Great teachers are a work of art—inspiring, uplifting and enriching. James Cunningham is a great teacher who teaches his students about the great works of art.
James is a product of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) who returned to give back 31 years (and counting) to the DCPS community. After serving at Anacostia High School for many years, James now teaches at The School Without Walls High School.
And—true to the school’s name—he’s made it a point to make sure his students’ education isn’t confined by the walls of their classroom. He organizes internships for his students and has accompanied them on “field trips” to explore art in such far-flung places as Ethiopia, Jamaica, Paraguay and Japan.
The DCPS 2015 Teacher of Year took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on coffee, art, teaching…and the powerful bond of a handshake.
First off: Are you a coffee drinker? Tea? Teachers are generally up very early and running all day. What’s your fuel? Have a favorite place to get it?
I love both! My favorite coffee is Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia at Ethiopic on H Street, and Hibiscus is my tea of choice, hot or cold from Whole Foods.
You’ve taken your student artists on trips all over the globe. What’s your personal favorite—the most inspiring place for you?
I found Ethiopia special because it was my first trip to the continent. The people, history, food and an organization called Project Mercy were inspiring. I was humbled the entire time teaching and still support them and maintain contact.
You’re a product of DCPS and now back as a teacher? Was that always the plan? When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
I always to wanted to be an artist, but after studying under Ms. Georgia Jessup and her daughter, Mrs. Rose Auld, at Eastern Senior High School, it was all clear.
Who was your favorite teacher when you were a student in DCPS?
I ran varsity track throughout high school and for a track club, which was my first love. The day I saw Ms. Jessup working on a portrait of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I embraced the love and passion for the arts she had as an artist and educator. I could see myself doing that for the rest of my life. Everything that came after was time and place.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher coming into a city school?
Know and be passionate about what you teach. Be secure in who you are and never be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything. Mistakes are the core to success: Learn from them. Work your craft. Surround yourself with like-minded, passionate people like yourself. Be confident. Teaching, contrary to what anyone says, is a profession.
How can art open the world up to students and make a real difference in their lives?
In 2003, Thomas Williams was in his freshman year at Anacostia Senior High School. He came into my room with some examples of his work, and we talked about expectations. He mentioned how he was accepted into Duke Ellington School of the Arts and felt it was unfair that he had to leave home everyday at 5:30 a.m., while Anacostia was just down the street. I made him a promise on that day that if he was serious about art, I would give him the same quality of artistic experience and training and not leave the school until he was in college.
During the next four years, Thomas was involved with Journey to Peace with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and John Hope Franklin, Jr. in New York, won numerous local and regional contests, and traveled to Ghana all by his junior year on a handshake and our word.
Upon his return from Africa, he was changed and began to redesign the album cover of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” as a mural on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with a final panel called “Blow Back (Africa Gifts to America).”
The work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s Tyler Gallery and graced the cover of the Smithsonian Magazine’s National Ellington Project. That same year, the National Duke Ellington Society revised the rules of the competition to all high school levels, allowing Thomas to be recognized as the most outstanding artist in the District of Columbia as a junior.
He was the first AP Studio student from Anacostia to receive a near perfect score and was accepted into the prestigious Tyler School of Art. Thomas received the grand prize as a junior and helped remove the negative stigma on schools east of the Anacostia River.
I turned down several offers to teach at other schools because I had to let him know that one’s word is one’s bond and means something. This was a promise made and kept between teacher and student on a handshake.