Kathleen Unrath receives governor’s teaching award after 20 years at College of Education

“The award is significant to me because my faculty nominated me, the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum,” Unrath, an associate professor of art education at the College of Education, said.
Professor Kathleen Unrath speaks to a group of future art teachers. courtesy of Melissa Grindstaff via the MU College of Education

In Townsend Hall, Kathleen Unrath works surrounded by souvenirs from former students. What began as postcards from traveling students evolved into a multitude of art pieces and presents, representing love and respect from students.

Her impact does not go unnoticed. On April 5, she received the 2018 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, an accolade given to one faculty member at each participating Missouri university. Unrath was nominated by her fellow faculty members in 2017 and was required to submit nomination letters from colleagues, students and professors from other universities, as well as a personal statement.

“The award is significant to me because my faculty nominated me, the Department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum,” said Unrath, an associate professor of art education at the College of Education. “It is also where the meaning is for me: to know that my peers felt that I was worthy to even be nominated. To win was crazy wonderful.”

To the faculty, her nomination came as no surprise. James Tarr, the department chair of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum, said Unrath was an obvious choice.

“Dr. Unrath is a recipient of several high-profile awards at many different levels — college campus and system,” he said. “Putting her up for the governor's award seemed like the next frontier, if you will, for recognition.”

Unrath has been an MU faculty member for 16 years, but she began teaching at the university 20 years ago shortly after starting her Ph.D. Previously a middle school teacher in Maryland, she said that pursuing a doctorate degree at MU was not her initial plan.

“My husband was working as an architect, and he got a job here at MU,” she said. “I loved what I was teaching in Maryland. I was teaching art and gifted and talented students in middle school. When I learned that MU has a doctorate in art education, which maybe 30 to 40 institutions in the country have, I said, ‘Okay, maybe this is meant to be.’”

Currently, her research centers on teacher identities and the effects of mentorship, particularly looking at younger teachers in their first five years of induction.

“Teacher success and teacher preparation are important to me,” Unrath said. “I look to see if young teachers, no matter what field they’re in, are supported, particularly art teachers.”

Jenny Ning Zhan, a master’s student at the MU College of Education, said that Unrath has made a major impact on her own career. Unrath noticed Zhan’s frustrations as an international student in her research class and reached out with a supportive email.

“When I received that email, I felt so surprised and so touched [and] moved,” Zhan said. “We have so many classmates in a classroom, so the professor needs to take care of everyone. But she could tell what I was feeling.”

Zhan said that Unrath’s empathy is what sets her apart from other faculty members. Since the email from last spring, Zhan has felt inspired to incorporate the same sense of kindness into her teaching methods as well.

“I was inspired by this case,” Zhan said. “How can I feel [and] take care of my future students? Again, how can I empathize with my students? And then, how can I support them? She’s the model. She will display and deliver these things, and I will deliver them to my future students. This is education; she’s the model.”

Amy Ruopp, post doctoral fellow in the College of Education, expressed similar thoughts on Unrath’s empathetic nature. Ruopp previously worked as Unrath's student teacher in a Maryland middle school, and the pair was reunited when Ruopp decided to pursue a doctorate degree at MU.

“She starts every class with some kind of thing that she’s noticed in her day-to-day events that relate to what she’s teaching,” Ruopp said. “She’s kind, caring, loving and embraces pretty much anyone who comes into her presence.”

She and Unrath have established many academic traditions together, such as wearing tutus in class on Halloween. Last year, they affixed LED lights around their tams at Ruopp’s doctorate graduation ceremony.

“The hooding ceremony is very serious; you’ve worked so hard for so long,” Ruopp said. “As soon as we stood up and lit up our tams, you could hear the whole audience go, ‘Ah!’ Any way we can spread a little bit of our creative happiness and celebrate and light things up is something that we like to do.”

For Unrath, moments like these are important. She values the relationships she’s built over the years and still keeps in contact with many of her students.

“Teaching is my complete and utter joy,” Unrath said. “Unfortunately, the arts are not as privileged as other disciplines, so I think it’s extra important to be continuously there for the community of learners I’ve developed here at MU. They’re always a member of our art family, no matter how far back they go.”

Outside of teaching, Unrath is a fibers artist and curates an art exhibition every year where MU students can showcase their work.

Edited by Stephi Smith | ssmith@themaneater.com

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