Ashley Dunne fell in love with music in elementary school. From a young age, it was in the music classroom that she felt safest and most connected to her educational experiences. “I had a lot of wonderful teachers along the way who made the music classroom feel like such a welcoming place for me,” she said. “I really felt at home in the music classroom.”
Ashley found some of her best friends in music class, having played the violin since third grade. It made sense to her family and friends when she planned to major in music education when she left for the University of Connecticut as an undergraduate student.
While finishing her studies at UCONN, Ashley heard about the master’s in Education program at University of Bridgeport. “I started hearing a lot about this wonderful master’s program at UB,” she said, “and my mom was a UB alumni.” Shortly after graduating from UCONN, Ashley began studying for her M.Ed at UB.
Developing her educational philosophy
When asked what stood out to Ashley during her time at UB, she considers her internship the most impactful part of earning her master’s degree. Through UB’s connections to over 65 local school districts, master’s students work in a school for a full school year while attending classes 2-3 evenings per week. “I made some great connections during my internship, which was just invaluable,” she adds. “I got to learn about how a school was run. From something as simple as how to work a copy machine to how to manage a classroom, I worked through all those growing pains during my UB internship.”
This internship component provides more than $25,000 in scholarships that go toward the students’ master’s program. “That made me so much stronger when I went into my interviews looking for my first full-time job,” Ashley recounted.
Ashley credits the foundations of her teaching philosophy to her education at both UCONN and UB. The coursework and faculty were instrumental in helping Ashley envision how her future classroom would operate. “I want the music classroom to be a joyful place for my students; a place where they feel like they can be themselves and feel at home in the school.”
Ashley found her calling in the school district she called home as a child, Southbury, Connecticut. She teaches children music at Gainfield Elementary School. Her husband, a fellow UB alum she actually met at the program’s M.Ed information session, also teaches elementary music education.
For many K-12 students, having a trusted adult in their corner at school can help them overcome many of the obstacles they face in their daily lives. Educators like Ashley, working to create safe and uplifting spaces for their students, often go above and beyond for all their students — creating learning experiences they carry with them into their adult lives.
It came as no surprise to anyone (except Ashley) when she was selected, in secret, as a 2023 Milken Educator Award recipient.
Receiving the Milken Educator award
The Milken Educator Awards were created in 1987 by philanthropist and education visionary Lowell Milken. This teacher recognition program empowers awardees to “celebrate, elevate, and activate” the K-12 profession and inspire more young people to pursue teaching as a career. Ashley was one of 75 recipients selected nationwide during the 2023 awards season. Ashley’s awards ceremony came as a total surprise to her even though, as the school music teacher, she was tasked with setting up the assembly in which she would be honored as a Milken Educator award recipient.
“As the music teacher, I have a hand in running our school assemblies.” After setting up for the assembly, Ashley quickly realized this “Gainfield Gathering Day” was different from other past assemblies she’d prepared for. First, she noticed the Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education were present, then members of the media. Still, Ashley hadn’t realized she was the guest of honor just yet.
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“I went up in front of everyone with my ukelele and began singing the school song with all the students,” she said, “Then the superintendent spoke, the Commissioner of Education spoke, and finally, Dr. Jane Foley began to speak about the Milken awards.” Ashley was excited as she realized that one of her colleagues was about to be honored at this assembly-turned-awards ceremony, still not realizing she was the awardee.
Watch the video below to see Ashley’s reaction and acceptance speech when she finally realized she was the focus of that day’s assembly. Ashley was honored as one of the 2023 Milken Educator Award winners, giving her access to a network of professional colleagues and professional development opportunities that will empower her to continue making a meaningful difference in the lives of her students. The accolade also comes with an unrestricted financial award that she can use however she wants. During the 2023 awards season, the Milken Family Foundation reached $75 million in individual financial prizes over the life of the program, with over $144 million invested in the Milken Educator Award national network overall.
In true music educator fashion, during her acceptance speech, Ashley sang the song she had been teaching her students, which tied back to a school wide social emotional learning theme, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.
Ashley works to be intentional in everything she does in her career as an educator. Stemming from lessons she learned at UCONN and the philosophy of education she leaned into during her master’s program at UB, Ashley wants her students to feel seen and heard. In her classroom, she displays a quote for all her students to see and internalize every day, “I see you. I believe in you. You’re safe to grow and thrive here. I want to hear your voice.”
K-12 educators are the changemakers of the world, guiding the next generation of learners to reach their full potential in inclusive and collaborative classrooms where they can feel safe and cared for. It is the compassion and passion of educators like Ashley that make teaching and learning a calling rather than simply a career.
“Every day, I want to be the best teacher I can, so I can do all those things like sparking joy and making my students feeling included.” – Ashley Dunne, UB alum and 2023 Milken Educator Award recipient
UB is proud to be part of Ashley’s journey. To get started in pursuing your passion for teaching, learn more today!