Living the dream

Teacher of the Year Cathee Cullison takes a supportive approach to teaching


Grace Elder

Teacher of the Year Cathee Cullison has been working at SHS for 26 years.

After working as a math teacher at SHS for 26 years, Cathee Cullison thought the ship had sailed for her to win Teacher of the Year. She’s always been an under-the-radar teacher, which is why she was surprised when she learned that she had not only been nominated for SHS Teacher of the Year as well as Corporation Teacher of the Year, but had won both awards.

It was no surprise, however, to math teacher Mary Wheeler, who nominated Cullison for the award.

“For three decades, she has served the students of Southport with humility and enthusiasm by teaching them what she calls the ‘beautiful language of math,’” Wheeler wrote in the nomination form. “(I) strongly believe that Cathee would be an excellent candidate for Perry Township Teacher of the Year.”

From the beginning

Being a teacher and helping kids is a fascination that Cullison says she has had ever since she was little. After school, she would help her teachers with tasks like collecting papers, and back at home she would pretend she was a teacher herself.

“We had this thing that held the TV trays in our living room, and I would take the TV trays off of it and roll it around like it was my overhead cart … ” Cullison said. “I guess I looked up to my teachers.”

She still had this dream of teaching once she reached college. However, she wanted to make more money than a teacher’s salary would offer. She decided to major in business, and it took her one semester of two business-centered classes for her to realize that this wasn’t what would make her happy.

“That was enough,” Cullison said. “I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do. I want to be a teacher.’”

When Cullison went to her academic advisor to change her major, she was encouraged to pursue a job that was in high demand. She always favored math, so studying to be a high school math teacher seemed like the perfect fit.

In college she met her husband, Greg, who graduated from SHS in 1986. A year after they got married, she began student and substitute teaching at SHS and SMS in 1993. There were no math department openings at the time, so she moved on to start her first official teaching job at Greenfield Central High School. She taught there for two years before she was told there was an opening for her at SHS. She decided to return in 1997.

In the classroom

Since day one, Cullison’s top priority has always been her students understanding the material, but over the years she’s become much more student focused in her teaching style.

She started out by teaching freshman classes, causing her to be more strict with students who were new to the high school setting, expecting them to have all of their materials ready for class. But as she’s moved on to teach higher-level classes, she’s given her students more freedom when they work, while providing them with dozens of materials without them having to ask.

In terms of the math itself, her philosophy is that students need to do the work in order to learn it, and she makes an effort to fill her lessons with activities that keep students engaged and active, both mentally and physically.

Cullison is the second math teacher to have won Teacher of the Year in three years. (Grace Elder)

“I try to make as much of the class where the students are doing things,” Cullison said. “I’ll have students tell me, ‘Do more examples.’ Well, I can do a thousand examples, but until you actually try it yourself, you’re not actually going to learn it.”

Cullison often tries to provide a mix of note taking, examples, activities and work time in order to keep her class periods interesting. One example of this is an activity where Algebra I students had to cut out pictures of graphs and walk around the classroom looking for envelopes with equations that matched the graphs. The activity was used as a review for a lesson so Cullison could see who understood the material.

Sophomore Ashley Martinez finds activities like this to be a good way to keep students awake in the morning.

“I have her first period, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be focused,” Martinez said. “But she makes her lessons in a way that … you have to be awake. But they’re really fun.”

Cullison teaches Algebra I, Algebra II and Probability and Statistics. (Grace Elder)

Junior Rem Tial is not only an Algebra II student of Cullison’s, but a member of her club, Cardinal Cadre, where students work as guides for school events. Wheeler says that Cullison makes Cardinal Cadre a club that “students want to join.”

Tial says that Cullison’s student-centered lessons have helped her dramatically to better understand math as a subject.

“I think she’s great. She really deserves to be noticed in stuff like this,” Tial said. “I’m not a very mathy person, but with her I know that math is a simpler class to me now.”

Despite the effect that she has on her students and their learning, Cullison doesn’t normally think of herself as an extraordinary teacher. Her work still often reflects what is standard for a math class, and she isn’t often recognized for the activities she does with students.

“I don’t consider myself flashy or anything,” Cullison said. “I don’t think I do super-cool stuff that draws attention. I just kinda keep my head down and do the work and hope that it helps the kids.”

Although Cullison says her methods aren’t out of the ordinary and she doesn’t expect special recognition for her work, students and staff alike notice the difference she makes in her teaching.

“She’s one of those teachers that’s quietly good,” Principal Brian Knight said. “There aren’t bad days in her classroom.”

Cullison’s creativity and ability to take risks aren’t the only reasons that Wheeler says she nominated her. Her nomination form also lists Cullison’s affection for her students.

“She goes above and beyond for them,” Wheeler said. “She really cares about student achievement and making sure that they know their material.”

A Southport family

Cullison’s involvement in Southport’s culture seemed to be a natural process. Not only did her husband go to SHS, but so did his father, so she already had the background of knowing someone who has Southport blood in them.

Cullison is from the small town of Bryan, Ohio, and coming from a small town herself, she loves the close-knit community feeling of the township while still having the amenities of the city.

“My husband teases me that my entire town, men, women and children, could all sit comfortably in the Southport Fieldhouse,” Cullison said.

As soon as she arrived at SHS, she signed up to coach freshman girls volleyball, the first of many school activities that she would participate in. Over the years, she would become the adviser of the drug awareness club S.H.A.P.E. (Southport Has A Positive Environment), president of the Adult Booster Club, sponsor of the Cardinal Cadre and, according to Knight, an advocate for teachers through her work as a building representative for the teachers union.

Not only has Cullison always led extracurricular activities and clubs, but she’s always tried to show support by going to school events. Since her first year at SHS, she’s been selling tickets for events ranging from boys basketball games to jazz band concerts. Even when she can’t participate, she makes sure to attend any plays, concerts and sporting events that she can.

“When you think about somebody that is really invested in Southport and is a Southport person, Mrs. Cullison is definitely one of those people,” Knight said.

Cullison’s love for the community has had an undeniable effect on her own children. Even before they reached high school, Cullison’s son and daughter spent plenty of time going to SHS sporting events and spending time with their mom at work. Her daughter, Lauren, especially enjoyed spending time learning the ropes of a teacher’s job and seeing how passionate her mom was about teaching.

Naturally, both of Cullison’s kids went through high school at SHS, her son, Brad, participating in football and Lauren pursuing a love of volleyball.

“They’ve just kind of grown up with Southport,” Cullison said.

When I showed signs of wanting to (teach), she really found resources for me and kind of pushed me to do it. I’m very glad.

— Cathee Cullison's daughter, Lauren

Just like her mom, Lauren had always liked playing teacher when she was little, but unlike Cullison, she’s been given the tools and encouragement to pursue teaching since she was young. She participated in Cadet Teaching during her senior year of high school, for which she would spend a portion of the day teaching at an elementary school.

“When I showed signs of wanting to do it, she really found resources for me and kind of pushed me to do it,” Lauren said. “I’m very glad.”

Lauren is now majoring in Elementary Education at the University of Indianapolis and will start student teaching for elementary schools next semester.

Even though both of Cullison’s children have moved on to college, her ability to participate in school events has decreased significantly. The fact that she moved to Franklin Township in 2019 and then went on to deal with the repercussions of the pandemic a year later has changed her participation habits. Still, she tries to help however she can in the community she loves.

A go-to person

Out of everything that Cullison cherishes about SHS culture, the collegiality between teachers and staff has been her favorite aspect since day one.

Cullison’s classroom neighbors have always had a major impact on her SHS experience, particularly her first neighbor, business teacher Terrie Mahin. Cullison describes Mahin as being the first teacher to take her “under her wing.” At that time, Cullison was teaching a special program that put her in the business department, but when she moved on to teach full math classes two years into her job, she moved rooms. The move didn’t discourage the two from staying close though. Even 11 years after Mahin’s retirement, she and Cullison still keep in touch and remain close friends.

This move did, however, give Cullison’s new neighbor, math teacher Patty Blake, the opportunity to become closer to her. For 24 years they have played essential roles in helping each other.

“We are really good sounding boards for one another when we are frustrated about something,” Cullison said.

Blake has not only become Cullison’s colleague, but also one of her closest friends. They often hang out together outside of school and give each other gifts for holidays, birthdays or random occasions. A plant hanging just above Blake’s door is one of the many gifts from Cullison that can be found in her classroom.

“I don’t think there’s anybody else in the building that I do that with,” Blake said. “We go way back.”

The math department in general has been a very welcoming place for Cullison from the start. She says that they often share lesson plans and in-class activities with one another, which helps to limit the time they all have to spend planning outside of class while also exploring what works best for students. In addition to sharing in school, Cullison and her colleagues often spend time outside of work hours going out for fun.

In the past 26 years that Cullison has worked at SHS, a lot of teachers have come and gone, and she gets teary eyed thinking about how much has changed, yet how much stays the same.

“It’s very different than when I first started,” Cullison said, “but the basic family feel is the same.”
Because of this, she has set a goal for herself to reach out to newer teachers and welcome them into the environment just as Mahin did for her.

What comes next?

Despite Cullison’s love for the SHS environment and passion for working with students, working outside of school hours and lesson planning takes up a lot of her time. Cullison doesn’t plan on leaving SHS anytime soon, but she is planning on taking it a bit easier.

“I’m getting to the point where I’d like to slow down a little bit,” Cullison said. “It’s hard to slow down in this job.”

Cullison has taught at SHS for 26 years. (Grace Elder)

She says that 10 years from now, she’ll likely be ready to either retire or move onto other student-centered jobs and activities so that she can spend time with students while also taking more time for herself.

The qualifications for winning Teacher of the Year are listed on the nomination form as “being exceptionally skillful and dedicated,” “having the respect and admiration of students, parents and colleagues,” and “playing active and useful roles in their communities as well as in their schools.”

After spending almost three decades teaching, leading and supporting the community, students and staff alike have agreed that Cullison fits all of this criteria.

“My husband says sometimes that I spend too much time at this job,” Cullison said, “but I think it’s worth it.”