If there has been one constant over the years at West Marion, it has been Gigi Dunaway, whose entire educational career has been at West Marion. She is set to retire at the end of this school year and said it was a decision that wasn’t easy to come to, but one that has brought her peace.
While Dunaway has enjoyed being with the students, parents and staff, she is now looking forward to something else: being “Gammie.” Her daughter contacted her and told her she was expecting their second child, due in the summer. Dunaway said it was time to be a full-time grandmother.
“It is still hard for me, I love this place. This place is where I get my energy. I’m passionate about these people here. The students motivate and inspire me,” she said.
Dunaway was 23 years old when she began her career teaching sixth grade English at West Marion Elementary School. While the Clinton High School graduate was already married to her husband, T.J. Dunaway, she still contends that she grew up here.
“The person I am today is from the lessons I have learned from the students and staff from this school,” she said.
During her first year teaching, she was advised by a retiring teacher, Mr. Dillon, who told her if she would follow the students home and know where they are coming from, she would be a successful teacher. She understood from his advice and through the years that it is really about relationships, particularly those relationships with parents, students and staff, all of which have been important to her.
Megan Robbins, West Marion High School librarian, said, “She was my sixth grade English teacher. She taught me the Shurley Method- and to this day, I sing those jingles. I’m sure all of her former students do. She’s very caring and has a big heart and loves this school, the students, the faculty and staff. She’s a Godly woman who loves the Lord very much and it definitely shows. I’ve told her before how many stars there are in her crown, because of the person she is. I’ll definitely miss her next year. Will miss seeing her face. But I’m also excited for this new chapter in her life to begin."
One of her driving forces has been her passion for West Marion. She said she has been so passionate about the place that she has never felt like her job was actually work. Dunaway said that if someone is passionate about something, they will do whatever they can to make it successful.
Passion is a word Dunaway used over and over. She is passionate about her students graduating and being successful in life and about wanting her teachers to excel as well. She said passion is the key to be a successful teacher and leader.
She credits the Marion County School District for allowing her to become a leader, especially when she didn’t think she had the ability. When she was teaching seventh grade, the principal and superintendent approached her about becoming the lead teacher. She realized that they saw some leadership qualities in her that she had not.
“All I ever wanted to do is make a difference,” Dunaway said.
One of her most special moments happened last year when they held the senior celebration. After not seeing the students since the middle of March, and then seeing the banners along the walls and seeing her students after being quarantined for so long, it was great. She said it brings her great joy to celebrate victories with the students and teachers.
The hardest thing for her has been losing students who have died. She again credits her staff and students because they cry together and laugh together and believe in rallying and lifting people up. She considers the school one big family, and when one person hurts, everyone hurts.
Dunaway said she will miss the daily interaction with the students encouraging them and letting them know she believes in them, and she’ll miss celebrating their successes. She will also miss her interactions with her teachers, between what is going on in class and in their personal lives. Everyone she has worked with the office staff, custodians and cafeteria staff, she said she will miss them all. They are a family, she said.
“These people are what makes West the Best, they are like the ingredients of a cake,” she said.
In Dunaway’s letter to the Marion County School Board, she said, “Some of the most memorable and important moments for me will have been watching our graduation rates rise, witnessing academic growth and increased ACT scores and seeing West Marion become a ‘B’ school.”
She received the West Marion Elementary Teacher of the Year award in 1996 and in 2005, she was the West Marion Junior High and the District Teacher of the Year. This year, Dunaway received the District Administrator of the Year award.
One of her current students, Kaitlyn Amundson, said she would miss her.
“I really love Miss Gigi,” she said.
The advice she has given to teachers includes assuring them they have the power to make a difference every day, and nothing else can change a life like a teacher. Always model what you expect, and always be passionate about students and learning and remember why you became a teacher in the first place. See where the students live and it will be life-changing. Nothing beats seeing a student years later and hearing how you made a positive impact on their lives.
After having a structured routine for 30 years, and all of the daily interactions with students, teachers, parents and staff, she said she is really going to miss it, but she is walking by faith into her next phase in life. She is leaning on Proverbs 3:5-6 and allowing God to lead the way.
For Dunaway, her goal has always been that she wanted to make a difference. Yet, through the tears, she admits West Marion made a difference in her.