Therese Dozier finds life’s purpose in teaching
By Desiree Pena
COE student-intern writer
Few can fathom the tragic circumstances surrounding Therese Knecht Dozier’s (M.ED, 1977) early childhood-and how she overcame them to become a nationally recognized educator.
She was born in Saigon in 1952 to a Vietnamese woman and German soldier who had once served Hitler during World War II. He escaped the German army and fled to French Indochina under a false identity, where he married Therese’s mother. Before Dozier’s second birthday, her mother died and her father sold Therese and her brother to a Chinese businessman. When authorities found the children, they were placed in a French orphanage where U.S. Army advisor Lawrence Knecht and his wife, Anne, adopted them in 1954. She describes this as the point at which her life “took a wonderful turn.”
“I am very conscious that my life would be totally different, in fact that I might not even be alive today, had I not been adopted. So I believe I am here for a purpose, and that I am fulfilling that purpose through my work in education,” Dozier said.
She and her brother were the first Vietnamese children adopted by U.S. citizens. Dozier’s turbulent past, though, has given her a chance to improve others’ lives rather than cloud her own.
The Knechts brought the children to Florida, where the young girl grew up as Therese “Terry” Knecht and graduated first in her class at Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda.
In 1974, she received UF’s Outstanding Scholar Award with a 4.0 grade point average. Three years later, she completed her master’s degree in education at UF and in 1985 she was named the U.S. National Teacher of the Year. She also served as special advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley from 1993 to 2001. Dozier is currently the director of the Center for Teacher Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, which promotes teacher leadership to improve teaching and learning.
“My two most significant achievements were to be named Teacher of the Year and my service as the first classroom teacher to advise a U.S. Secretary of Education. In that role I led the Clinton Administration’s efforts to elevate the importance of teachers and teaching, including passage of Title II of the 1998 Higher Education Act, which resulted in the largest federal investment in teacher education in almost 30 years,” she said.
Knecht has traveled extensively around the globe and taught in Singapore where she worked with students from 45 different countries. Her lifelong achievements were acknowledged by UF in 1986 when she received the Distinguished Alumni of the University of Florida Award. In 1997 she was named as one of UF’s 47 Women of Distinction, which recognizes successful alumnae.
“Much of my outlook on life is an outgrowth of my education. So in a very real sense, becoming a teacher was my way of repaying a debt to the society that has given me so much. And of all the wonderful things I have enjoyed as an American, it is my education that I prize the most,” said Dozier.