Written by Brian Canever
Photos by Steven Bridges
The hour before the announcement felt like one of the longest in Kami Lunsford’s life. A 2006 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumna, she sat beside her husband, Mark, surrounded by blue, white, and gold balloons in the library of Karns Middle School. A livestream from the Tennessee Department of Education played on a laptop computer as Lunsford and eight other finalists logging in from around the state waited.
The speaker on screen quoted from an essay Lunsford, a 14-year music teacher at KMS, had submitted, and the video cut to Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in the hallway outside the library doors. Lunsford shook her head. It couldn’t be. In an instant, Schwinn was through the door naming Lunsford the 2020–21 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.
“Thank you so much,” Lunsford said to the camera, tears welling in her eyes, her voice breaking with emotion. “If you’re a teacher watching, this isn’t special. We are all working hard. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re going to change the world.”
Lunsford, who received a $3,000 check from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents as part of the award, is only the fourth music teacher since 1968 to win Tennessee’s highest award for teaching excellence. She is the fourth UT education graduate to be named Teacher of the Year since 1990—the earliest year for which the Office of Professional Licensure in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences has records.
“Every teacher should get this award this year,” Lunsford told the Knox County School Board and Superintendent Bob Thomas at an October 7 ceremony honoring her achievement. “We should be riding around on school buses, knocking on doors, and giving out checks.”
It’s a staple of the approach Lunsford takes to both education and life. In 14 years, she has grown KMS’s choir to reach thousands of students, launched shows and concerts that have become a community staple, and taught everyone from professional singers to students now working as educators across the state.
Born and raised by a single mother in a churchgoing family in Trezevant, Tennessee, a town of less than a thousand people in rural Carroll County, Lunsford was giving 30-minute lessons for $5 to residents of all ages by the time she was in eighth grade. High school teachers noticed her talent and drive. As long as she was willing to put in the work, the world was hers, they told her.
“It didn’t matter that I was living in a tiny town, raised in a single-parent home, a girl, or whatever,” Lunsford says. “They made me believe I could do anything.”
After graduating from West Carroll High School, Lunsford arrived at UT as a pre-law major. She wanted a practical degree that might help provide for a family one day. Those first weeks, she felt like a tiny fish swimming in a giant ocean. After joining the Pride of the Southland Band, she immersed herself in the School of Music. Inspired by her own teachers, she switched her major to music education.
“At UT, your professors care about you,” Lunsford says. “In the School of Music, the culture was ‘Kami, I didn’t see you in class today’ or ‘Kami, you need help on this—when can we meet?’ That’s how I do business in the middle school.”
Fay Adams (’72), a piano instructor at UT for 44 years before retiring in 2016, taught pedagogy to Lunsford. Adams was immediately taken by Lunsford’s work ethic and personality. “Infectious,” she remembers it. “She got things done.”
Colleagues and former students saw Lunsford’s all-in approach firsthand after she was hired at Karns Middle.
“Kami is 100 percent one of the reasons I love choir,” says Hannah Berkley (’17, ’19), who earned a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s in choral conducting from UT.
Berkley, now the choir director at South-Doyle High School in Knoxville, had been part of Lunsford’s first class in 2006, the ones she calls “my babies.” Berkley remembers the talent show Lunsford launched, which continues 14 years later, and which country singer Emily Ann Roberts—who was runner-up on the ninth season of NBC’s The Voice—credits with launching her career.
“It may sound silly, but winning that talent show in the 7th grade lit a fire in me and made me want to perform everywhere I possibly could,” Roberts says on her website.
In 7th grade, Berkley’s choir class took a field trip to RCA Studio B in Nashville, where they recorded two songs—“Tennessee Waltz” and “God Bless the USA”—singing in the same room where Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash had once sung.
“For a lot of us, it was our first time leaving Karns,” Berkley says.
Over the years, Lunsford’s students have performed in nine states and extensively throughout Tennessee, including at Graceland. Their last field trip before the school year moved online in the spring was to perform the national anthem at Thompson-Boling Arena on February 27 as the Lady Vols defeated Mississippi, 77–66, in women’s basketball.
This fall, she has adapted her choir classes and performances for a COVID-19 world. Her ensembles—one for advanced singers and others for theater and CODA, a mishmash of learning instruments like the bass guitar and singing harmonies and solos—meet online after school, where in-person and virtual students can interact. She keeps drumsticks and a ukulele at her kitchen table for her livestreams.
“Kami has shown, with the technology she’s brought in, the way she’s inspired kids, she can make the rubric fit whatever the reality is,” says Terri King (’79), who was Lunsford’s student teaching supervisor and left her position at Farragut Middle School in 2008 to become Lunsford’s co-teacher at Karns for her last six years before retiring.
Lunsford doesn’t teach for the honor or the recognition. She was as excited to make the state’s top nine as she was to win. All nine finalists serve on the Tennessee Teacher Advisory Council for the 2020–21 school year, providing feedback and informing the work of the state education department.
For Lunsford, what matters most has always been her students.
“I’ve got to exhaust everything I can to get them the resources they need to build the life they want,” she says. “What am I doing if I’m not doing that?”
Originally published on October 21, 2020 on UT News.