Chris Cumiford — Teacher of the Year
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos by Zach Green
Consider every mentor and teacher you’ve had from kindergarten through college, or even beyond. How difficult would it be to choose the most influential? Now multiply your experience by every student in your city, or county, or state, and imagine coming to a consensus on the teacher of any given year, of even a single district. In California alone there are some 330,000 teachers, more than twice the population of any city in Tulare County. With so many teachers in the state, recognition at any level is a testament to an instructor’s influence.
In 2016, of those 330,000 teachers, Visalian Chris Cumiford became a top 10 finalist for California’s Teacher of the Year Award, having won the Tulare County equivalent in 2015. A history teacher at Visalia Technical Early College High School, Cumiford was the first Tulare County instructor even to be recognized at the California level.
“Long story short, I don’t know if I was seventh or eighth, but I was in the top 10,” says Cumiford, laughing. “My wife makes fun of me that it’s sort of like a beauty pageant.”
To qualify for California Teacher of the Year, Cumiford not only had to win Tulare County Teacher of the Year, but also Visalia Unified School District Teacher of the Year.
“I heard my name was nominated, and I was just honored even to be selected in Visalia, because there are so many good teachers. I was shocked to be in the top 10 for the state,” he admits.
While Cumiford is quick to credit his fellow teachers, his passion for history uniquely sets him apart.
“I use this hashtag a lot, and it’s what I live by: create the past,” explains Cumiford. “Most people who hear that pause and say you can’t create the past, it’s already happened, but history isn’t some corny graphic of George Washington saying Reading Is Succeeding or something like that.”
For Cumiford, history is always present, always emerging, and you could even say always speaking, and nowhere more than in his classroom.
“I’ll tell you right now,” he says with a laugh, “that my room is probably the most unconventional room in the history of California. I started joking about it, but then teachers would applaud it. But if you want students to get excited about stuff, and you’ve got this neon, sterile classroom, they’re not going to be able to get your vision.”
For Cumiford, vision and design go hand-in-hand. “Physical design changes the way you feel when you interact with an environment that is engaging. So my classroom has a lot of artifacts, and there’s nothing traditional about it.”
There’s something classical, almost antiquated about his classroom, with its faux brick and patterned wallpaper, despite the advanced audio and visual technology. Cabinets full of curios line the walls like a natural history museum, and busts of historical figures dot the room, which is illuminated by some 25 unique lamps that shine light on students’ desks. But his classroom’s design and attention to detail is overshadowed by Cumiford’s approach and method to education.
“It’s a whole brand of history called histiography, a research method that I’ve been using for about two years now,” explains Cumiford. “I use the acronym RECON EXCO, which stands for research, conceptualize, experience, and contribute.”
Cumiford’s method is the subject for another article, but rearranged his acronym could spell another word: passion. As Cumiford explains, RECON EXCO comes naturally to those pursuing careers, studies, their lives with zeal. But that passion – that individuality – isn’t exactly standard core curriculum, and many students learn success is conforming to their textbooks and Scantron tests.
“Some students feel they need that one answer, that black-and-white response, which is so limiting and sucks their creativity,” agrees Cumiford. “So I try to challenge students. A billion people can read 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey,' but there’s only one brain on earth that thinks the way yours does. Embrace that. See it through your own lens.”
Which is perhaps why Cumiford promotes the hashtag create your past. Since history is the story of human experience, its lessons will always inspire, always be relevant. Cumiford might agree in this respect that history isn’t much different from any other story, and that the line between fiction and nonfiction, while it doesn’t blur, neither separates either’s ability to influence creativity and inspire passion. Because while we can categorize life between past and present, real and unreal, what matters is how we move forward. We create the past because we never leave it, and we always live it.