Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Ask Mary Jo

Education a fulfilling vocation

January 9, 2013

Q. How do I become a sex educator? I want to do what you do. How did you do it?

–17-year-old female

Mary Jo’s response: I love questions like yours, and I’m blessed to share that many young people have asked me about my work in the past. In fact, I’ve hired seven former students in the last 25 years! I’ll give you the same answer I gave them – there are many paths to teaching sexuality. Mine is only one journey. I’ll share it with you, but with a caveat; it’s important that you find your own way.

Discovering your life work isn’t easy at 17 or 18. Job shadowing is a great way to get a feel for what a career is really like. Young people often “shadow” me, and I’ll be thrilled to spend time with you “on the job” if you like. Just continue texting me, and I’ll arrange the experience with your school.

You asked what I did, so I will share. I began in nursing. My husband always laughs because if I’m asked what I do I nearly always respond “I’m a nurse.” My first job was at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Early on, I realized I loved working with youth. My third month at Children’s, the diabetic educator was ill and my head nurse handed me a shoebox full of small visual aids. I had 30 minutes to prepare for a class with a family and a newly diagnosed juvenile diabetic. I emerged from that teaching experience and realized that I loved health education, so I enrolled in a B.S. program and obtained an education degree.

As a young childbirth educator, I discovered that teen parents often seemed out of place in a typical class of expectant couples, so I offered a free class for pregnant teens. As a result of that class, I met a young woman who changed my perspective on life. She was very brave. I served as her doula (a person who supports a woman during labor and birth). Her life was very challenging; she selected adoption for her baby. That baby is now grown (mid-30s); the young mother was then very young. She was only 12.

As a result of her courage and her story, I began mentoring young mothers as a volunteer. I started the Teen Outreach in 1988 with the goal of lowering teen pregnancy. My master’s degree is in counseling because I realized I needed a stronger background to support troubled youth. And, finally, as an “old” person, I obtained a doctorate in education. Throughout my life, my best teachers have been the young people I’ve served – their resiliency, the beauty of their spirits, their open-minded approach to life and their wisdom have taught me more than any formal educational experience.

Your journey will be unique to you. If you’re serious about teaching sexuality, I recommend a few possible paths. You could obtain a degree in either nursing or education. Many of my colleagues have backgrounds in health education or public health. Some are social workers or counselors. I think specific training in sexuality is really important; although certification is not required in Pennsylvania, I strongly recommend it. In my opinion, the best certification available in sexuality education is from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. I hold two certifications from AASECT – one as a sexuality educator and one as a sexuality counselor. Information on both is available at

One of the vital components of certification is attendance at a Sexuality Attitude Reassessment. A SAR seminar is a process-oriented, structured group experience to promote participants’ awareness of their attitudes and values related to sexuality, and to assist them in understanding how these attitudes and values affect them professionally.

A SAR provides an opportunity for participants to explore and understand their beliefs, attitudes, values and biases within the realm of sex and sexuality. This self-exploration and self-understanding facilitates comfort that ultimately fosters improved communication skills for sexual health professionals.

The SAR I attended years ago lasted nine days and was held at a retreat center in Eastern Pennsylvania, but other SARS are shorter (a minimum of 10 hours is required). During a SAR, a learner explores all aspects of sexuality, staring with early childhood education and ending with intimacy for older adults. A SAR opens a professional’s perspective to consider diverse topics and individuals, including sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, sexuality for people living with all types of abilities and asexuality. It challenges the concept of binary gender and looks at cultural expectations. Regardless of your undergraduate training, I strongly recommend attendance at a SAR if you hope to pursue a career as a sexuality educator.

Just yesterday, I received a message from one of my former students who now counsels young parents. She said, “I love my job. So few people are blessed to say that. I’m so lucky.” She is indeed fortunate. Do what you love, and work is full of joy. Keep in touch and good luck!

Q. I want to teach, but my dad said there’s no money in teaching. You seem happy teaching. What could I tell him?

–18-year-old male

Mary Jo’s response: I consider teaching a vocation or a calling, not only a career. I am very happy teaching. There are many ways to earn a living. If you treasure your work and love what you do, money is only one of your rewards. Let’s meet and discuss teaching!



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