Kathryn Dunbar: Teacher’s encouragement inspires career

“She never stopped believing in me,” says SOE alum and First-Year Teacher of the Year

Kathryn Dunbar grew up mostly in West Virginia, eventually moving to Leesburg, Virginia beginning in the 8th grade. She earned her Master of Teaching in Early and Elementary Education from the VCU School of Education in May 2020. Dunbar is currently teaching first grade at An Achievable Dream Academy at Highland Springs Elementary School, where she was recently voted First-Year Teacher of the Year by fellow teachers and staff.

A professional headshot of Kathryn Dunbar (M.T. '20).
Kathryn Dunbar (M.T. ’20). (Courtesy Photo)

What drew you to the field of education?

I always loved school, learning and kids. As far back as I can remember, I was playing school with my friends or dolls and insisting that I was the teacher. When I was old enough, I started babysitting. At age 10, I became an assistant to my dance teacher to help with the dance levels below mine. My first job was as a teacher’s assistant for a summer program at Luther Memorial School, and then I moved to working at Grace Covenant Child Development Center for 2 ½ years while I was working toward my degree.

I have always been super-involved with kids and teaching. I’ve always wanted to make a change in the world around me, and I believe those changes come from educating children who can grow up to become amazing, caring and compassionate adults.

Did anyone inspire you to pursue study in this field?

Several of the teachers I had growing up inspired me, but I hold one very dear to my heart. In high school, I was part of the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination: an academic support program that prepares students for college eligibility and success), and I had the same teacher, Mrs. Judith Shepherd, from freshman to senior year. I started each day with her, and that truly made a difference. It didn’t matter if I was having a bad day or not; she always greeted me with the biggest smile and checked in with me when I barely offered one in return.

I never dreamed I would go to college. I didn’t have much desire to go, and I surely didn’t have the money. However, one day, Mrs. Shepherd asked what career I would consider pursuing if I happened to change my mind. I told her that I would probably go into teaching, and she told me that she couldn’t think of a better career for me. She told me that I could do it, and she never stopped believing in me. She helped me apply to several schools, VCU being the No. 1 choice, and we waited and waited to hear back. Finally, the day came when I could walk into her classroom and hand her my acceptance letter from VCU.

I was never pushed as a child to go to college. All it took was one person believing in me and never letting me forget how capable I was. She was there for me then, and we are still close today. In fact, she will be attending my upcoming wedding. Relationships between students and teachers are an amazing thing.

Why VCU SOE for your M.T. degree?

It is a fabulous program. It incorporates diversity, equity and inclusion into the curriculum of its programs, which is an imperative for educators. My time in the undergraduate program (Liberal Studies for Early and Elementary Education) only helped solidify why continuing into the M.T. program was the right thing for me.

I had many opportunities to “jump right in” and get involved with schools around the area. SOE has everything designed to ease the transition from the undergraduate level to the graduate level. The extended teacher preparation program helped me get through my classes in 5 ½ years instead of 6, it saved me money, and I was able to graduate a semester early by taking more credits than I originally thought I could. It was a lot of work, but I pushed through it and was able to obtain my master’s degree at 23 years of age.

How well did SOE prepare you for teaching at An Achievable Dream Academy?

It prepared me incredibly well. I am not from around here, so I didn’t know what the schools or communities were like in this area. The professors incorporated guest speakers into their classes, and as part of my Home-School Collaboration class, Dr. Misti Mueller brought in Dr. Shawnya Tolliver, the principal of An Achievable Dream Academy (ADA) at Highland Springs Elementary School, as a guest speaker. Dr. Tolliver explained how the program is designed to help children K-12 believe that they can learn and succeed regardless of their socioeconomic background.

The following semester, when I found out that I had been placed at ADA for my student teaching internship, I was ecstatic! I absolutely love the program and everything it stands for.

Tell me about your First-Year Teacher of the Year Award.

Each year, the faculty and staff at every school in Henrico County Public Schools vote for that school’s Teacher of the Year, First-Year Teacher of the Year, and Christie Award winner. The winners at my school were announced at a recent virtual staff meeting. The next step is at the district level. For that, I have to write an essay on my personal beliefs about teaching and the reward that I find in doing it. My principal will also be writing an essay including evidence to support areas such as student growth, instructional strategies, communication with parents/guardians, contributions to the school, and impact on the entire learning community.

VCU School of Education alumna Kathryn Dunbar poses in front of VCU sign in her cap and gown.
Kathryn Dunbar (M.T. ’20), who never dreamed that she would go to college, earned her M.T. in early and elementary education last May. (Courtesy Photo)