Denise Wright’s path to the classroom was anything but a straight line.
The chemistry and physics teacher at Louisville High School decided at age 15 that she wanted be a funeral director. She spent summers working at Stier-Israel Funeral Home in Louisville before heading off to college at Ohio University where she studied pre-med and business.
After mortuary school, she moved to Virginia and began working in the industry.
But the funeral business meant long hours and little time together with her first husband, Tony, who also worked in the industry. When a close friend who taught at the local high school asked Wright to take over her classroom while she was on maternity leave, she jumped at the chance.
Wright fell in love with teaching the advanced chemistry class.
“That fall, I had a job, and here I am 28 years later,” she said.
After eight years of teaching, Wright took another detour and spent two years as a consultant for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Despite the bigger paychecks, it didn’t take long for Wright to yearn for the classroom.
“I was miserable. I was making twice as much money working two weeks out of the month, and I was miserable. I just missed the kids,” she said.
After an amicable divorce, Wright returned to her hometown of Louisville and began teaching at her alma mater. Her classroom is right by her senior locker. And she had her 16-year-old son Jimmy in her class last year.
In teaching, you see the same students every day and develop relationships with them, she said.
“There’s nothing like seeing that connection—once something finally makes sense and somebody gets something you’ve been working two or three weeks trying to teach,” she said.
“It’s neat when they put it all together,” Wright added.
Students sometimes complain that they’ll never use what they’re learning in the classroom. Wright doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“But I want to teach them to be critical thinkers. To be able to solve a problem,” she said. “My goal every year is to make sure a student will walk away learning something from me about life.”
Wright encourages her students to pursue higher education, especially girls who may think they don’t need a degree.
“You need to have your own self-worth … You always need to be able to stand on your own without relying on someone else.”
“You need to have your own self-worth … You always need to be able to stand on your own without relying on someone else,” she said.
Even as a teacher, Wright is a lifelong learner. She went on to earn a master’s in education and is working on her doctorate. She’s even enrolled her 1-year-old dog, Teddy, in classes to become a therapy dog.
Wright adopted Teddy after her husband, David Burchfield, died suddenly last March. She plans to bring Teddy into nursing homes in Burchfield’s memory.