Anna Shepherd stands for a picture with her former students.

Anna Shepherd (pink dress) stands with former students. Now teachers in Floyd County, the group joined her at the Dancing for the Shelter event on April 4. Shepherd said the event raised $75,000 for the homeless shelter in Floyd County. Photo courtesy of Anna Shepherd.

In the heart of eastern Kentucky, photos line the top row of two bookshelves in Floyd County Schools’ central office. The bookshelves belong to Anna Shepherd, superintendent, and the faces displayed are those of her former kindergarten students, who later worked for the district.

Shepherd, a veteran educator for more than 30 years, began her career in Floyd County. Now, as superintendent, she provides guidance and support to hundreds of employees, including many of her former students.

“I am just so proud of all my former students, but to have former students in education who are impacting our students and our families … and sharing that love of learning with our families and this region,” Shepherd said, “it’s just awesome.”

Like other districts across Kentucky, Floyd County Schools utilizes a Grow-Your-Own program to recruit and retain educators from its student population. According to Shepherd, this includes a teaching and learning career pathway at Betsy Lane High School.

“Back when (my former students who work in the district) were my kindergarteners, we did not have Grow-Your-Own,” she said. “I think it’s really great that we can retain our own students to carry on that legacy and teach our students and grow and continue that in our community.”

In the face of the district and region’s challenges like drug addiction, economic problems and trauma from flooding and community violence, among other weights students carry into classrooms, the local perspective of homegrown teachers empowers them to rise to meet their students’ collective and individual needs, providing students with that level of care and love.

Jon Gibson, a first-year teacher in Floyd County and one of Shepherd’s former students, said his familiarity with the community allows him to relate to his students. 

“They have the same experiences and I’m able to see myself in a lot of them. And that really helps me to relate,” Gibson said. 

Shepherd said that schools serve as the heart for rural communities like Floyd County. 

“Our teachers and our schools are the hubs for our communities. During the pandemic and … this flooding, we have experienced that because that’s where the families go first when someone needs help,” she explained. 

Shepherd’s philosophy toward the students as a classroom instructor is the same now that she is a district superintendent.

“They have to be safe and loved and cared for,” Shepherd said. “The students work their hearts out for you,” she said, “if they know they’re loved and that you’re gonna take care of them.”

For teachers like Gibson, returning to Floyd County has been an opportunity to give back. A culture of love for people and place keeps them tied to their home community.

“I think teaching in Floyd County is like this sense of coming home,” said EmLee Adams, another former student and current teacher. “It’s a heartwarming experience, and it’s like being where you’re supposed to be.”

A row of headshot photos in picture frames sitting on top a bookshelf.

Floyd County Superintendent Anna Shepherd has two bookcases in her office showcasing her former students who later worked for the district. Photo by Caleb Bates.

Shepherd said her former students working in the district speak to the culture of the community and the power education holds to affect communities.

“It’s really powerful when you stay here and teach,” Shepherd said. “You really do get to see that impact.

“You do understand that like our theme this year, ‘every single thing you do matters forever’ to these children and the families in the school district.”

Shepherd said the district hosts a new teacher cohort to provide recent hires with community, mentoring and strategies for improvement, among other things. 

Meagan Blackburn, a former student and current teacher, found a young author’s book that she had written in class about what she wanted to be when she grew up. At the end of the book, she said she wanted to be like Anna Shepherd.

“And that’s still how I feel,” she explained. “I want my kindergarten babies to feel the way she made me feel.”

The new teacher cohort is also an opportunity for veteran teachers to teach new ones, allowing what Shepherd said to be a continuity of legacy and service. Shepherd said that when districts grow their own students, they establish a network of teachers who can work together.

Shepherd’s face beamed with pride as Adams, Gibson and Blackburn, along with other former students Julie Flanery, Kacey Shepherd, Taylor Acres and Zoey Dye, who all work across the district – recounted their experiences.

“We can never celebrate (our teachers) enough. I just want to be the superintendent that is able to do that, you know, for all teachers in this county,” said Shepherd. “They are so deserving.”