Rhonda Wilkerson’s office in Peabody Hall feels like a home a way from home, reflecting her lively interest in the arts, with everything from colorful mobiles suspended from the ceiling to part of her collection of African masks displayed on the walls. After 28 years at the School of Education, Wilkerson is retiring in June, and her abundant collection of art and mementos will find a new place to call home at her residence in Raleigh.
Though she clearly will miss being in her office, where students and colleagues drop by on a regular basis to share ideas, Wilkerson says that what she will miss most in retirement are her many years of “being in the schools where the action is!”
For the past 18 years, she says, she has arrived at Carrboro Elementary School every Tuesday and Thursday of the fall semester to supervise students enrolled in her junior-year Education 412 course. “I learned so much from my student teaching experience at Carrboro Elementary,” says Jenn Baucom, a graduate of the School of Education who is now enrolled in the program in Urban Schooling at UCLA. “Dr. Wilkerson provided me with an amazing foundation for my educational career.”
Wilkerson brings insight and energy to her role as mentor and friend. “Spending time in the classroom with students, children and teachers, and those relationships that have formed has been a joy for me,” Wilkerson says. “I will miss a lot of things, but I will miss that most of all!”
As an educator who spent 16 years as an elementary school teacher prior to joining the faculty, Wilkerson has focused on helping future teachers appreciate the unique learning style of each person – including their own – and on developing the skills they need to be responsive and effective in the classroom.
“I observed the many different ways children learn when I was a teacher myself,” she says, “and as I began teaching at the School of Education, I continued to see this diversity in adult learners and attempted to address this in my courses.” A graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh, Wilkerson taught in Wake County, where she was named Teacher of the Year in 1979-80, before returning to graduate school. She earned a master’s degree in elementary education in 1983 from North Carolina Central University in Durham and went on to earn a Ph.D. from UNC in 1986.
Her role at UNC has been to prepare students to understand and learn about the developmental stages of elementary school students, and the skills needed to organize a curriculum, perform student assessments and implement best teaching practices in order to become a successful teacher. Whitney LaPlante Elliot, another former student, says Wilkerson taught her to “think critically about what each child needs academically, socially and emotionally and to use those needs to inform my practice.” Elliot, who worked with Wilkerson as a student teacher for two years, has since spent three years teaching in public schools in Alexandria, Va., earned a M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is now finishing up a one-year position at a private school in New England prior to returning to teach in a public school in Virginia. She credits Wilkerson with teaching her that “if we really want to make a difference for our students, we must take on the responsibility [to be involved politically].”
Wilkerson has the reputation for being very available to her students, often taking them out to lunch or for coffee to hear about their challenges and to share insights gleaned from her years in and out of the classroom. She strives to be “open and available and a good communicator” to both her students and her colleagues.
One important focus for Wilkerson has been integrating the arts into the elementary school classroom. “I consider the arts to be an essential element in teaching children and people of all ages,” she says. She has been a volunteer docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art for 23 years and plans to spend more time in this arena after retirement. She enjoys leading tours of school children at the museum – a way to put into practice what she teaches, she says. Wilkerson has also prepared and presented programs in the NCMA’s African gallery, using her considerable expertise in the subject. She recently became a member of the Raleigh Fine Arts Society, which supports arts programs in the area’s schools. “I expect to be a ‘worker bee’ and help them do whatever needs to be done,” she says.
In retirement, she also plans to enjoy more time with her husband, Joe, their two grown sons, Jay and Bryan, and her grandchildren, George and Henry.
During her 28 years at UNC, Wilkerson’s passions – her “heart and soul” – have been in the elementary education programs at the undergraduate level, a program she coordinated from 1999 to 2005. “So much of what I have done is to try to turn theory into practice,” she says. “Spending time in the classroom, observing students and my student teachers, and then connecting those concepts I am teaching with the real world of the class every day – that’s what I love to do.”