Longtime Principal Steps Aside, Reflects on Impactful Stint at TMS
Things have changed in education since Dr. Kathy Cunningham began her career four decades ago. Back then, students weren’t issued Chromebooks at the start of the school year. “Cracking the books” actually meant flipping through pages of a particular text. And “social media” was pretty much limited to passing notes in class.
One thing the longtime Tucker Middle School principal says has not changed are the children.
“The technology has changed tremendously, but students overall are pretty much the same,” Cunningham explains. “The majority of students want to learn, want to be recognized. They want you to care about them. Even though the factors that affect the kids are different than when I started back in the 1980s, the kids are the same.”
Cunningham is set to retire from her post at Tucker Middle at the end of the month. She leaves as one of the longest tenured employees of the DeKalb County School District, having put in 37 years of service. Many of those years were spent just across Main Street as a math teacher at Tucker High School. Although she inspired students, served as department chair and even won a Teacher of the Year award, Cunningham feels that administration is where she was able to make her greatest impact.
“It’s even more satisfying [than teaching],” she says. “I love the classroom, but you only affect those few students…180 kids maybe the whole year. Becoming a principal, you get to touch the lives of the community, the parents, the staff members. You can have more of a vision in looking at what can we build a school to be.”
Cunningham is clearly conflicted about the decision to retire. She feels the time is right with a brand new grandchild, one-month old Christian Samuel. She stands ready to travel the world, do some tutoring and become more involved in her church. It’s all the things she says she’s wanted to do.
Still, she gets emotional thinking about moving into this new phase and leaving behind her “family”.
“I have been really blessed to have the best bunch of staff members. They have just been so caring, just caring about kids,” she reflects. “And the kids…I’m going to miss the kids, the staff members, the community, [Region II Superintendent Trenton] Arnold and the DeKalb County Public Schools. That part is the bitter and the sad part.”
And the community she loves, loves her right back. Thousands of parents have entrusted their children to Dr. Cunningham over the years and they say her respect for those students is what made her such an effective leader.
“Dr. Cunningham created an environment where students, teachers and staff are supported and encouraged - with high expectations that everyone achieve their best,” says former Tucker Middle School parent and current City Councilmember Michelle Penkava. “I am so grateful that my daughter and son were part of the Tucker Middle School family under Dr. Cunningham’s kind, caring and successful leadership.”
As Cunningham looks back over a career which started back in 1982, she does so with pride. The two years teaching in North Carolina, the year in Cobb County Schools and the nearly two decades at Tucker High School were all foundational. But it’s the time spent transforming Tucker Middle that she is proudest of.
“You have to love children,” she says. “The middle school student is a little bit different. There are a lot of needs. You have to be a person that looks for the good in the student. You have to make sure you do all you can to make students successful and make sure they learn at the highest levels.”
The DeKalb County School District sent Cunningham out on a high note earlier this year, tapping her as the Region II Principal of the Year. And as she walks out the door for the final time, it’s just one of several career accolades that take a backseat to her greatest accomplishment: the transformation of young lives.