Professor Spotlight: Jeanne Gunther

For Jeanne Gunther, associate professor of education and program chair of the early childhood education, her 26 years as an educator have been just as rewarding and educational for her as it has been for her students.

Gunther said she loved elementary school but was uncertain at first that her interest could be applied toward a career in education.

“The only career I could think of that I saw women doing, besides something in healthcare, was teaching,” Gunther said. “I thought, ‘Well, I always liked that when I was little and maybe I could do that.’ And that’s why I always say I’m lucky, because I never stopped to consider all the possibilities and then really choose one. I was limited by my own agency; I think this is something a woman could do. Then, I got into it and I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’ And I became a really progressive teacher right out of the gate and loved it.”

According to Gunther, she started to find her schoolwork interesting and compelling once she was able to get directly involved with students. She earned her bachelor’s in early childhood education from the State University of New York at Fredonia, and during that time, she worked at a recently established Head Start program, which provided access to early childhood education to low-income families.

“When I got into the professional program of education, the content was so much fun to me,” Gunther said. “It made sense to me; I identified with it. They had just opened a Head Start, and I got a clinical assignment there for one of my classes. I thought, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I want to do.’ It was about supporting children’s development in every realm that there is, and it was so satisfying.”

Gunther also said she had an experience at that time that reinforced her desire to teach and has helped her empower her “candidates” – students who are on track to become teachers.

“I had one professor in undergrad who talked about the power of a teacher,” Gunther said. “It was something I had never considered, and I’m sure always to tell my classes this very same thing. Teachers have the power to change society for the better. You have this power, and it’s not just handing out worksheets and gold stickers. You can make this community in your classroom that’s a place every student wants to come. And we’ve all been in a classroom that hasn’t been that. I want to make sure every kid has every class like that.”

After graduating, Gunther said she knew she wanted to work with young children, and she got her first teaching job in North Carolina teaching fourth graders. However, she found that reading skills varied among her students to a concerning degree. She said she was faced with having to help students catch up, which prevented them from learning that year’s material. She said it was a problem that she did not know how to address.

“They’re ten and they don’t read, and I don’t know what to do about it,” Gunther said. “That was really scary. That was something I would take home every day.”

According to Gunther, there wasn’t an issue with the teachers or the students, but there was a lack of understanding about how to engage each student on their level to make sure no one was left behind. Because of this, she pursued her master’s in education with a focus in reading at the State University of New York at Albany and her Ph.D. in early childhood intervention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill.

“Becoming a professor of education, specific to supporting reading, was a way to impact change on a large scale,” Gunther said. “I’ll have 60-70 candidates per semester. They will each go on to have 20-25 students a year for 30 years. That’s not a job I take lightly; I want to make sure they’re really ready to do that. The number one reason teachers leave the field is that they don’t feel that they’re effective. This is one way I can make sure we keep people in teaching; you’ll be effective in teaching reading. And there’s maybe nothing more satisfying in life than giving somebody that.”

Since coming to FMU, she has spent nine years working with the Richardson Center for the Child (RCC). The RCC is a state-of-the-art academic preschool, and early childhood education students take classes there and get involved in clinicals. Biology, nursing and psychology students have also been involved in some way with the RCC. All students in the education program take classes at the RCC, at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Besides providing children with a good learning environment and preparing candidates to become teachers, Gunther said the RCC also allows these children to make meaningful connections with candidates.

“I even like the idea that such young children will map onto college students identity-wise, and think even at age four – this is something I didn’t have – ‘Maybe I’ll go to college one day,’” Gunther said. “I didn’t have that kind of role model. I wonder if I had, maybe I would have been a better student. You’ll see little kids here and they develop relationships with students they’re working with in class and they’re like, ‘I’m going to go here for college.’ It’s more than just sweet; it’s salient. It adds to their identity, their perceptions of self, their agency.”