Though classes don’t begin until Aug. 9, Dionna Dempsey has been getting her classroom ready for her incoming students since the second week of July.
Dempsey has prepared classrooms for the new year many times in the past, but this year, the experience felt different. This time the experience had a different energy. This time it felt more permanent and solid, a feeling similar to moving into your own house after being a guest in another person’s house.
The reason for that increased feeling of ownership and permanence is that Dempsey is beginning the new school year as a certified school teacher. Dempsey has worked for PUSD for nine years: four years as a substitute teacher, three years as a registrar and a year as the Edgenuity teacher.
Dempsey will finish her degree in secondary English education this October. With the completion of her degree so close, the Arizona Dept. of Education let her begin the school year as a full-fledged, certified teacher. Dempsey will be teaching English at Page High School this year.
“It feels great to be official,” Dempsey said. “Even though before I was the teacher of record and had my own classroom, it’s just different now.”
Ten years ago, Dempsey was working as a broker and financial advisor in Scottsdale when her husband Tyler, who grew up in Page, felt a desire to return to Page to be closer to his parents and family. Dionna, who grew up in the valley, came along.
Upon moving to Page, Dempsey tool a position with Amangiri as its financial analyst.
“I had no passion for it,” she said. “I just messed with numbers all day. I didn’t see any other people. It was pretty terrible.”
It was during that time that Dempsey had a talk with Nancy Walker. “She said, ‘You should think about teaching. Why don’t you work as a sub for a few weeks and see if you like it?’”
Dempsey took Walker’s advice. She started as a substitute teacher for eighth grade English at Page Middle School and ended up teaching the rest of the school year.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “Middle school is hard. Middle school kids are hard and they took me for a ride. But I still loved it.”
Dempsey forged a strong bond with that group of eighth grade students.
For a lot of kids, the junior high years are when they start having serious thoughts about their futures and start giving serious consideration to what they will do beyond high school. For a number those students, Dempsey was the teacher they trusted most and found her a safe person to confide in.
“I encouraged them to try harder and think big, whether it’s go to college, trade schools or something else,” Dempsey recalled. “I always told them be brave and try hard things.”
Four years later, when those kids were seniors, she heard her own words of advice and encouragement echoed back at her.
“By then I was teaching at the high school and I’d run into them in the halls, and they’d say, ‘You always encouraged us to go to college. Why don’t you go to college? You always told us to try big things. You always told us that we can do it.’ I felt like I was too old to go back to college, and besides, the thought of doing that was terrifying.”
Not too long after that conversation, the high school held an event inviting college recruiters to visit the campus to talk with high school juniors and seniors.
“I wandered over to the Grand Canyon University booth and talked to them about what it would take to get my degree,” Dempsey said. “I gave it some thought and decided to do it. I have to admit, a big part of why I went back to college was to prove to my students that if I could do it, they could do it too.”
Dempsey started at GCU in the fall of 2018 and went full time, earning her degree in secondary education English.
And if Dempsey’s students ask her if it was hard, she’ll tell them, yes, it was pretty hard. It took a lot of dedication, devotion and expert time management. Dempsey attended classes online evenings and weekends, while still teaching full time for PUSD and working as a volunteer at Page Animal Adoption Agency. As further testament to her dedication, she will graduate with a 3.92 GPA.
When Dempsey’s students enter her classroom next week, she hopes they’ll find it a warm, welcoming environment that inspires in them a love for learning.
On some walls, Dempsey has hung art that portray her personality, and her love for literature.
“This also lets them know I’m going to be sticking around for a while,” she said.
Other walls and desks areas are reserved for the students, serving as generators for the students to express themselves. One wall is titled, “Free Writes.” On it the students can hang a paragraph, a short story, a poem or a thought that voices how they’re feeling that day. Another wall is covered in empty picture frames.
“When they reach mastery level of a subject, I will put their photos in the frames,” Dempsey said. “The idea behind all of this is to encourage their creativity and make the classroom feel as comfortable as home.”
Perhaps the most notable wall in Dempsey’s new classroom is the one behind her desk. It contains a large collage of graduation announcement cards given to her from students she has taught through the years. In the center of the collage is a sign with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that reads, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
For Dempsey’s students, it will serve as inspiration of what they are capable of accomplishing if they dare begin. For Dempsey, it’s a reminder of how far she has come on her own journey and an acknowledgement to her former students who encouraged her to go to college and get her degree.
“I hope my students will gain some inspiration from my own journey,” Dempsey said.
“I believe we all have the tools we need to succeed within us. It’s finding those tools and learning to use them. Our journeys may be different, and some may experience more hardships than others, but we all have the strength within us to overcome any obstacles we face. It is never too late to reach for and achieve our dreams.”