Ask an Antelope: Dena Harshbarger was ‘born to teach’

Kearney native Dena Harshbarger graduated from UNK in 1992 with degrees in elementary education and middle school math and science. She completed a master’s degree in elementary education from UNK in 1998 and joined the Department of Teacher Education as a faculty member in 2010. Harshbarger also holds a doctorate in educational studies – teaching, learning and curriculum from UNL.

Why did you choose this career path?
My mom and aunts often joke that I was “born to teach” because I have always wanted to be a teacher. I can remember playing school and teaching my younger sister Dawn and the neighbor kids in our apartment complex how to read when I was about 7 years old. I also wrote plays and skits for my cousins so we could perform them for our family at holiday gatherings.

My desire to teach was confirmed through the fortune of having many inspirational Kearney Public School teachers. Each of them conveyed a heartfelt love for the profession and their students. I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps and I have never looked back. Whether I am teaching young children or adult learners, being part of another’s educational journey and their search for self is the ultimate reward.

Where did you work before UNK?
After 18 years of teaching elementary school for Kearney Public Schools – three years teaching sixth grade at Central Elementary (1992-95) and 15 years teaching fourth grade at Meadowlark Elementary School (1995-2010) – I was ready to branch out and share my passion and teaching experience with future and practicing educators. While teaching fourth grade, I taught a Teacher Education Math Methods course at UNK as an adjunct instructor on occasion and discovered that I enjoyed teaching adult learners, too.

How do you prepare students for the teaching profession?
I make every effort to teach and lead by example. When I enter the College of Education building, I leave my worries at the door and I focus on why I am here – the students. I come to class eager and prepared to share my passion, knowledge and experience with my students. Despite having taught some of the same classes for 11 years now, I continue to refine and tailor my courses to meet evolving societal shifts as well as the diverse interests, learning preferences and readiness levels of my students every semester, and I want my students to recognize this and follow suit in the future.

One of my primary goals is for students to make connections between educational theory and practice. I purposefully create and coordinate meaningful learning opportunities in which my students can directly apply what they have learned during class to their field experience teaching, student teaching and future classroom. In class, I refer to this as “everything is on purpose,” which is one of Quantum Learning’s “5 Tenets of Teaching.” During practicum field experiences in local elementary schools, my students prepare and facilitate hands-on, inquiry-based science lessons that specifically align with our course objectives. This gives them several opportunities to learn experientially.

Since self-reflective practices often result in expedited professional growth and development, I also require students to reflect upon their teaching and I provide formative feedback they can potentially use to set personal goals to enhance or develop their instructional delivery. I emphasize being prepared, yet flexible. Life happens and lessons will not always go as planned. Relatedly, I try to model and promote having a “growth mindset.” I want them to know that it is OK to take risks and try new instructional techniques or best instructional practices that are known to positively impact student learning even if other educators are not currently using them. As a result, many of my assignments require students to provide research-based rationale supporting their instructional decisions in terms of student learning. In doing so, I hope to prepare future educators so that when they leave UNK, they will have the pedagogical knowledge, skills and self-confidence to design, teach and advocate for quality instruction.

What sets UNK’s teacher education programs apart from other colleges and universities?
The UNK teacher education instructors care about their students and take time to get to know them individually. Due to their extensive teaching background, instructors can bring relevancy to the content from an experienced teacher’s perspective. They function as a team. Several of us even co-teach courses. We are collectively dedicated to ensuring our students leave UNK prepared and equipped to have their own classroom. We take great pride in our students’ successes.

UNK’s teacher education instructors also help students develop communities of learners within their courses. As a result, the students get to know one another and enjoy learning in a collaborative atmosphere. When you enter any of the teacher education classrooms, you will find an inviting, safe and interactive learning environment unlike those you might find at other universities and colleges. Many of the students have a similar learning trajectory and therefore take multiple courses together. This often results in students forming a supportive network of peers and instructors throughout their time at UNK.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
My greatest sense of satisfaction comes from seeing the circle of education unfold. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to teach some of my former sixth and fourth graders again at UNK, and then watch them go off to have their own classroom. I have also been reunited with many of my former undergraduate students when teaching them in graduate courses. I see where these graduate students are teaching, and I get to help them directly apply the course content to their current classroom setting and curriculum. I feel blessed to teach and mentor preservice and practicing teachers at UNK. It is a win-win for me. My students continually inspire me and give me hope for the future of education!

What do you love most about UNK?
I love the kindhearted and hard-working students, faculty and staff who collectively provide support and guidance for UNK students. The student-centered focus is evident wherever you go on campus. I feel proud to be part of this learning institution.

Share a fun fact about yourself:
My husband Kyle is a full-time lecturer in the Criminal Justice Department. Over the years, I have learned a great deal about forensics and crime scene investigations. We met in high school. We took astronomy and computer classes together at Kearney State College in 1990 and married in June 1993. Years later, my son Kolten and his wife Stephanie met in computer classes at UNK in 2018 and married in August 2019.

I also am a certified Les Mills BodyCombat instructor at the Just for Ladies gym in Kearney. Additionally, I love to read and do puzzles for fun.

“Ask an Antelope” is a Q&A series highlighting UNK faculty and staff and their impact on the campus and community.