Heather BOSSERT Cunningham, Ph.D. ’89 Helps Teachers Focus on Cultural, Racial Awareness in the Classroom

From an early career experience as an English as a Second Language teacher, Heather BOSSERT Cunningham ’89, Ph.D. knew that education would be the focus of her professional work—and, more importantly, that it was her passion.
She recently received tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor of Education in the School of Arts, Science & Business at Chatham University, where her research focuses on training K-12 teachers to support students who are marginalized by race, poverty, language or ethnicity. She has developed a series of seminars called Critical Self Reflection on Race and Ethnicity, designed to help teachers understand the cultural and racial lens that they use to see the world and see the kids in their class. The program helps teachers reflect on cultural and racial self-awareness, classroom culture and management, and restorative practices. Prior to her work at Chatham, Heather was a K-12 teacher in public schools, first in the Washington, D.C. area and then in Pittsburgh. She has also worked in education in Honduras and Malawi, and served as a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) education contractor in Washington, D.C.

She has also remained connected to Ellis. Heather was part of an alumnae panel on National Girls and Women in Sports Day in February, and talked to Middle and Upper School students about the importance of Title IX and her own time as a field hockey goalie for the Tigers.

Heather holds a Ph.D. in Instruction and Learning: Language, Literacy and Culture from the University of Pittsburgh; a Master of Arts in Sociology, International Training and Education from American University; and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Sociology from Allegheny College.

You’ve focused your career in education, but you studied sociology and economics. Did you always want to be a teacher?

No! So, I graduated from Ellis and started at Allegheny as a computer science major. I had a wonderful teacher [at Ellis], Mrs. Powlick, who got me really interested in software and solving problems with software, and so I spent my first year at Allegheny as a computer science major. I  realized at the end of the year that it just wasn’t really for me, but I always liked problem solving and big picture thinking. I had taken some econ classes and so I moved into economics, but I always liked the international development part of economics and that is what got me into sociology as well. I really looked at the two of those together. I had a really great sociology professor at Allegheny who gave me the idea that I’d maybe want to be a college professor but I still hadn’t really thought of doing what I ended up doing for 13 years, which was teaching high school.

I remember my eighth grade interview to come to Ellis. My family teases me about this, but apparently when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said I wanted to teach pet care in Latin America. Low and behold, that desire to go to Latin America stayed with me and so when I graduated from Allegheny I took a volunteer position at a nonprofit and worked for a home for children in rural Honduras for a year and a half. I’d always taken Spanish classes, and Patricia Olla [at Ellis] was hugely inspiring and encouraged my love of Spanish. All of that worked together to get me to Latin America. While I was there I ended up moving into an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching position. That was my first dip into the world of teaching. After that I still thought I still wanted to get my Ph.D. and move to Washington D.C. for American University. I started their Ph.D. program but I liked the applied nature of the international training and education program better. I got that degree, but I really didn’t want to move internationally at the time. I really missed the 1:1 interactions with students, so I quit my job in international development and became certified as a bilingual English language and social studies teacher and worked in Washington D.C. public schools for three years. That was awesome. I got my certificate and stayed in teaching. I just really enjoyed that experience. 

You’ve spent so much of your career in education—did you enjoy being a student, yourself?

I did. I like the cerebral nature of being in schools. I have the kind of brain that likes thinking about problems and solving them. I need that stimulation.

You’ve said one of your areas of interest is preparing teachers to support students marginalized by race, poverty, language or ethnicity in the K-12 classroom. Is the need for this growing?

In the field of education overall, 87-percent of K-12 teachers are white women like myself. Yet, the demographics of students in the United States and in public schools in particular are changing and there are now more students of color than white students. Is there a need for it? Yes, and even more so every day. There’s actually new legislation in Pennsylvania that requires new teachers coming through state programs to develop an awareness of culturally responsive teaching and an awareness that issues of race and poverty and class are evident in classrooms whether we name it or not. All my classes at Chatham have that awareness built in.

Another of your interests is examining Pre-K-12 education within a framework of global sustainability. What does this mean to you? How could Pre-K-12 schools and teachers think about this in terms of what they are doing everyday?

Backwards planning is something we talk about a lot in teacher ed classrooms. You want to make sure you’re thinking about your end goal when you start planning a lesson or a unit. The more those end goals are aligned to real world problems like sustainability problems or equity problems, then the more engaged your students will be. Younger people are way more activated into talking about and exploring things like climate change than perhaps people who are my age are, and so I think for teachers to connect as much as they can to what’s happening to our planet and what’s happening in our communities is important. The more you align your classwork to that, the more your students will graduate to be problem solvers of these types of problems.

What have you continued to learn the longer you’ve served as a teacher?

That it’s about the student. I think a lot of people, including myself, who go into secondary education like high school, do it because they love the content. You can love the content - I can love sociology or economics all I want - but when you’re a teacher it’s really about understanding students and where they are and supporting their learning and their experience. I feel like I didn’t learn that until the end of my 13 years as a high school teacher. There were some teachers at Ellis who really got that. Dr. Norma Greco was my English teacher and she encouraged me to get my PhD because she knew it would open doors for me. Ms. Robin Newham always supported my creativity and ideas that I wanted to bring into existence in studio art class. She really let me develop as the human I was and explore the ideas that I had. I loved having Spanish class with Mrs. Olla. I feel like I got to see worlds through that class that I’d never experienced as a kid in Pittsburgh.

What were the experiences you most enjoyed as an Ellis student? How did they influence you on the path to your career?

I have fond memories of our trip to Ontario to see the Shakespeare Festival. It was the first time I’d left the United States, so it felt like a very big deal. I enjoyed playing field hockey all four years I was here. I also had the unique opportunity to be the youth representative for the United Way of Allegheny County. I was a youth board member for them, being selected through Ellis. I got to sit in on big board meetings with well-seasoned business people a couple of times a semester and give my opinion on youth programs in the Pittsburgh area and where United Way should spend their money. My senior year, because of that, I got to go to a special reception with President Reagan for youth leadership in our communities. I got to fly on a plane with the United Way to participate in Washington, D.C. It was a big deal! The other thing I really liked doing here was Model United Nations. The opportunity to leave Pittsburgh, meet people, go to other places—I thought that was awesome. The Model UN fit with staying in econ and sociology and thinking about international issues. Still today, although my research work all tends to be looking within the United States, it tends to be about cultural and racial diversity and things you can look at globally. These were kind of next level opportunities for me that opened my eyes to the way our city worked and how adults make policy decisions and things like that. It definitely helped me figure out what level I wanted to be at when I graduated and where I could see myself.

Is there any advice or encouragement you’d like to share with current Ellis students?

Follow whatever you’re passionate about. Find out what those things are and keep with it. Take advantage of every opportunity that Ellis gives you. There is a lot of one-on-one encouragement [at Ellis] that students need when they’re doing hard things. I hear people say “we can do hard things” and at Ellis I felt like I could. I was given the right support to make that happen.

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