This Paraprofessional Did Her Teacher Training on the Job. Now, She Has Her Own Classroom.

Janae Montgomery has walked the halls of the same school building for much of the last 10 years — first as a high school student, then as a paraprofessional and, as of a few months ago, as a special education teacher.

Montgomery’s education and training experience had its share of detours but ultimately led her back to a career that she’d picked out for herself long ago, and which she feels she is especially well suited for.

In May, Montgomery was part of the first cohort of teacher apprentices to graduate from Reach University, a low-cost higher education program that pairs job-embedded training with online coursework. She was able to earn her bachelor’s degree while continuing to work as a paraprofessional, a role she’s held since 2020 at her hometown high school outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Now, while she gets settled into her first official year as a teacher on a temporary one-year license, Montgomery will complete her certifications in secondary math and special education through an alternative teacher licensing program.

In our Future Teacher series, we meet individuals who are enrolled in teacher preparation programs today, on the cusp of beginning their careers, to understand what attracts them to a field that has been in decline for years. What inspires them? Worries them? Why did they want to go into this work in the first place, and what has compelled them to stick with it?

This month, we’re featuring Montgomery, who shares how she’d nearly given up on teaching until a babysitting gig a few years ago helped her realize why she wanted to enter the profession in the first place — and why she is uniquely qualified for it.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Name: Janae Montgomery

Age: 25

Current town: Brusly, Louisiana

College: Reach University and Louisiana Resource Center for Educators

Area of study: Secondary math and special education

Hometown: Brusly, Louisiana

EdSurge: What is your earliest memory of school or a teacher?

Janae Montgomery: One of my earliest memories was in second grade, and I will forever cherish and love the teacher I had. Her name was Ms. Vidrine. She was an older lady, very sweet, very humble. She pushed us. She built the best relationships. She was like an in-school mom figure, someone that you could go and talk to — you just felt comfortable around her. It was with her that I had my first, ‘Wow. Teachers are amazing,’ moment.

When did you realize you wanted to become a teacher? Was there a specific moment or a story?

There was never really a specific moment, but when I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I would always be like, ‘Oh, let’s play school, and I’ll be the teacher’ — things like that. But I can tell you what made me want to be a special ed teacher.

After high school, I initially went away to college to study to become a secondary math teacher. But I got homesick and decided to move back home. Then I went to Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC) for a little bit, and they didn’t offer secondary math, so I started taking business and accounting classes. That wasn’t really a fit for me. Around the same time, in 2017, I started babysitting for this family with two kids who have special needs. Working with them really shifted my goals and dreams and aspirations. I still wanted to teach math, but I just realized I have a passion — a really burning passion — to work with students with disabilities and to advocate for them.

You said you always kind of wanted to be a teacher. Did you ever reconsider?

Yeah, I did. I thought about changing my major, or going into a different career, multiple times.

Throughout my college experience, I kept hearing different stories from educators and reading about burnout and pay. I have this life — and a lifestyle — planned out for myself, and I don’t know if teacher pay is going to be enough for that. I have these dreams and goals in my mind, but will I actually have the funds to support what I really want?

So I’ve thought about other careers. That is one reason why I was taking business and accounting classes for a while — because of course I’d make more money as an accountant than a teacher. But it just didn’t feel right.

Tell me more about that. So you enrolled in business classes in community college, but obviously that didn’t stick. What happened?

I was taking some classes at BRCC, and I had stayed in touch with teachers and staff from my old high school. I was actually at the school a lot around that time because I was coaching the cheer team. And they knew I wanted to become a special education teacher, so the school called me and asked if I was interested in coming on as a paraprofessional. I said yes, of course.

In 2020, I started working at the high school as a full-time para in a self-contained special education class. Many of my students had multiple disabilities and required a lot of care.

It was really an eye-opening experience, and it was so rewarding. It was a great opportunity for me to put my foot in the door and learn more about kids and different disabilities.

How did that experience help you decide to commit to teaching?

As I was getting settled into the paraprofessional role that year, which was the year COVID hit, I was introduced to Reach University through my school district. I started in a program that allowed me to do coursework toward my teaching degree while working in the classroom as a full-time para. It all tied together — what I was learning in the coursework is what I was applying in my classes. It went hand in hand.

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Reach in May, and received a one-year temporary license, which allowed me to start as a full-time teacher in August, with full pay and benefits. I have one year to get my teaching license, so now I’m going through an alternative program through the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators to get my certification in both special education and math.

Janae Montgomery with a student at Brusly High School in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Reach University.

Why do you want to become a teacher?

Not everyone is built for this profession. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I have the patience and I have the skills of communication and relationship-building for this work.

As far as special education, I want to be that person who advocates for my students because they can’t always say what they want and what they need. I want to see kids progress and move forward.

Why do you want to teach in the same school where you were a student?

School was always fun for me, just very open and welcoming. I think that has something to do with being from a small town — everyone knows everyone, everyone takes care of everyone. The teachers know your parents, and school operates like a family unit.

The main thing is just giving back to the place that I’m from and having people there who want to see me succeed and are willing to help.

I have the best administrators. My own high school principal is now my boss, and other leaders I know are now working at the school board. It’s good to have familiar people around you and people that have actually taught you and worked with you. It just feels good to know you have that support system.

What gives you hope about your future career as a teacher?

I believe that if I can help at least one student along my journey of being an educator, then I’ve done a great job — if I’ve reached one kid, changed one kid, helped one kid. It is just so incredible to be a part of a student’s journey and to be their champion.

If you can’t tell, I’m really big on creating relationships with kids, because I know not everyone has access to that at home.

What gives you pause or worries you about becoming a teacher?

Burnout. I’ve seen over the past few years how much is required of teachers. It’s more of everything — more work, more students in a class, more responsibilities. A lot is expected of teachers, and many don’t get enough support from administration. So for me, it’s burnout.

The other thing is pay. Teaching is something that I really want to do, and I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. But if more is expected of teachers and there are no real changes to pay, that could be my driving force, if it came down to it, to leave the profession.

I imagine you’re getting a pretty big pay bump going from paraprofessional to teacher.

Thank the Lord, yes. I’m now making about double what I did as a para.

I’ve always had to have a second job — babysitting for the two kids I started with six years ago — just to pay smaller bills like the car note, insurance, that kind of stuff. I live at home, and I still wouldn’t be able to make it work without another job.

Why does the field need you right now?

The field needs me right now because I am actually here for the kids. I’m not here for the pay, of course, and I’m not here for anything else. I’m here to advocate for students. And I want to make a difference in the lives of all the kids that I teach. I’m not just going through the motions. I’m here for a reason. This is my purpose and my passion.

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