Dr. Lesley Casarez’s leadership may never have been tested more than by the 18 kindergartners she taught one year in Austin.
Among them, they spoke 14 languages, including Japanese, Chinese and the African dialect Igbo. While Casarez was teaching them their letters, numbers and colors, they were teaching her the joy of “seeing little light bulbs go off.”
“They would say to me, ‘I can read, Mrs. Casarez!’” she said. “‘Oh, yes, you can.’ I’d think, ‘It might be May, but you got it!’”
Today, Casarez, 36, leads students on the opposite end of the educational spectrum – graduate students seeking master’s degrees and professional certification to become guidance counselors. An assistant professor in Angelo State University’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, she manages the university’s exploding online master’s program in guidance and counseling.
A Big Lake native, Casarez didn’t always aim to be an educator. She earned a bachelor’s degree in magazine design, realizing too late in her studies that “wasn’t where my heart was.”
“I wanted to help people,” she said.
So, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in elementary education, then taught in the Austin area and back in Big Lake. Prompted by a principal, she pursued a second master’s degree in guidance and counseling. She has since earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Texas Tech University.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and what makes us think the way we do – the why behind the behavior,” she said.
The mother of two children, Casarez said ASU’s guidance and counseling program is also “kind of my baby.” The online program is one of ASU’s largest with 500 students and has been tabbed as one of the nation’s best online graduate programs by several organizations and publications. Additionally, the Texas School Counselor Association named Casarez its Counselor Educator of the Year in 2015.
Counselors, she explained, are essential to the educational process. They typically encounter students at a point where teachers are no longer reaching them, Casarez explained. Often, she noted, such students simply need someone to sit privately with them and listen to them.
“I love the fact we’re inspiring people in their future careers as counselors so they can help kids in some ways that they can’t as teachers,” she said. “I love it that so many people are wanting to make that difference.”
Casarez also serves on the board of the Three Rivers Counseling Association, a professional support network that seeks to help those in their taxing profession take care of one another. She is also the PTO president of Fort Concho Elementary, where she has helped write grants that have led to Chromebooks (laptops that run only Google apps), a new playground and shade structures. Even her involvement in the ministries of Southland Baptist Church has an educational bent.
“Is it an obsession?” she asked, half-jokingly.
“Everything I do is tied to education in some way,” she added. “That’s the way to change the world – educate people as much as you can.”