Giving students a voice: Music teacher named Montgomery County Teacher of the Year

Johnathan Dunn been named Montgomery County, Maryland’s Teacher of the Year.

Johnathan Dunn has been named Montgomery County’s Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy Montgomery County Public Schools)

Humbled, elated and surprised. That’s how Sherwood High School music teacher and restorative justice coach Johnathan Dunn describes his reaction to learning he’s been named Montgomery County’s Teacher of the Year.

Dunn is quick to give credit to teachers and school staff across the school system, who, like their students, have experienced a range of stressors over the past two years during the pandemic.

“Truth be told, if you’re a teacher who’s made it from August to June in this climate,” Dunn said. “I think we’re all deserving of Teacher of the Year designations at this point.”

Students and staff returned to school eager to find a new normal and worn out from adjusting to dealing with anxiety over what Dunn called “the dreaded virus” and the social isolation that it imposed.

“I’ll be honest with you, this has been a challenging two years for me,” he said. Dunn, a father of four, said he witnessed the difficulties his own children faced, while working to help his students get back to what many hoped would be a “new normal.”

Dunn, who teaches chorus and piano, encourages students of all abilities to get involved in the music program, including a three-hour music revue, the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival.” The show has been a tradition at Sherwood for decades.

As passionate as he is about music — and that passion is clear when Dunn hits the stage with his students during concerts the music department holds — he’s just as passionate in his role as a coach in the restorative justice program at Sherwood.

“I think there’s a degree of grace that’s embedded within the restorative justice program that gives kids an opportunity to thrive,” Dunn said.

He’s known for having an open-door policy, and he finds joy in seeing growth in his students, whether its academic or social.

“We cannot, in this climate right now, equip kids for future learning and competency if we literally just drop the hammer every time, without giving them a chance to learn from the mistake.”

Providing a window to a promising future for his students is another one of his passions. Dunn, who is African American, recalls a first-grade teacher calling him stupid in front of the entire class. “I’m a 47-year-old man who remembers what that felt like,” he said.

But later in his school career, Dunn had the kind of interactions with teachers that would let him see his own potential. He said that his high school choral director, Dr. Barbara Baker, was the only person of color that he saw on his musical journey up until that time.

He also remembered how his high school piano teacher took him backstage to meet the classical pianist André Watts at the National Symphony Orchestra.

“Those things were transformative,” Dunn said, adding he wants his students to have the same opportunities to see a place for themselves in their chosen career paths.

“My whole philosophy as an educator is to do no harm,” and he wants his students to move through the world with confidence, “to take risks, to be who they are as an authentic human, and to just enjoy the ride as they do it.”

Dunn has been a teacher at Sherwood High School for nine years, and has been with the county’s school system for 19 years. He’s currently winding up his final semester in a master’s degree program in educational leadership.

Giving students a voice: Music teacher named Montgomery County Teacher of the Year