The longer Michelle Birkhead teaches, the more she sees the importance of good mental health for high school students.
“We care more about these kids as people,” she said. “I thought I could impact students differently and help them have more positive outcomes by leaving an algebra classroom and working with them with a different passion. I would like to build relationships and reframe their thinking.”
That idea led Birkhead to enroll in the online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in School Counseling program at Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Southeastern). She is on track to graduate in December 2022.
“Southeastern leads me down a school counseling path to finish my career in a school system working with children,” she said.
Birkhead teaches at Flower Mound High School 9th Grade Campus in the Lewisville Independent School District in Texas. During her second year at the school, a student died by suicide.
“Our students are starting to struggle in a way I have never seen before,” she said. “I think, ‘What can I do differently as an educator for these kids who don’t feel like they have any hope?’
She noticed how much more the students were struggling after they returned to the classroom following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
The flexibility of the online format helps Birkhead earn a degree from another state and have the most time possible to spend with her husband, Clint, and their children, Charlotte (10) and David (9).
“It’s been a challenge at times with two classes every seven weeks,” she said. “It’s manageable once you get into a rhythm. You understand that once you finish one class, the next one starts.”
Birkhead grew up in Allen, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, like Lewisville. She transitioned to teaching to have more time with loved ones.
“It was a career that would provide for my family,” she said. “I came from parents who were highly motivated. I aligned my career and family goals. I wanted to leave, come home and be a mom.”
After graduating from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary studies in 2004, Birkhead worked in sales before gravitating toward a career as an educator. She enrolled at SE Oklahoma in 2021.
“I liked the price point of the master’s degree program — it was super reasonable,” she said. “Enrollment was also easy. I picked up the phone, started classes the following Monday and hit the ground running.”
So far, Career Counseling and Development is Birkhead’s favorite course in the online M.Ed. in School Counseling curriculum.
“It opened my eyes to the powerful conversations you can have with students and the importance of those conversations in guiding them toward a career path,” she said. “Working with freshman-level students at a large campus, we have a lot of opportunities they don’t know about.”
The Career Counseling and Development course helped her understand how powerful career conversations are for students. The decisions they make now impact their future opportunities.
When Birkhead began the master’s degree program, her husband similarly enrolled in an online MBA program at Southeastern.
“I realized my husband and I both couldn’t get a master’s degree at the same time because I hit it hard,” she said. “Clint plans to finish his MBA through Southeastern later.
“He had to help around the house. He’s been super supportive. It was a school that offered both of us opportunities.”
Indeed, Birkhead wasted no time once she enrolled and started knocking out courses to complete the degree program in 12 months.
“Southeastern is very communicative about what we needed to get started,” she said.
“The communication has stood up throughout the whole program. A program like Southeastern Oklahoma’s has a lot of entry points financially, and the communication aspect is big.”
Some other members of Birkhead’s family are also in online degree programs, so they have plenty to bond over at gatherings.
“My family is highly motivated about education,” she said. “At Easter and Thanksgiving, we sit at the table, get out our laptops and say, ‘After we do our discussion boards, we can go outside and have family time.'”
Birkhead is eager to celebrate her accomplishment by walking in the commencement ceremony in Durant later this year.
“I made some friends through the program, so I am excited,” she said. “I am looking forward to walking, my kids will see the result of hard work.”
Birkhead said she believes that making personal connections is especially important in an online degree program. She thinks her success comes from a willingness to ask for help.
“I put my name and phone number on every discussion board because I knew the only way in this environment to feel connected was to talk to people. So, connect yourself to your classmates.”
Once she graduates, Birkhead will look for a counseling position, using the knowledge from the M.Ed. program, along with her real-world experience, to help as many students as possible.
“There is so much I have gained in this program,” she said. “I think about if I had these tools at the beginning of my career, how much I could have helped students. It has helped me grow as a professional in the classroom.”