UK alum, professor connect over journey from soldier to teacher
By Amanda Nelson
When University of Kentucky professor Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., and then-student David Brown were paired for a project at the UK College of Education, they discovered shared traits — a similar sense of work ethic and trust, plus the ability to improvise, adapt and persevere.
Their shared research — studying unconscious bias among teachers — relied upon many of those traits, which they credit their time serving in the U.S. military for developing.
Prior to coming to UK, where he earned a degree in elementary education in 2019, Brown took on multiple overseas assignments during his 20-year career as a U.S. Cavalry scout. And Thomas, prior to his career in higher education, served as an airborne infantry soldier for three years with the 82nd Airborne Division in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, completing over 50 jumps from aircraft and serving as a fire-team leader and automatic rifleman.
Today, as the nation honors the service and sacrifice of those who have served in the U.S. military, Thomas and Brown reconnected to reflect on what they have gained through giving back — through both military service and teaching. They are also sharing advice for those who may pursue a similar path.
What sparked your interest in education?
David Brown: I was an instructor in the Army prior to retirement and enjoyed the “light bulb” moments when people first learned something new.
Jonathan Thomas: My father was a college professor and my mom was an elementary school teacher, so for a long time, it was anything but education for me. When I finished my enlistment, I started at UK as a health care admin. major. Once I realized that I enjoyed mathematics, I changed to computer science. However, this was before the days of innovative workspaces, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around “coding in a cubicle” day in and day out. After much soul-searching, I decided to try an education course, and I fell in love.
Both teaching and military service involve making an impact and giving back to communities. In what ways is that important to you?
Brown: My first three years of teaching I taught at the very same primary school I had attended many years ago. I felt like I was able to give back to the community that raised me by helping raise (academically) their children and grandchildren. It was such an honor to be able to walk those halls as a student and later a teacher. Now I am at a different school but still feel honored to be teaching these children how to read and think critically about the world around them, rather than just believe everything at face value.
Thomas: As a soldier, I always felt I was serving a greater purpose and giving something back to my country. I was 19 years old when I enlisted, and it was my first “important job,” and I was so proud to have it and to serve. The Army trusted me with all sorts of tasks and equipment, and it was really empowering and humbling. I felt the same way when I got my first teaching job. Walking into my first classroom in Cincinnati, the responsibility and trust I felt with leading elementary students was really inspiring. There was something deeper with both my military service and teaching roles — a sense that I was part of something bigger and more useful to society.
What has your career as an elementary teacher been like so far, David?
Brown: I am in my fourth year of teaching first grade. My first three years were at Blake Primary in Parker, Arizona. I am currently in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching at John F. Long Elementary. I enjoy reviewing the data and progress monitoring my students’ reading skills and seeing the growth over the year. I can’t help but enjoy the rush of hearing a child correctly read full paragraphs they previously struggled reading. Another joy is listening to a 6-year-old explain their mathematical reasoning as they describe how they know 10-6=4. Or better yet, when they explain that six is the missing subtrahend in the equation.
How has military service been useful to each of you in your careers?
Brown: The Army was one of my first experiences being entrusted to help prepare the nation’s youth. As a drill, and later Cavalry, instructor, I was entrusted to train and prepare young civilians to become soldiers. Now I train children to read and teach them how to think for themselves.
Thomas: The Army really helps an individual develop a problem-solving mindset that is so beneficial in the teaching profession where lessons and activities rarely go exactly as planned. It was also my first experience being a member of a truly diverse community and developing relationships with others of dissimilar backgrounds. Hearing about their lived experiences and sharing my own was nurturing in ways that I am still realizing to this day.
What advice do you have for someone who may be considering a similar career path?
Brown: The old saying “teachers are not in it for the income but the outcome” applies to soldiers as well. We don’t do what we do expecting to become wealthy, but we do still have bills to pay. If you’re retiring, or otherwise separating from the service, and considering a career in education, go for it. Just make sure your finances are in order and you budget your funds, something rarely taught to enlisted troopers.
Thomas: I would encourage student veterans to strongly consider education as a profession. Teachers, like service-women and service-men, are heroes of society, and I absolutely love that I get to continue serving in a role that is important, that shapes the world around me, and where I am entrusted with great responsibility. While not the same work, I find that teaching is exhilarating in a similar way as soldiering. Achieving those breakthroughs and “aha moments” with students (both elementary and college-level) makes me feel like I am on a mountaintop and celebrating those moments with my students is so, so rewarding. I always felt those in the service were drawn to that work because of a deeper longing to do something big and to give back, and in my experience, education is in that same vein. It’s a place to do something big and to give back.
The annual UK Veterans Day Observance will be held 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11. Organized by the Veterans Resource Center, the ceremony will be held at The Cornerstone Esports Theater. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. All UK faculty, staff and students are invited to attend as the university pays tribute to the sacrifices made and courage displayed by the veterans within the UK community. Lapel pins representing the military branches will be distributed, and a reception will follow the ceremony. Read more here.
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for” three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes’ list of “America’s Best Employers.” We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.
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