After earning her degree in Special Education online, senior Amber Jernigan is ready to take the next step in her career

Two years ago, Amber Jernigan walked across the stage in celebration of earning her associate degree from Forsyth Technical Community College. Now she is a senior at Lees-McRae College preparing to walk the stage again as she completes her bachelor’s degree in Online Special Education, a career field she has been steadily pursuing since high school when she first began working with children and adults with special needs.

“I walked the stage for my associate degree, and then I started working with Forsyth County Schools the very next day and have been with them since,” Jernigan said.

Jernigan first began working as a teaching assistant with Forsyth County Schools in a behavior resource room, where she provided one-on-one and small-group instruction tailored for students with special needs and learning differences. When her lead teacher took maternity leave, Jernigan took on the long-term sub position and was able to get even more hands-on.

“I got to work with a student who was completely removed from general education. By the end of the year, he was building up to being able to go back into gen-ed. Seeing him go from not being able to handle anything around other kids to, even in small increments, being able to handle things, was a big moment,” Jernigan said. This moment was one that really flipped a switch for her and inspired her to build a career out of this important work. “There was a lot of one-on-one work with the student, and that was my first kiddo that I really attached to.”

Once her experience working with special education students in Forsyth County Schools helped Jernigan better understand her long-term goals, she knew she wanted to earn her bachelor's degree to make those goals a reality. After beginning a bachelor’s program in Forsyth County and finding that the seated requirements and lack of flexibility would require her to quit her full-time job, Jernigan began exploring other options.

When she learned about Lees-McRae from her friend—who is an Elementary Education major at the college and also graduating with the class of 2024—Jernigan knew becoming a Bobcat would be the best fit for her.

“When I started looking into it, I saw that it offered the stability where I could still be there for my kiddo and husband, and not be tied to being in the classroom four days a week,” she said. “They offered the flexibility of classes, being one night a week, and being online. There was enough flexibility that made it the school I wanted to go to.”

Not only was keeping her full-time job with Forsyth County Schools personally and financially important to Jernigan, but it also contributed to her learning experience in the classroom. The connections she made through her time as a teaching assistant and substitute teacher helped her establish the internship and student teaching opportunities she needed to fulfill requirements for the program, and many of the lessons and skills she learned in the classroom helped her navigate relationships and interactions with her own students once she was clocked in.

Jernigan said that many of her professors in the Online Special Education program at Lees-McRae gave her a blueprint for student-teacher interactions. She said they led by example when it came to meeting students where they are.

“I’m an overthinker. I overthink everything, and these professors have actually taken the time to meet me where I’m at in that moment and not just throw things at me,” Jernigan said. “I feel like that is a good approach to take, especially working with exceptional children, because even if your kid is struggling, meeting that individual where they are and finding ways to support them rather than just throwing this and that at them can really help. Genuinely figuring out the issue and how you can tackle it together as a team is something that has really stuck out to me and is something that I want to carry on as a teacher.”

While the technical skills and hands-on experience she has gained throughout her time in the program have been invaluable, Jernigan said that one of the most important things she has learned has been about herself. Throughout the process of earning her bachelor's degree Jernigan said she has been exposed to different perspectives and ways of thinking that have challenged her preconceptions about being an instructor.

Challenging your preconceptions, she said, is always important, but even more so for an educator due to the ever-evolving nature of childhood education. Now, with her new perspective and even newer bachelor's degree, Jernigan is ready to tackle the next step in her career.

“In the beginning, I was really stuck on the idea that I already have this experience, and I know this and this. I’m now at the point where I can step back from a situation and realize that I can take in a whole bunch of different perspectives on a topic, take those into consideration, and learn from them rather than just being dead set on one way. Everybody is different, and it’s more beneficial to take in more knowledge than to just be stuck on something you think you know,” Jernigan said. “Education is a consistent revolving door of learning, and if you get stuck on ‘my way or no way,’ you hit that wall. Now that I’m almost done, I know that as a teacher I need that support and those extra learning moments. I need those different opinions, and I’m not stuck on ‘this is how you’ve got to do it.’”

By Maya JarrellMarch 22, 2024
Online LearningAcademics