Henrico’s Top Teachers – Karen Bowles

Hermitage Tech Center, veterinary science
As a licensed veterinary technician who worked in animal hospitals for 17 years, Karen Bowles became increasingly frustrated with the lack of qualified, trained technicians in the field.

“I wished for a class that would teach people how to do the job, so that we wouldn’t have to train them on the job,” she recalls.

In 2003, Bowles got her wish when Hermitage Technical Center started a veterinary science program for juniors and seniors. She was, however surprised by the teacher hired to run the program: herself.

“I had no intention of teaching it,” she says with a laugh. “I just wanted it to exist.”

Nine years later, the 44-student program is flourishing under Bowles’ leadership and has done exactly what she originally hoped it would – and then some. A number of current and former students hold jobs as veterinary technicians locally and elsewhere, while others have gone on to veterinary school. The program has been so successful that center officials recently added a second section because of high demand.

“It’s so cool when I call a veterinary hospital and one of my former students will answer the phone,” Bowles says. “That’s such a great reward.”

Bowles was a natural choice for the program because she had a teaching demeanor about her and had often been the one performing on-the-job training at the veterinary hospitals where she worked. She was encouraged to apply for the position and did so, thinking she’d be able to teach part time and remain in the working world part time.

That didn’t happen – the program’s demands are too rigorous – but Bowles doesn’t seem to mind.

“I can help these students who had that same dream that I had to become a reality,” she says. “The common thread is the love of animals. Every applicant lists that on their application. I always wanted to work with animals since I was 5, and most of these kids are the same way.”

In addition to her teaching role, Bowles also heads up the newly formed Tech Ethics Society at the center, through which about 80 students perform fundraising and community service projects.

“When observing her, one notices how organized and structured her class is and how the students function as a unified team when completing assigned tasks such as animal grooming, project presentations and surgical preparation,” a colleague wrote of Bowles in a nomination letter. “Her demeanor inside the classroom is the same as outside the classroom and the same with students and adults.”

More than a dozen animals – a cat, a rabbit, two gerbils, three ferrets, three rats, a hamster, a guinea pig, a bearded dragon and a chinchilla – live in the center, and Bowles brings her dog each day, giving students a wide range of real-world experience interacting with them. It’s not uncommon to see a student working on her laptop with a cat curled up in her lap, Bowles says.

The presence of the animals also serves as a calming influence for others in the center at the high school.

“Teachers will come visit the animals if they need the stress relief,” Bowles says. “Special needs students can come too, or sometimes we visit them and let them feed the animals. Sometimes a student will be having a bad day, and being around the animals can help ease the tension.”

One of the most tense moments Bowles herself experienced was during her first year of teaching, when the school was locked down because of a reported gunman in the building.

“I had 22 hysterical students that I had to pack into a small, dark room,” she recalls. “One was hyperventilating. One was claustrophobic. Several were crying. We had been trained in how to handle a situation like that, so I kept talking to them in a calm voice, telling them what we were going to do, and that everything was going to be alright.”

The scare turned out to be a false alarm, but it was an eye-opener for Bowles.

“That gave me the self-assurance that I could handle this, but it also made me realize that I’m a mom to 44 kids, besides my two at home. I probably see more of them most days than their parents do. It helped me to understand teenagers a little better.”
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