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A lifelong learner

Region I Teacher of the Year Greenlee Naughton (Ed.L.D. ’16): a role model for students and teachers

Greenlee (Lee) Naughton, Ph.D. (right), and Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and graduate studies at the VCU School of Education, at the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year Ceremony at VMFA.

Greenlee (Lee) Naughton, Ph.D. (right), and Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and graduate studies at the VCU School of Education, at the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year Ceremony at VMFA.

A career journey can be anything but linear. Myriad experiences affect the paths we take before becoming what we were meant to be. Greenlee (Lee) Naughton (Ph.D., Educational Leadership, ’16) is no exception.

Both of Naughton’s parents were career educators. As a child, she remembers her mother coming home from school one day barefoot. A first-grader in her class had thrown up on a pair of alligator-skin pumps that she absolutely loved. Her mother attempted to clean them, but ended up throwing them away the same day.

As Naughton grew up and considered different professions, she couldn’t get that image out of her head. If someone mentioned teaching, she would remember that day with her mother and say, “No way. I’m not going to do that.”

Naughton went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English (from Randolph-Macon College and the University of Richmond, respectively), while minoring in secondary education only to appease her parents. She landed a job as a recruiter for Paramount Parks in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was at home on maternity leave in April 1999 when coverage of the Columbine High School massacre interrupted normal programming.

“It was such a compelling story – a turning point in education,” said Naughton, who was glued to the TV all day. There was even a teacher who corralled a group of students into a room and ended up dying from a gunshot wound.

“Why recommend the VCU School of Education? First, there’s some cutting-edge research going on at the school. Second, it’s a very supportive and collegial environment. The faculty genuinely wants students to succeed.”

“I don’t think I could have prevented loss of life if I had been in one of those classrooms. I just remember feeling that good teachers were needed. I knew I could do a good job, and I knew I could relate well to teenagers,” she said.

She thought about it for several days, and the urge to do more grew inside of her.

“I felt like I needed to be in the classroom. I needed to be a role model. I needed to be a confidante. I needed to be someone who could help on the front lines,” she recalled.

Within a few months, Naughton was teaching English in an urban classroom in Charlotte. After that, she taught in Hanover County Public Schools from 2004 to 2013. She returned to an urban classroom at Highland Springs High School in Henrico County in 2014, where she also currently serves as chair of their English department.

Highland Springs is in the East End of Henrico County, bordering on the city of Richmond. Naughton noticed the different environment almost immediately.

“Students in both Hanover and the East End of Henrico have support, but it’s a different environment in the East End. Students there have extensive family support, but their parents may be working two or three jobs. The students might not have been read to as children. My students have been appreciative of good teachers throughout my career, but students in the East End are very appreciative. They know good teachers. They know who cares for them, and they know who works really hard for them,” she said.

Naughton said that to be an effective teacher, she also has to find ways to connect with her Highland Springs students outside the classroom.

“It may be over football, basketball, video games, or movies based on Marvel Comics characters. It takes a little more research on my end, but it matters to kids. It matters if they look up in the bleachers and see you at their basketball or football game, because they look for you to be there,” she said.

When Naughton – a self-described “lifelong learner” – decided to pursue her doctoral degree in educational leadership a few years ago, she chose the VCU School of Education (VCU SOE) over other schools because of its outstanding reputation. She recommends the school to others primarily due to two of its strengths.

“First, the emphasis on research – there’s some cutting-edge research going on at VCU SOE. Second, it’s a very supportive and collegial environment. The faculty genuinely wants students to succeed. I’m not sure you find that everywhere,” she said.

May 2017 was a big month for Naughton. Not only did she earn her Ph.D. from VCU SOE, she was named Henrico County Public Schools’ top teacher for 2017. In September, she was also named Region I Teacher of the Year for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

While these are significant accomplishments, especially for someone who went into teaching later in life, Naughton isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s currently working on her gifted certification, which has prompted questions from some of her colleagues.

“People ask me why I’m working on gifted certification when I’m working in an urban setting and not teaching gifted kids. Teaching methods for gifted students can also lift up students who aren’t motivated for one reason or another. There’s such a fine line between the two. I think we underserve the truly gifted in an urban population just because they might not be identified as gifted,” she said.

“I will always be seeking some sort of knowledge to make me a better teacher, a better teacher leader, and to give back to the profession. I’ll never stop learning.”

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