Woodward Academy: Q&A with visual arts teacher Andy Cunningham

More than 2,500 companies were nominated or asked to participate in the 2017 Top Workplaces contest by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its partner, Workplace Dynamics. Employees across the metro area responded to print and online solicitations that began appearing in September.  

Using survey results, a list of 150 workplaces was compiled, consisting of 25 large companies, 50 midsize companies and 75 small companies. Woodward Academy was the top large workplace

Andy Cunningham finds it strange to say out loud that he’s worked for Woodward Academy for 32 years.

When he joined the city’s oldest private college preparatory school in 1985, he had no plan to be a high school teacher. Cunningham, who holds a bachelor’s degree and MFA from Georgia State University, was the first black male on faculty at Woodward. He said he has seen the school evolve through four presidents and grow into a more diverse faculty and student body.

Cunningham chatted about how Woodward makes him feel valued by providing benefits, such as health insurance and free lunches, and resources for him to teach the visual arts on the main campus in College Park.

Q: Do you remember how you applied and interviewed for your job?

A: I was finishing my MFA. My goal was to be a college professor and artist. And I got a phone call one evening, from actually, strangely enough, one of my mentors. He said, “Andy, are you interested in teaching high school?” I said, “Nope.” He said, “Well, hear me out — Woodward Academy.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of Woodward Academy.” He had been asked to refer some people. And I told him, “Can I think about this?” He said, “Well, sure. Don’t think too long because I need to give a list of people who I can recommend.” My wife asked who is that … and I said he was asking me about if I was interested in high school, which I’m really not. She said, “Where is it?” Woodward Academy. She said, “Get on the phone and call him back to tell him you are interested.” She said, “That’s a great school.” That’s the way that all started. And I came here and interviewed.

Q: Why did Woodward feel right to you when you came here?

A: It was kind of cool. So I came to meet (Chris Greenway, the visual arts department chair) in his classroom. I walk around and there’s rolls of film hanging from the ceiling. There is a dyed cloth, which is called batik. There’s people doing jewelry. He’s got a drawing still life in the middle of the room. He literally taught everything. And I was like, jeez. I walk around, real excited. We’re like brothers now. But we hit it off from that minute. He’s one reason (I’ve been here) for 32 years. The art department’s really like a real, real close-knit family. You don’t find that everywhere. I’ve turned down two, three jobs since I’ve been here. They’ve all been university-level jobs.

Q: How does the faculty keep connected as Woodward has grown?

A: They have a “collaboration day” where we may see each other for a longer period of time and the kids aren’t here. That’s a late start day. So that’s been an attempt to help bridge some of that (helping faculty get to know each other). We all eat over in the middle school cafeteria. So there’s an opportunity at least to sit with other faculty at lunch.

Q: What has helped keep morale up as the number of employees at Woodward has grown?

A: Sometimes we will get together as a large faculty. And President Stuart Gulley will address the faculty and update us. They have different events (such as Braves games and symphony tickets) … that are free to us. We have faculty luncheons that are really kind of cool. That’s through the parent’s club. A big part of keeping morale up is showing you’re appreciated.

Q: So how do you feel valued here?

A: One big one, I think for me as a teacher, is allowing me to do my job, trusting that I can do it and do it well. Not micromanaging me. I think that’s huge for anybody in any area, if they say, “Here’s your job, sit down and do it, and check in every now and then.” That’s always been a huge thing for me. I am a professional artist outside of here. That’s sometimes addressed (such as) ”Hey, Andy’s got a … piece at the museum.” They’ll have bulletins and things like that where everybody can kind of see what you’re doing.

Q: What types of resources and tools does Woodward give you to work at your highest level?

A: From Day One, I’ve always had anything I need to work with. They want us to have everything we need to be the best we can be in the classroom and facilitating the students to have state-of-the-art instruction and state-of-the-art equipment. That’s something that’s never changed from 32 years ago until now. It has always been: What do you need?

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