An unusual educator with a mountain of experience
It's safe to say that North Marion High School's Michael Stewart isn't exactly a typical high school counselor. In fact, he's not typical at all.
First, there's his family: an identical twin brother, a stepson who played for the Patriots and a half-brother who previously worked for the CIA. Second, there's Stewart's varied and lengthy life experience: a former marathon runner (who once completed the 26.2-mile run in just 2 hours and 45 minutes) and current fly fisherman with a 40-year education career, a master's degree and a law degree. In fact, technically, Stewart is retired and he may retire again this spring. This may be his final year, but, for now, North Marion's lucky to have had him since he stepped in to fill in an empty position in October 2019.
"I'm here because I want to be," Stewart says.
While he may have an unusual life now, he started out as a regular Oregon kid. Breathing his first breaths in Eugene, where he also did his K-12 schooling with his twin brother, who is now a dental sales professional. The two attended Willamette High School in Eugene, graduating in 1973.
"We didn't grow up with a lot of money," Stewart notes.
His father managed a service station before becoming a city bus driver, and his mother was a waitress who later found work cleaning at a hospital. But Stewart was smart and his parents encouraged him to attend college.
Stewart's K-12 career started in 1978 when he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English/Secondary Education from the University of Oregon in Eugene. Stewart wanted to be a teacher.
After several years of leading a classroom as an English teacher and in other subject areas, he thought he might change careers. So he went back to school, earning a juris doctorate (a decade after his bachelor's) from the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Yet Stewart changed his mind again and just kept on teaching.
"There's nothing more valuable to society than being a teacher," Stewart says.
His thirst for knowledge and ideas remained, and he returned to the hallowed halls of academia again to earn his Master of Science in Education and School Counseling from Portland State University in 2000. This time, the new career idea stuck.
"At first, I thought that, since I had been a teacher, I would know how to be a counselor, but I didn't. I needed to learn how to listen," Stewart says. "Listening is the most important thing."
Becoming a counselor
What does a high school counselor really do? These professionals help students choose their classes for the coming school year (called forecasting), help them adjust their schedule and show them the opportunities for college and career. School counselors aren't the same as mental health therapists, but they can lend an ear during short-term crises, guiding students toward solutions.
Stewart had already been working as a guidance counselor before he earned his master's, first logging time at Rex Putnam in Milwaukie and then at Parkrose in Portland. At both schools, he served about 350 students.
Earning his master's in counseling opened up more opportunities for him in the counseling field. Stewart landed a position as a counselor at David Douglas High School in 1999, working with about 425 students per year and serving as the AP Coordinator and ACT/SAT Site Supervisor until his retirement in 2015. Stewart accepted a part-time position as a School Counseling Graduate Student Intern Supervisor at Lewis and Clark College after his retirement from David Douglas, continuing through last school year. Stewart thought he was retired from full-time work in 2015, but it didn't turn out as he had planned.
"I missed working with high school kids when I retired, and I felt like I should get back to it," he says.
He substituted as a counselor at Gladstone High during the 2018-19 school year. In October of 2019, he heard that a North Marion counselor had departed at the start of the school year, and the high school needed someone to step up.
"I didn't need to have a job," Stewart says. "I didn't need the money."
But he loved working with students, he was highly qualified, and it was near his Wilsonville home.
"It just seemed like there was a reason that this happened," Stewart says.
Then the swift spread of COVID-19 shuttered the brick-and-mortar schools, with classes everywhere going online. At the time, Stewart again said he was done; he "wasn't coming back."
"It's really hard to leave, even though you have these thoughts about: 'Do I really want to get up at 5 a.m.?'" Stewart says.
What keeps him coming back? It's the kids — and his co-workers.
A good man, good counselor
Fellow Guidance Counselor Julaine Furduy says she and Stewart have settled into a routine since he started, starting their day off with oatmeal and conversation.
"He's always willing to listen if I need to go in and vent or just talk or consult on something," Furduy says. "He's always open to that. He'll let you say what you need to say and provide a comfortable place to do that. He also has a good sense of humor.
"He's a great colleague, and I think we probably have ventured more into a friendship because we can talk about our families and what we did over the weekend."
Stewart's been in the field so long that he now collaborates with many of his former students, including North Marion High School Art Teacher and Yearbook Adviser Sara Bailey. Bailey was one of Stewart's students at Molalla High School, where he taught language arts from 1981 through 1985.
"What a fun treat to come full circle and work with a former mentor," Bailey says.
She notes that it's a great reminder of the small world we're living in, recalling getting reacquainted with him when he arrived in North Marion in 2019.
"On Mike's first days when we connected as colleagues, he and I were snapped back to the past," Bailey says. "It was heartwarming to have shared positive experiences. After a bit of reminiscing and some deep laughs, we both were excited to know we would be working together. In my role as a high school teacher who cares beyond measure for these kiddos, I was relieved to know that the next generation of students would have another kind and thoughtful person helping them navigate schedules and future plans."
His current students and their families are pretty fond of Stewart, too.
"Mr. Stewart has compassion and empathy for students," says parent Amy Gianella. "I appreciated him checking in with me regarding one of my kids and offering assistance during a tragedy in our community. He genuinely cares for the kids and families in our district."
Gianella's son, Ethan, says that Stewart means a great deal to the students.
"Mr. Stewart is so nice and easy to talk to," Ethan Gianella says. "He has helped me a lot."
By now, Stewart says, "he just knows what to say." He says he's worked with thousands of kids in different places. He tells students, "You can get through this, too, just like they did." He can often provide an example of a student he knew in the past who was in a similar challenging situation and made it through to a better place.
"I have a certain amount of credibility with the students, and they know I'll be straight with them and appreciate them as individuals," he says. "Most kids are pretty darn good kids, and the kids here are really good kids."
An unusual family
If Stewart loves kids so much, does he have a family of his own? Most definitely, and an unusual one.
Stewart is delighted to have two stepchildren and four grandchildren. His wife, Sherry, is a mortgage loan processor. She has a son and daughter who are now both in their 30s.
Her daughter, Jessica, is a hairdresser, is married with three children and lives in Salem. Her son, Ryan Allen, went to the Super Bowl four times as a punter for the New England Patriots for six years and also did stints with the Falcons, the Colts and the Titans. Allen and his wife, Emily, are enjoying a new addition to their team of two: a baby girl.
Stewart also has a half-brother who retired after a long career with the CIA, and a half-sister in Nebraska who retired after a career as a small business owner.
His last year?
Stewart is considering retiring again to take the green for a round of golf or to wade into the river and see what fresh catch he can land with his fly fishing rod.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do next year," Stewart says. "This may be it."
If he does leave, North Marion High School Principal De Ann Jenness says Stewart will be missed.
"He has worked at schools similar to North Marion and some that are much larger," Jenness explains. "His knack for coming to the table with fresh ideas is one thing that I will miss. Plus, he is such a great person all around."
Athletic/Attendance Secretary Anita Whitehead agrees.
"He is gentle and kind," Whitehead says.
Furduy says she will miss him as a dependable colleague who was always willing to listen. She says that if he decides to go, her main plan is to cry. However, Furduy says that Stewart has claimed that it was his last year before.
"I'm like, 'Well, we'll see what happens,'" she says, and then laughs a little bit. "There have been times when I thought he wasn't coming back, and boom he's here. We'll have the position open, and he'll apply again. It's like, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' He might just miss me, and want to come back."
Stewart says it's true. He adores his co-workers, also including North Marion High School College and Career Coordinator Ariel Ahlers and Registrar/Counseling Secretary Sharleen Agnew. That feeling is returned.
"Mike always makes a point to say hello to all the students in the office and make everyone feel welcome," Ahlers says. "His passion to help students shows through his attention and care with each interaction with students."
Stewart actually goes out of his way to spend time with the students, even when on break, Agnew explains.
"I like working with Mike because of his calm nature and caring personality," Agnew says. "I think it's great when he goes to the cafeteria at lunch to be able to interact and get to know our students. I will miss his kind heart and smile that he brings to the office every day."
He stays for the staff
"If I didn't like who I worked with, I'd be out the door tomorrow," he says.
He stays for the students, too. Yet Stewart says he sometimes feels the years in his bones, and soon it may be time to say goodbye.
"I will miss working with the kids the most when I finally retire, helping them with preparing for their futures and navigating their high school years personally, socially and academically," he says.
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