I’m more critical when some professors take weeks to provide feedback. Similarly, when professors forget to post assignments promptly, I am often the first to email reminding them, so students have enough time to complete the assignment.  

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Stephanie Pett outside
Pett (left) and a colleague on Pett's last day as a teacher in Charlotte before graduate school.

Time management was a major challenge while teaching. I would think about my lessons outside of class. I would replay conversations with students. I would bring assignments home to grade. When starting graduate school, I was determined to establish boundaries. Although that has been a major challenge given the consistent looming of assignments and exams, I have been able to give myself somewhat of a routine. To avoid my undergraduate habits of late-night essay writing, I force myself to stop working on homework at 8 pm. To make sure I feel somewhat awake when I arrive at my morning lectures, I cook myself breakfast every morning. These little habits have helped me establish the consistency I loved having in the workforce and allowed me to avoid the pitfalls of student life I struggled with as an undergrad.

Another challenge anyone coming to graduate school from the workforce faces is a lack of consistent income. Although Sanford offers paid assistantships to many students, which is a great help, but it is far less than what I made working as a teacher. Before Duke classes began, I started a part-time job as an after-school math tutor at a local school. Although working part-time makes time management even more difficult, having a source of income is necessary for so many graduate students, and I am grateful to be in a community where many students work part-time to make ends meet.

Transitioning from teaching to being a full-time graduate student has had its challenges, but I am grateful for the educational opportunity I have. When I told my students last year that I was attending Duke, they were in awe. For many of them, Duke is a dream school. Thinking about my students reminds me how lucky I am to be furthering my education. I have no doubt in my mind that education is the gateway to opportunity, and attending Duke as a graduate student is an incredible opportunity I am fortunate to have.

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Pett in group at class dinner
Pett and Sanford students at the Policy Analysis class dinner.

Stephanie Pett is a first-year MPP/MBA student. Before attending Duke, Pett was a 7th grade math teacher in Charlotte, N.C. with Teach for America. This year at Duke, Stephanie has been focusing on education policy. Pett served as the Sanford Women in Policy secretary. Outside of class, Pett continues to work in education as an afterschool math tutor in Durham, N.C.