D.C. Public Schools’ teacher of the year can be found in an uncommon area for a high school teacher: a college campus.
James Cunningham, an art teacher at the School Without Walls, a magnet school on G Street, was named teacher of the year in December. Cunningham, who attended public school in D.C., said he owes the honor to all of the teachers he has had growing up.
Cunningham accepted his award at a ceremony last week at the Kennedy Center. The event was hosted by Project Runway host Tim Gunn, and featured breakdancers and speeches from actors like Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley.
At the cocktail-attire event, Cunningham called his place of work “the School Without Walls and without boundaries,” adding that he thinks the award should go to every administrator at the school because of the skills the students take out of the classroom.
“It’s not about getting from A to B but about what you bring to the table,” he said at the event.
Cunningham set out for a career in curating after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but instead has worked in the D.C. Public Schools system for more than 30 years, teaching art and advising on an international education program he brought to School Without Walls.
Eight years ago, Cunningham brought the already-existing LearnServe International program to students at the school. Students in the program learn about environmental issues after regular school hours on Thursdays, usually with a focus on sustainability in Africa, and have the opportunity to go abroad to places like Ethiopia, Jamaica, Paraguay and Japan.
Cunningham said the program has grown in the past eight years to include about 60 students from Maryland, Virginia and D.C.
“I like documenting how the world moves and try to engage myself and my students in as many opportunities and possibilities as possible,” he said.
Richard Trogisch, the principal of School Without Walls, said Cunningham’s persistent teaching style helps the students learn the values of discipline and persistence. He said Cunningham is one of the best teachers at the school.
“He turns people who may not think that they have any artistic ability and has them producing incredible works of art. He is one of our best teachers in this building,” Trogisch said.
School Without Walls attracts some of the city’s top high school students. It has won awards in the past for the students’ art, the Model United Nations team and other achievements. Two GW employees, John Ralls, one of the leaders from GW’s Office of Operations, and Bernard Demczuk, GW’s chief city liaison, also teach there.
Cunningham taught at Anacostia Senior High School before he taught at School Without Walls. At the school, he headed the Africa Initiative, a program based on teachers going on the Fulbright Program to Ghana. Introduced in 2003, Cunningham started an Africa Resource Center back at the high school where the teachers could store the books, artifacts and materials that they had collected during their travels.
After Cunningham departed Anacostia, DCPS dismantled the program.
“It had so much promise. Having an idea is great, but if you don’t fund the idea, it’s sad,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said he emphasizes teaching outside the classroom and encourages other teachers to pursue other interests as well.
“I’ve always had good teachers,” he said. “When you have good people who really love what they do, and you find out that they were doing more than just being in the classroom or that it wasn’t always about grades but about shaping, molding, and the development of craft, it was a no-brainer.”