Alumna recounts how storytelling can be a lifeline

kelley-cropCiera Dunnell Kelley (B.A. ’11, M.A. ’13), a first grade teacher at University Academy in Kansas City, Mo., and a guest speaker at this year’s annual School of Education Scholar Donor Lunch, told the audience that an opportunity to tell a personal story, at one of the lowest moments of her life, taught her that teachers who build relationships with students are crucial in education.


“Once that relationship is built, that’s when a student is more willing to open up and learn everything you, and life, have to offer,” Kelley said.


By eleventh grade, Kelley knew she wanted to teach.  “I knew I wanted to be an educator so that students who looked like me, and who lived in neighborhoods adjacent to me, could have a chance at an education that piqued their drives and imaginations while stretching their will and abilities.”


Kelley enrolled in the School’s Institute for Urban Education and claims it was the best decision she ever made, quickly learning “what it means to be an authentic classroom leader, one that is invested in the lives of the students.”


Beginning her sophomore year, Kelley became pregnant with a baby boy who passed away right before birth. “During the day I walked around the halls with a smile on my face, often pretending I was happy, and at night I laid in my room crying,” Kelley said.  “It was one of the darkest times in my life.


“Then one day in Dr. (Cheryl) Grossman’s Integrated Arts class, she gave us the project of creating something that would tell a story about something we experienced,” Kelley explained.  “For weeks I struggled with this project. Should I create something that would show what I really felt? Or should I continue hiding my pain and create something that wouldn’t make me so vulnerable?”


Grossman saw Kelley struggling with the project and asked her to stay after class. “She sat me down and told me to tell her a story about a time that changed my life forever,” Kelley said.  “At that moment, I broke out in tears as I relived the day in my head that I got the news that my son passed.”


“She then dried my tears and helped me create a draft for one of the most self-reflective projects I have done to this day. She taught me in that moment that building a strong relationship with your students at the beginning is crucial.”


Kelley went on to build a strong early career as an educator at one of Missouri’s most acclaimed charter schools, recognized earlier this year by her principal in front of the school as having the most growth in reading, and the highest reading and math scores, in first grade.


“As I received that honor, I had no choice but to reflect on all that the IUE taught me and the opportunities it provided for me,” Kelley stated. “So, I thank the professors who gave me the tools to become the educator I am today, my colleagues that never let me slack, but most of all, the donors. You all not only believed in me as a future educator, but as an educator who can change the world for the future.”