Janae Montgomery has walked the halls of the same school building for most of the past 10 years — first as a middle school student, then as a paraprofessional and, a few months ago, as a special education teacher.
Montgomery had his share of educational and training experiences, but eventually led him back to the career he had long chosen for himself and for which he felt particularly suited.
In May, Montgomery was part of the first group of student teachers to graduate from Reach University, a low-cost higher education program that combines online coursework with work-embedded learning. She was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2020 while continuing to work as a paraprofessional at her hometown high school outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Now, as she settles into her first official year as a teacher with a temporary one-year license, Montgomery will complete her certificates in secondary math and special education through an alternative teacher licensure program.
In our Teacher of the Future series, we’re interviewing those enrolling in teacher education programs today who are on the verge of starting their careers, and what draws them to a field that’s been in decline for years. What inspires them? Does it bother them? Why did they want to get into this business in the first place and what made them do it?
This month, we’re featuring Montgomery, who shares how she almost gave up on teaching a few years ago until a babysitting gig helped her realize why she wanted to get into the profession in the first place, and why she’s uniquely qualified for it. he
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: What is your earliest memory of a school or teacher?
Janae Montgomery: One of my first memories was in the second grade and I will always cherish and love the teacher. Her name was Mrs. Vidrine. She was an old, very sweet, very modest lady. He pushed us. He built the best relationships. She was like the mother figure at school, someone you could go and talk to – you just felt comfortable around her. The first time with him I was like, ‘Wow. The teachers are amazing,’ an.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher? Was there a specific moment or story?
There was never a specific moment, but when I grew up I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I’d always say, “Oh, let’s play school, and I’ll be a teacher”—things like that. But I can tell you what made me a special teacher.
After high school, I first went to college to become a secondary math teacher. However, I missed my home and decided to return home. Then I went to Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC) for a bit and they didn’t offer secondary math, so I started taking business and accounting classes. It really wasn’t the right fit for me. Around the same time, in 2017, I started nannying for this family with two children with special needs. Working with them really changed my goals, dreams and aspirations. I still wanted to teach math, but now I realized that I had a passion—a really burning passion—for working with and advocating for students with disabilities.
You said you always wanted to be a teacher. Have you ever thought again?
Yes, I did. Many times I have thought about changing my major or switching to a different career.
Throughout my college experience, I continued to hear different stories from educators and read about burnout and pay. I have this life – and lifestyle – I’m planning for myself, and I don’t know if a teacher’s salary is enough for it. I have these dreams and goals in my head, but will I have the funds to support what I really want?
So I thought about other careers. That’s one reason I took business and accounting classes for a while – because I would make more money as an accountant than as a teacher. But it just didn’t feel right.
Tell me more about it. So you’ve signed up for business classes at a community college, but it obviously hasn’t. What’s going on?
I was taking some classes at BRCC and kept in touch with the teachers and staff from my old high school. I was in school a lot at the time because I was coaching the cheer team. They knew I wanted to be a special education teacher, so the school called me and asked if I was interested in coming in as a paraprofessional. I said yes of course.
In 2020, I began working as a full-time teacher in a high school independent special education classroom. Many of my students had multiple disabilities and needed a lot of care.
It was a truly eye-opening experience and very rewarding. It was a great opportunity for me to get my foot in the door and learn more about children and different disabilities.
How did this experience help you decide to become a teacher?
I was introduced to Reach University through my school district as I moved into a paraprofessional role that year, the year that COVID hit. I started a program that allowed me to do coursework for my teaching degree while working as a full-time paraprofessional in the classroom. It’s all connected – what I learn in my coursework is what I apply in my classes. It went hand in hand.
I graduated from Reach in May with a bachelor’s degree and received a one-year temporary license, which allowed me to start working as a full-time teacher with full pay and benefits in August. I have a year to get my teaching license, so now I am going through an alternative program through the Louisiana Educator Resource Center to get my certification in both special education and math.
Why do you want to be a teacher?
Not everyone is built for this profession. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I have patience and I have the communication and relationship skills for this job.
When it comes to special education, I want to be an advocate for my students because they can’t always say what they want and need. I want to see children progress and move forward.
Why do you want to teach at the same school where you are a student?
School was always fun for me, very open and welcoming. I think it has to do with being from a small town – everybody knows everybody, everybody cares about everybody. The teachers know your parents and the school functions as a family unit.
The important thing is to go back to where I came from and have people there who want to see me succeed and are willing to help.
I have the best managers. My own high school principal is now my boss, and other leaders I know now serve on the school board. It’s good to have familiar people around you and people who have actually taught you and worked with you. It’s just nice to know you have that support system.
What do you hope for your future career as a teacher?
I believe that if I can help at least one student in my journey as an educator, then I have done a great job – if I have reached one child, if I have changed one child, if I have helped one child. Being a part of a student’s journey and being their champion is incredible.
If you can’t tell, I’m big on bonding with kids because I know not everyone has the opportunity to do that at home.
What gives you pause or worry about being a teacher?
Burn. I have seen how much is demanded of teachers in the last few years. It’s more than anything—more work, more students in the classroom, more responsibility. Too much is expected of teachers and many do not receive enough support from management. So it’s exhaustion for me.
Another thing is payment. Teaching is something I really want to do and I feel like I have to do it. But if more is expected of teachers and there is no real change to be paid, this may be the driving force behind my leaving the profession.
I imagine you get a pretty big pay rise from paraprofessional to teacher.
Thank the Lord, yes. Now I almost double what I do as a paragraph.
I’ve always had to have a second job – babysitting two kids that I started six years ago – just to pay for the smaller bills like car registration and insurance and that sort of thing. I live at home and still wouldn’t be able to make it work without another job.
Why do you need the square now?
The field needs me now because I’m actually here for the kids. I’m certainly not here for the pay and I’m not here for anything else. I am here to advocate for students. I want to make a difference in the lives of all the children I teach. I don’t just go through the motions. I’m here for a reason. This is my goal and passion.