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Teaching America how to teach

Cyril Josh Barker | 8/29/2013, 9:30 a.m. | Updated on 8/29/2013, 9:30 a.m.
Joiselle Cunningham

From Harlem to the White House, Joiselle Cunningham has spent years shaping the lives of students as a top-notch teacher who was given the privilege to share her talent with the hopes of making change in how America educates.

Cunningham is one of eight nationally selected teachers to be named Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year. She is also one of three teachers who have been selected as Washington Fellows, who will be placed to work full-time at the Department of Education’s headquarters.

Now in the sixth year, the Teaching Ambassador Fellowships were created to give outstanding teachers an opportunity to learn about national policy issues in education and to contribute their expertise to those discussions. Prior to being selected, Cunningham was a fifth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity Middle School in Harlem and also taught in the Bronx. In Washington, she will work on teacher quality issues in the office of the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Born on the Upper East Side and later living in Co-Op City in the Bronx, Cunningham said she became interested in social justice, which led her to become a teacher.

“I wanted to uplift the community, and I thought that was the best way I could make an impact,” she said. “To this day, I still think that by me being a teacher, I can do that.”

A graduate of Duke University, she spent one year studying at La Universidad San Pablo-CEU in Madrid. She then continued her education at Pace University, earning a Masters of Science in teaching with a certificate in bilingual Spanish education.

She has previously taught mathematics, social studies, science, Spanish, writing, ESL and Native Spanish Language Arts. Cunningham also worked to plan and develop educational programs in Europe and Latin America. After completing her undergraduate studies, she joined the teaching profession through Teach for America and began teaching fourth-grade bilingual Spanish in the Bronx.

“The bond that a teacher can create with a student and their families is a deep bond and very special. A teacher sees a child grow over the course of the year and pushes the student in a lot of other ways,” she said.

In Harlem, Cunningham’s curriculum involves giving students knowledge about the history in their neighborhood. She often makes references in lessons to the development of jazz music in Harlem and to Langston Hughes’ impact on American literature.

While in the nation’s capitol, Cunningham says that she wants to emphasize the need for improvement in the country’s undeserved communities. She plans to outline the needs for wraparound services, teacher preparation and better resources.

Said Cunningham, “This fellowship is about policy. I think it will be rooted in families and faces in Harlem, and in the Bronx as well. I know that I will be able to put faces with data, which I think is important.”