Growing up, Liz Stepansky, the daughter of two schoolteachers in small town Illinois, thought teaching was the way to a stable, meaningful life.
“My dad would have students that would come back and visit him even years after they had graduated high school,” she said. “And to see him develop relationships like that, it seemed like a pretty important job. I liked that.”
After graduating from college in 2008, Stepansky, now 33, decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps, and was ecstatic when she landed her first job as a public middle school teacher in South Carolina.
“I couldn’t wait,” she recalled. “I had ordered all the books, and planned out my classroom and how I was going to have things organized, and I was ready. I was ready to begin my teaching career.”
But when September rolled around, Stepansky found that she “had no idea” what she was in for. She said her middle school students dialed 911, threw balloons filled with bleach and ink in hallways and constantly pulled the fire alarm.
“Four of those occasions were actual fires started by students,” she said. “Another teacher had a dead mouse put on her chair. I had a student put a frog in my coffee.”
As her frustration with her students’ antics built up, so did the hours she spent at school. Way past the dismissal bell, she was “calling parents, doing lessons preps,” she said. “I’d go home and sometimes I’d spend an hour grading papers. And then I’d go back the next day and do it all over again. … I remember my paycheck being $800 and something every two weeks.”
Stepansky transferred to another school, this one in Virginia, and encountered similar frustrations. After two years of teaching at public middle schools, Stepansky wondered: Was she wasting her time?
Then a re-connection with an old friend brought her back to another childhood interest: Speech pathology, a field of assessing, diagnosing and treating communication and swallowing disorders.
“I got a friend request from someone I was best friends with in fifth grade, and I noticed that she was a speech pathologist,” Stepansky said. “Growing up as a child, I went to a speech pathologist at our school. I couldn’t pronounce my R’s and my S’s. … I started thinking, ‘Maybe that would be an option to consider.’ ”
All of the things that attracted Stepansky to teaching in the first place — education, compassion and interest in the progress of others — were present in this job, too, and its prospects were good: Schools and hospitals are in dire need of speech pathologists, and the BLS projects that speech pathologist employment will grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026, “much faster” than the average for all occupations. Meanwhile, teachers who are college-educated are facing higher wage gaps than ever, according to the EPI.
After scouring the web to learn how to enter the field, Stepansky realized she would need to go back to school. She quit her teaching job, applied to the University of Virginia’s graduate program — and was denied. She took a job at a veterinary clinic, and volunteered at a local hospital and enrolled in prerequisite classes at a community college to strengthen her follow up application.
A year after her first attempt, Stepansky was accepted to UVA. She spent two and a half years taking classes and doing clinical work, and graduated to a fellowship in her favorite clinical placement — working with adults in a hospital.
Now, Stepansky has been working the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. for just over a year. A standard day involves diagnosing patients and designing treatment strategies, including singing songs and playing card games designed to build patients’ language and communication skills.
“I’ve made a change in the people that I see, but kind of at the heart of it, I’m doing the same thing,” she said. “I’m showing someone how to do something, and eventually do it without me.”
Most of her Stepansky’s patients are persons who are re-adapting to life after experiencing strokes. Stepansky said working to rehabilitate their language and speech abilities is particularly emotional. “They are so much more appreciative, because they know the difference,” she said.
Stepansky said she has no regrets in changing up her career path. “As I was teaching, I kind of was looking at my friends who had established careers and knew what they wanted to do thinking gosh, I wish that was true for me,” she said.
“To be in a job where I love what I’m doing is kind of a gift, and it makes going through this whole process and this whole transition more than worth it.”
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