By the time Stephanie Johnson graduated from the Lamar University online Master of Education in School Counseling program, she landed a counseling job and added a family member.
“I was counseling with my probationary certificate,” she said. “I was told that would give me a good opportunity to finish the coursework and get some real-life experience, and I feel like it helped a lot. I didn’t feel worried about passing my testing because you have to know a lot of that stuff on the job. It becomes second nature for you. During that time, I got pregnant, which was a little unexpected.”
Johnson gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, in March 2018. It wasn’t easy, but she stuck with the remainder of the online M.Ed. program and walked the graduation stage two months later.
“I let my professors know, ‘Hey, my life is changing,'” she said. “I was really sick at the time. I told them I was going to delay things because I physically didn’t have the energy to do it. I got the worst of it. They said, ‘No, don’t quit. Whatever you need, let us know. We’ll help you get through it.’ They were awesome.”
Johnson began her teaching career at Wooldridge Elementary in Austin, Texas, before moving on to Jaime Padron Elementary School, also in Austin.
“I always planned to go back for my master’s degree, but I wasn’t sure what area I wanted to focus in,” Johnson said. “A lot of my energy was focused on meeting the kids’ social and emotional needs before I could even teach them. They had so many other deficits that we couldn’t even get to the academic part right away.
“After my second year of teaching, I realized that counseling might give me the opportunity to serve these students better. You have to meet those basic needs before you can even crack open a book. I thought, ‘I’m already doing that anyway, so why not get paid to do it and have the actual qualifications for it?'”
Julissa Lopez-Gomez, a fellow teacher at Jaime Padron Elementary School, was one year into the Lamar University online M.Ed. in School Counseling program and recommended it to Johnson, who enrolled in September 2016.
“My husband [David] was very supportive through the whole thing,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to go back and get my master’s degree. We talked about it a year beforehand. I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back and get a degree just to say I have it. I want to focus on something.’ He would remind me about it now and again and say, ‘Have you thought about it? Are you sure?'”
Once Johnson found the right area of focus, she hoped she had made the right decision. The Counseling Skills (CNDV 5310) course validated her choice.
“In that course, we videotaped ourselves doing mock counseling sessions with our colleagues,” she said. “We set it up and it was real. They said, ‘Don’t make up an issue to talk about. Let it be real life.’ It was really moving.
“Unexpectedly, one of my coworkers started crying and sharing deep, personal issues with me. She even told me at the end, ‘Hey, I wasn’t expecting that to happen. You had a way of making me open up.’ It was a good sign.”
Johnson also enjoyed the Individual Counseling Theories & Techniques (CNDV 5311) course.
“That was the hardest one of all of them,” she said. “It was my favorite because the skills and information we learned from that course still resonate. It was one of the more valuable courses.”
A big key to Johnson’s success in graduate school was the support she received from more experienced school counselors.
“I had a site supervisor, a field supervisor and a mentor,” she said. “As I was learning this information, I had people I could rely on to bounce ideas off of and check and say, ‘What do you think about this situation?’ or, ‘I am geared more toward reality theory on this. What do you think?’ They were great about helping guide me. I had the training wheels on. At the same time, I was out there on my own.”
A Texan Again
Johnson was born in San Antonio and raised in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in communications from the University of South Carolina in 2007 and hoped to work in public relations. She worked in the South Carolina governor’s office answering letters to the governor.
“I thought I could translate those skills to a position here in Texas,” she said. “It was hard to come by a similar type of job. I was living in San Antonio and was homesick. I said, ‘I’m leaving. I’m going back to South Carolina.’ Then, I met David. He convinced me to stay.”
There was still the matter of finding a new career. Both Johnson’s mother, Elvia Grissett, and her sister, Brindel Grissett, taught early childhood education, so she had been around teachers her whole life.
“I said, ‘What else can I do?'” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to make a shift in careers, but that’s what happed. Lo and behold, I’m driving down I-35 in Austin and there’s a big billboard that says, ‘Do you want to teach?’ I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try.'”
The timing wasn’t great. There was a hiring freeze on teachers when she started looking for a job.
“Nobody could get a teaching job in 2012,” she said. “I was sad and thought, ‘Is this a sign that maybe I shouldn’t have done this?’ People were losing their jobs, and I was trying to convince them to give me a job. I didn’t get my first teaching job in 2013. I said, ‘Let me give it one more try. If this doesn’t work, I’m moving on.’ It worked out. I started teaching kindergarten.”
Johnson’s mother returned to college at 40 and earned an associate degree, but Johnson is the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree.
“My mom was a source of motivation,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘If my mom can sit in this classroom, being one of the oldest students in there and can finish, I know I can do it, too.'”
Since Johnson and her husband became parents, she found another counseling job closer to home. She starts at Northwest Elementary School in Pflugerville Independent School District in 2018-19. Now that Johnson has her master’s degree, she is eager to see what the future holds.
“Everybody forgot that I was in school because I was in for so long,” she said. “At the beginning, everyone said, ‘Oh, that’s so awesome. I’m so excited for you.’ Then, year one passed. Then, year two came up and the baby took attention away from it.
“My parents checked in on me a lot. They said, ‘Wow, you’re about to have this kiddo and are finishing your coursework. Are you okay? Are you making it?’ I said, ‘My professors are helping me through. We’re going to get there.’ They were a little worried for me in the beginning. I was worried, too. Once I knew I had the support, I was good. My supervisors, my mentor, my husband — we were a team.”
Although Johnson was a new mom, she made the trip with her husband and daughter to Beaumont for graduation day.
“We weren’t sure if we’d make it because Olivia was a little over a month old,” she said. “That’s about a four-and-a-half hour drive. My husband said, ‘You know what? You worked hard for this. You need to walk across that stage.’ It was fun.”
The Lamar University online M.Ed. in School Counseling program was ideal for Johnson. She said anybody who is thinking of enrolling should make sure that counseling is their calling.
“The work gets hard — make sure you are passionate about it so, during those hard times, you can power through the coursework,” Johnson said. “Also, having that support system was the biggest thing. Don’t be afraid to connect with your classmates. It’s easy to think of each other as just a name on Blackboard.
“They are real people with lives and families who are passionate — just like you are. We are in school counseling, so it’s part of our nature to be supportive. They’d say, ‘Hey, give me a call. Let me know what you need.’ Having a support system, researching and making sure you’re passionate about what you’re going into is key. Have a game plan.”
Also, be ready for the occasional surprise.