Jean Thomas taught elementary school in Chesterfield County and Richmond Public Schools for 31 years. She earned her Master of Teaching in early and elementary education from the VCU School of Education in 1977. We sat down with her recently to learn more about why she became a teacher, her impressions and memories of the School of Education, and why she finds it meaningful to give back.
How did you become interested in teaching?
When I was growing up, there were nine teachers in my extended family. There were always teachers around. My aunt taught at Maggie Walker High School, and she helped me out financially when I decided to attend Virginia Union University as an undergrad. I majored in teaching with a concentration in elementary education, and I graduated in January 1958. My first job was teaching second grade at a very old school in Bowling Green, Va. My classroom had a pot-bellied stove, and chopped wood was stored in a bin outside the door. When I got to school each day in the cold months, I had to make a fire in the stove to heat the room.
When did the VCU School of Education come into the picture?
I had been teaching for almost 20 years, and I really enjoyed teaching children, especially reading and arithmetic. My family and friends started asking me if I was interested in pursuing a master’s degree to further my career. My cousin, Dr. Stanley Baker, was an English teacher in the urban studies program at the VCU School of Education, and he strongly encouraged me to further my education there. I was teaching in Richmond Public Schools at the time, and four of us from RPS started the master’s program at VCU SOE at the same time. I earned my Master of Teaching degree in 1977. I was 41 years old.
"I believe passionately about the value of an education, and it means a lot to me to be able to help students."
What are you most thankful for, from your time at VCU?
I was exposed to more opportunities at VCU than I had been as an undergraduate, and I took advantage of them. I mentored undergraduate students in the library one summer who were interested in pursuing an advanced degree in education, and the volunteer hours helped reduce my tuition expense. I was also more focused as a graduate student, mainly because I had been teaching for a while. The workload was never a problem either, even though I had been out of school for some time. In fact, it was more enjoyable than my undergrad years. I’ll always be glad that I earned my master’s degree; I only wish that I had done it sooner.
You’re currently a Dean's Circle donor to VCU SOE. What is it about the school that makes it meaningful to give back?
I believe passionately about the value of an education, and it means a lot to me to be able to help students. I was fortunate to have a very strong support system when I was growing up – my mother, my father and my extended family – all of whom strongly encouraged me to finish college and get a good job, and eventually to get my master’s degree.
Everyone needs someone, somewhere, who is willing to make a difference in their lives. Everyone isn’t as fortunate as I was. I’ve always been willing to help. Young people today really need it.