Photo: Betty Hansen
Floridian of the Year 2019
Marion County's Teacher of the Year Hollie Cunningham bases her teaching style on her students' personalities
Teacher/nurse Hollie Cunningham caters her teaching style to what works best for each student based on personality assessments.
Before she became a high school teacher, Hollie Cunningham worked full time as a cardiovascular nurse. She hasn’t abandoned the nursing process. She starts off every school year by performing a sort of diagnostic assessment to gauge the “educational temperature” of her 150 students.
First up, she gives them the Myers- Briggs personality test to see where they fall on the thinking/feeling and introversion/extroversion scales. Next, she administers a Carol Dweck mindset quiz to see whether they’ve got a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Finally, she gives them an evaluation based on Gary Chapman’s five love languages to see what sort of acts of caring the kids will respond to — words of affirmation, for instance, or quality time.
The results help her tailor her teaching style in a way that benefits each student. A teen who needs words of affirmation, for instance, hears more than just “good job” from Cunningham.
The assessment also gives her a baseline to see how they’re doing later in the year. “It helps with mental health because when I do that assessment, I can tell a change in every single one of my students, and I know how to go in and have conversations with my students.”
Drawing on her clinical background, Cunningham teaches health-related topics, including anatomy and physiology, at Forest High School in Ocala. In another class she trains kids to become EKG technicians. Some students walk right into entry-level health care jobs after they graduate. For others, she says, it’s the first step in a continuing medical education.
Cunningham, 40, earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Florida State University in 2002 and was in graduate school to become a nurse practitioner when she “felt a calling” to become a teacher.
Seven years later, she has no regrets. “I have never really had a bad day as a teacher, and I have had uncountable bad days as a nurse,” she says. Part of it had to do with patients dying and delivering the news to family members. With education, she says, every day is a fresh start. She also finds the kids easier to be around than some of her health care colleagues. “I may have 150 different personalities in here, but sometimes that is easier than working with 30 strong personalities that are formed.”
Her teaching has had a ripple effect. The EKG program she pioneered six years ago at Westport High School, the first school she worked at, has such good pass rates and enthusiastic responses from students that other schools in Marion County are now offering the class. Earlier this year, she was named Marion County’s Teacher of the Year.
Cunningham says she’s frustrated by the low pay teachers receive. She keeps one foot in nursing, working every other weekend at the heart catheterization lab at AdventHealth Ocala. “I make in one day on call what it takes me all week to make as a teacher,” she says.
Money aside, she’s convinced she’s making more of an impact as a teacher. She starts every class, every single day reciting an affirmation with her students: “I am capable; I am hard-working; I deserve my education.”
She believes the words are especially powerful for the kids who come from homes where education isn’t a priority — and that going the extra mile to connect with her students can make a huge difference in their lives.
Through tears, she recalls having had students who other teachers have told her were lost causes and “not to waste her time on.” Four or five years later, she says, many end up in nursing school. “I know that if they hadn’t sat in my class, they wouldn’t have gotten what they needed to be able to have the audacity to know that you can try, fail and keep going,” she says. “I know I’ve saved so many more lives being a teacher than a nurse.”
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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