When I first set foot in the Jessie Harris Building at UTK, I didn’t know that a mentor awaited me tucked away in a tiny office in the first building named for a woman on the UT campus.
Dr. Kathy Fitzgerald recently retired from the Child & Family Studies Department after 20 years. Affectionately known by many CFS grads as “Kathy Fitz,” she guided hundreds of students through the early childhood program and monitored their development into excellent teachers – from participating in the Early Learning Center on campus to classrooms of their own throughout East Tennessee. I was one of those students, and I’ve been fortunate to call Kathy a mentor from my undergrad days at UTK through my doctoral program.
As an undergrad (and now having taught undergrads), I can say that Kathy possesses the innate ability to help a student develop the skills necessary to become a great teacher through opportunity. Even more important than knowing the how, I left Kathy’s classroom knowing the why – why developmentally appropriate practice is essential for our youngest learners.
It’s something I carried with me when I left UTK, even though I didn’t go on to complete my teaching degree at that time. Kathy understood when I told her I couldn’t see myself “teaching to a test” and decided to take another route. While I was working on my master’s degree in library science, we fell out of touch, but as fate would have it, Kathy came back into my life at another pivotal moment.
I had been teaching for five years as an elementary librarian when I decided to run for the Board of Education. My motivation was tied to the things Kathy taught me years ago in her classroom in Jessie Harris: teachers must stand up for their students when children are being required to do things that are not developmentally appropriate. I had never run a political campaign, so I was shocked at the roomful of folks who turned out to my campaign kickoff at The Round Up. Once the crowd died down, I got an even bigger surprise when I saw Kathy and her grandson! It meant the world to me that a professor from years ago showed up to support my campaign.
Over a lunch date halfway through my school board term, Kathy asked what I would do when I eventually left political office. She knew I wasn’t a career politician, but sagely knew returning to the classroom may be difficult and asked if I considered working on my doctorate.
At the time, I laughed, but I took Kathy’s wisdom to heart and she planted a seed. I applied to UTK, and began my doctorate in theory & practice of teacher education.
Not only did Kathy work with me on an independent study during my program, but she connected me with colleagues to conduct my research. Kathy cheered me on to the finish line of my dissertation and throughout my post-doc job search.
Oprah Winfrey so aptly shared that “a mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope in yourself.” For many grads of the CFS program at UTK, Kathy has been a dedicated mentor who kindled the flame of hope. We are grateful and wish you a happy retirement!
– Amber Rountree Ph.D.
Amber Rountree served from 2014-18 on the Knox County school board.