Kate Cunningham ‘22 may have the inside track for a teaching and coaching career, but she’s also thinking outside the classroom. A runner who has cleaned more than a decade’s worth of soil from her spikes, the secondary education and biology major grew up spending time at the lab at Purdue University where her mother does biomedical research. “I knew I wanted to stay in the school environment,” she said. “And science has always been a passion.”
Cunningham spent last summer working at Marian University’s Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab, where she led students on nature walks and helped with the ongoing maintenance. “We trimmed trails and helped preserve the native plants,” she explained. “We even put on waders and went out into the marshes to spray the reed canary grass and other invasive species. And we helped track turtles. If we found an Eastern Box Turtle, we’d pick it up and put a tracker on it.”
The EcoLab has been one of the highlights of Cunningham’s time as a student at Klipsch Educators College, as have her seasons as a Knight on Marian University’s cross country and track and field teams. “I have been into running since middle school,” says Cunningham. “My coach in high school was also my biology teacher, and he was someone who modeled for me that you can be a great teacher and a great coach at the same time.”
One of the biggest challenges a runner can face is not being allowed to run at all. Near the beginning of her junior cross-country season, Cunningham sustained a serious concussion in a car accident and couldn’t run for nearly two months. She missed all but the last three meets of the year.
“It was hard, but I was supported by my teammates and my coaches,” Cunningham said. “They would FaceTime me and ask me how I was doing. And I ended up getting accommodations in my classes because I kept having memory problems.”
Cunningham finished those final three meets with slower times than usual, attributing it to her long break from training. But she soon discovered that there may have been another factor at work. “Just after I started indoor track in January, I was diagnosed with anemia,” she said. “It’s been a very long road, but I’m back now.”
Craig Jordan, assistant coach for Marian University’s cross country and track and field teams, agrees that Cunningham seems to be back on track. “She was pretty much coming back from zero,” he said. “But she’s made strides every week since. And every race this season, she’s taken a big step forward.”
Cunningham’s perseverance has made her a role model for her peers. “She’s very positive,” Jordan said. “Definitely one of the leaders on our team.”
Cunningham’s exemplary qualities serve her well in the classroom. Here, too, it’s less about always knowing the answer and more about being able to take the long view—and recovering from the occasional misstep.
“My first teaching residency was with Indiana Connections Academy, an all-online school,” she said. “During my very first lesson with actual students, I misspoke and said something about a keystone species, and a student corrected me. A keystone series is a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depends. I acknowledged it and moved on, with humor, but it was a good reminder. My students are still learning, and I’m still learning, too. It’s important to move on and not focus on little mistakes.”
This modesty belies Cunningham’s accomplishments as both a developing teacher and college athlete. She is a two-time Daktronics Scholar-Athlete in both cross country and track and field, a recognition of and athletic achievement awarded by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. She’s also Klipsch Educators College’s first recipient of the Helena Rossi Strati Scholarship, established to honor students who are also female athletes.
“To be successful in athletics at the college level requires a certain level of dedication,” said Dr. Matt Hollowell, assistant professor of education. “Kate is taking senior-level education courses in addition to a lot of other challenging courses. She has resilience and grit, and that resilience shows in terms of the product that she develops, day in and day out, in class.”
Currently, Cunningham is enjoying her fourth clinical experience. She’s working with Rebecca Bersani, the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) teacher for grades 1-6 at Blue Academy Elementary School in Decatur Township.
“I took a ton of art classes in high school,” Cunningham said, “but incorporating science and art is something I’ve never seen before. To see my students do physics in sixth grade is so impressive. They created catapults to see how far they could launch a ping-pong ball, and they’re actually getting the concepts.”
The hands-on approach is something she hopes to carry into her own career as a teacher. “She first noticed the power of learning in the field when taking students through the EcoLab. “I’d hear things like, ‘Wow! An earthworm!’” she said. “They’d never seen one before. It’s very cool to see them being so excited about being outside and going on an adventure.”
If athletics and education have anything in common—and Cunningham certainly thinks they do—the main commonality may be this: They are as much about the journey as the destination. “It’s about creating community,” she said. “The running community has been really important to me, but I’d like to try to create that same kind of culture in the classroom. It’s important to support your students, whatever their interests and passions. That’s what I’ve had, and it’s what I’d like to give to my students.”