Thursday, June 09, 2011
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11th in a series of interviews with Logan County's retiring teachers

Sharon Cunningham retires from Mount Pulaski Elementary School

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[June 09, 2011]  MOUNT PULASKI -- Sharon Cunningham grew up in Harvey and graduated from Thornton High School. It was a separate community then but has since become absorbed by the urban sprawl of Chicago. It is a far cry from the small-town environment where she has spent most of her life. She recently retired from the position of third-grade teacher at Mount Pulaski Elementary School.

She started out in the business world, as a stenographer at Stifel Nicolaus, an investment and brokerage firm. In a short time she felt it was time to go back to school and pursue other interests, mainly her drive to teach. She attended Thornton Junior College, now South Suburban College, and continued at Illinois State University with a major in elementary education. Her first teaching position was at Clinton Junior High, teaching science to sixth-graders.

"After the first day I wondered if I was doing the right thing," Sharon remembers, "because junior high is a different place. It has its own culture, and there are unique issues not seen in other grade levels."

But she stayed and grew accustomed to the strangeness of that particular age group. It was three years before she left to marry and start a family. And it was the mid-'80s before she decided to return to the classroom.

A friend told her about an opening for a special education teacher at the grade school in Mount Pulaski. At the time, state funding was available for schools that would develop "reading improvement" programs, which included extra reading projects. She was with the program part time and was a substitute when needed.

"We did some fun stuff," Mrs. Cunningham said. "We found creative ways of encouraging students to read."

In 1993, she was hired as the Title I reading teacher at Elkhart Grade School and Zion Lutheran in Mount Pulaski. She simultaneously worked with Mrs. Searby in the Reading Recovery program, focusing on first-graders who were beginning readers.

Mrs. Cunningham had returned to school, and in 1996 she received her master's degree in reading. It was an important month for her family.

"I graduated from ISU with my master's degree; my oldest daughter, LeeAnn (Price), graduated from Eastern Illinois University; and my son graduated from Warrensburg-Latham High School," she explained.

When a third-grade teacher retired at Mount Pulaski Elementary School, Mrs. Cunningham took her position. She became involved with the Technology Committee, and Accelerated Reader, where she enjoyed creating incentives for students to encourage them to reach their reading goals. She volunteered for other activities when they needed extra hands.  

"You can participate in extra activities and volunteer to help, but you can only stretch yourself so far," she said. "You need some downtime. Teachers have families, too.

"Overall, though, the time has gone so fast. It is amazing how long I've been involved with education and teaching," she commented. "I can remember students' names from years ago. I hear from them and see them around. It takes some time to really understand students as the school year moves along, but you see their soft sides, what makes them sad and how they are on the inside. You don't forget those things very easily." 

She commented on her experiences in the classroom: "With subjects like math, you can see the confusion in students' eyes when they are trying to understand, and then the look changes as the concepts and reasoning begin to make sense.

"You never know what is going to happen during the day. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that makes them react and become excited. You have to be flexible and just go with it!" 

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As the idea of being retired becomes reality, Sharon knows some things will not feel the same.

"Sundays will have a different meaning because I have found myself gearing up for the week as Sunday progresses," she said. "Now I'll have to think about something else. But I'll miss the routine.

"It is a big responsibility to have another person's child all day. You have to stick up for them and make them feel safe. I believe I have done that for my students and hope they remember the good things we did here."

Her third-grade class wrote letters to the second-graders, telling them what it is like to be in third grade. She knows the older students enjoyed sharing their ideas, and they will help the second-graders any way they can.

"This is the ace of schools," she said, "because it's like a comfortable shoe. It feels good to be here. I feel fortunate to have been a part of this district and this school building's teaching staff. I wish them all well."  

It won't be too hard to stay busy or to be involved. Sharon belongs to a book club in Clinton, plays tennis, does water aerobics, walks for exercise and plans to volunteer. And, yes, she will substitute after she has time to do other things.

She and her husband have three children. LeeAnn teaches at Eastern Illinois University and is the athletic coordinator; Rebecca (Christian) lives in Decatur and performs ultrasounds at a medical facility; and Rebecca's twin, Steven, works in finance at State Farm in Bloomington. There are eight grandchildren now that Steven and his wife had twins, a boy and a girl, in March.

Sharon and her husband have planned a trip to Disney World for November. Otherwise, she plans to pick what she wants to do a day at a time. Three of the grandchildren are scheduled to stay at Grandma and Grandpa's house in July. There will not be a dull moment this summer. But now she can rest when school starts in the fall.


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