Justin Cunningham, center, receives his award for being named the Rockingham County Schools Beginning Teacher of Excellence

Driving a school bus for Guilford County Schools, serving as a secretary in the county’s transportation office, and working as a teaching assistant in Rockingham County Schools (RCS) could not fulfill Justin Cunningham’s desire to work with students. So he decided to enroll in the initial cohort of UNC Greensboro’s Piedmont Teacher Residency Partnership (PTRP), a program designed to allow people who did not earn their undergraduate degree in an educational field to gain both their initial licensure and a master’s degree in teaching within 18 months.

Now a math teacher at Reidsville Middle School who received the RCS Beginning Teacher of Excellence award in August, Cunningham puts the focus on his students. “This award helped my students more than it did me,” said Cunningham. “Twelve years ago, I was sitting in some of the same classrooms that my students are sitting in today. If my students see that I can make something out of my life and get an award for it, I hope that is motivation for them to follow their dreams and never give up when the road gets too hard. I want my students to realize that they can’t give up now. They have come too far from where they started from.”

Graduates of the PTRP program serve as teachers in either Rockingham or Surry County after working in the classroom, while also attending classes to earn their master’s degree. These counties are rural districts where the current need for qualified teachers is even more of a challenge than in others around the state. 

Cunningham said, “Reidsville Middle School is a high-poverty school. All of our students receive free lunch. A lot of our students deal with and experience many things that some of us would never dream of. There is a shortage (of teachers) all over, especially in the rural counties. The rural counties can’t compete with the larger counties when it comes to pay. The average person is going to go where the money is at, which makes it harder for the rural counties to recruit and maintain high-qualified teachers.”

Cunningham knows he is making an impact, whether through academics, or being a counselor for his middle school students. “​​The best thing about teaching middle school students is the thought of the unknown,” he said. “Dealing with middle school students, you never know what to expect. Some days you come in and the students are happy and ready to learn. Other days you come in and students are not in the best mood and I have to give them advice and guidance to overcome some of the obstacles that they are faced with. Teaching is more than just standing in front of class and showing students different ways to solve problems. Sometimes, I have to be their brother or father. The great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘If I can help somebody as I pass along. If I can cheer somebody with a word or song. If I can show somebody that he’s traveling wrong. Then my living shall not be in vain.’ That is the quote that I live by. That is my ‘WHY’ for teaching!”

He credits his experiences at UNCG to helping him be successful early in his career. Cunningham said, “My experience in the PTRP program was beyond amazing. The level of support and guidance that was extended my way was great! There was never a moment where I felt unsupported. The advisors and coaches gave me advice, support, materials, and many other things in order for me to be successful as a resident teacher, as well as a future classroom teacher. I would be remiss to say that some days weren’t challenging, however, I realized that it was worth it!

“UNCG gave me the opportunity to be beyond prepared for my first year teaching. I was lucky to be able to get a job at a school that I not only student taught at, but at a school that I actually attended as a student. UNCG allowed me to go back and give back to an institution that shaped me into the individual that I am today. With my UNCG degree, I have been able to help shape and mold young adolescents in order for them to be successful in the future and realize that they can do anything they put their mind to!”