When Susan Cunningham first began teaching more than three decades ago, an experienced teacher she was working with had a rather harsh evaluation.
“They told me they didn't know if I'd ever be a good teacher,” Cunningham said. “Those words have always been in the back of my brain. I think that’s what motivates me every day to be my best self for my students.”
Today, Cunningham is a second grade teacher at Lakeview Elementary School in Robbinsdale, and it’s been about 33 years since she heard that critique. And if her longevity wasn’t enough of an indication she’s a great teacher, some recognition she recently received might just do the trick. Earlier this month, Cunningham was named 2021 Teacher of the Year by the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers.
Cunningham said she’s humbled and honored to have earned such an award, and that she couldn’t really believe it when she heard the news. “I'm very hard on myself and, until relatively recently, I have struggled to see what others have seen in me for years,” she said.
But Peter Eckhoff, President of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, said it isn’t hard to see Cunningham is a world-class teacher.
“Robbinsdale Area Schools is full of exceptional teachers,” he said. “And every year, we have a substantial list of amazing candidates for this award -- a list that’s included Susan Cunningham before. It’s no surprise to me that this was her year, and it’s safe to say we couldn’t have a better person and educator representing the district as Teacher of the Year than Mrs. Cunningham.”
Cunningham said teaching has always been in her -- when she was a child, she often played school in her basement. By the time she was in college, though, she began pushing against the calling she had to teach, instead studying speech and hearing science.
“But I couldn't stay away. I love learning. I love getting my students excited about learning,” Cunningham said. “I love watching everything about my students grow in the year they are in my classroom with me. I love watching the 'dimmer switch' on the light grow brighter as they become more accomplished in their own learning. I love hearing them tell me how much they love school, love math, love reading, love writing. I love watching them become friends with each other and helping one another.”
Lakeview Principal Bridget Hall said she’s thrilled for Cunningham, who, in a lot of ways, is the glue that holds the school together. “She’s just a wonderful teacher and an amazing person,” she said. “Mrs. Cunningham has magic when working with her students, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award than her.”
Coincidentally, this will be Cunningham’s final year as a teacher. She’s retiring when the school year ends in June. “It’s not lost on me how this is an incredible way for her to cap off her journey as a teacher,” Hall said.
While she’s proud of the award, Cunningham said she wouldn’t be the teacher she is today without her teammates and colleagues at Lakeview, and of course her students and their families. “I would like to thank the Robbinsdale community for sharing their children with me, and trusting me to be a part of their team. I have been, and continue to be, truly blessed and honored to be a teacher to so many children.”
Typically, the winner of the Teacher of the Year award would be recognized during an in-person celebration co-hosted by the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers and the Seven Dreams Education Foundation, who each year presents the award-winning teacher with a $500 prize. However, this year the event has been canceled due to COVID-19.
Eckhoff said there were three other finalists for this year’s honor. They included: Kathy Kneeland, Armstrong High School; Marissa Hoffman, Cooper High School; and Samantha Boll, Robbinsdale Middle School.
In addition to the Teacher of the Year award, the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers also selects an Education Assistant of the Year award. We will have that story and press release in the coming weeks.