How Valencia High School’s Casey Cuny became a California Teacher of the Year
Valencia High School teacher Casey Cuny could feel the energy in the room.
After more than two decades of teaching — 18 of them in the William S. Hart Union High School District — Cuny had a feeling that his mythology students were not in the right frame of mind for him to continue with his lesson.
Some were staring at the clock, some out the window. Others were looking around at some of the couple dozen posters that line Cuny’s classroom walls — movie posters from franchises like Star Wars and Superman, famous writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, famous athletes like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, and music artists such as Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Kendrick Lamar.
So, he stopped, told his students to stop, and leveled with them.
He told them that he understood that it was just their second day back from the Thanksgiving break. He said he knew there were only two weeks left in the semester and that some of them may be looking forward to their winter break.
But Cuny wanted to finish teaching the lessons he had planned for his students and he wanted them to want to finish the lessons, leading him to tell them to “lock in.”
It isn’t something that Cuny would have done in his first few years of teaching.
“When you first start, you’re kind of just focused on the content you’re trying to teach,” Cuny said. “You’re looking at the clock all the time.”
These days, Cuny is more interested in knowing that his students are actually learning rather than him simply lecturing to those uninterested in what he has to say.
“I’m constantly reading the room because I’m not teaching English — I’m teaching teenagers,” Cuny said. “I’m trying to teach teenagers how to master the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. So, I have to constantly check the room, check for feedback.”
It’s one of the many reasons why Cuny was selected as Valencia’s Teacher of the Year in the spring, followed by being named the Hart district’s Teacher of the Year earlier this school year and then one of the 16 Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year.
Those honors culminated in Cuny being named one of the five California Teachers of the Year in October and being selected to represent the state in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
“I’m only the teacher I am because of the other amazing teachers in our district,” Cuny said. “Honestly, I’ve taken so many ideas from (them) over the years. Almost everything good I do in the classroom, I have adapted or taken directly from another teacher in this district.”
One of those teachers who Cuny referenced is Jeff Albert, who teaches U.S. history and government at Valencia. Albert has seen Cuny teach two of his own kids, with one more in eighth grade.
Albert said that Cuny taught him how to be a teacher after Albert switched from being an activities director at Valencia to being a teacher. It’s one of Cuny’s other responsibilities as the school’s instructional coach.
“He wants to make people smarter, and he wants to make everyone happy,” Albert said. “And he wants them to do it on their own, to teach them how to be good at it.”
Cuny grew up in Vail, Colorado, and was a normal kid growing up. Until he wasn’t.
At the age of 13, Cuny was diagnosed with bone cancer after feeling pain in his left leg that he initially was told was shin splints, and then tendinitis. When he finally got the correct diagnosis, Cuny said the doctor gave him a 50-50 shot to live at one point.
“One doctor really saved my life,” Cuny said. “He decided to do an x-ray of the other leg and he thought it looked cloudy, didn’t look normal on that comparative.”
From there, it was one operating table to another for Cuny. He went through eight surgeries during that first year while going through chemotherapy for about 14 months.
These days, Cuny walks around with a slight limp as half of his femur, his entire knee and his entire tibia on his left leg are all titanium.
“It ended all my sports, ended skiing,” Cuny said.
His life being saved isn’t something he has forgotten, either. He said he was one of four people in the hospital that he was at who had been diagnosed with the same form of cancer — Ewing sarcoma — with the other three all dying.
That, he said, weighed on him.
“That’s what I came to discover later is survivor’s guilt,” Cuny said, “like you survived and like, ‘Why did I survive?’”
Cuny still found a way to stay involved in sports, helping his high school football team as a wide receivers coach and the basketball team as both a team manager and the play-by-play announcer.
He’s the same way at Valencia, too. Cuny is the scorekeeper for Valencia basketball and attends numerous other games for various teams while also going to other community events.
Laurel Priesz, currently in her second year as a teacher at Valencia after spending some years with Cuny at Canyon High School, said that he is always involved with something. She said when he left Canyon to go to Valencia, he told her he “needed a rebound” and was going to take things easy.
That didn’t last long, Priesz said.
“He jumped into everything you possibly could jump into, because that’s just who he is,” Priesz said in a phone interview with The Signal. “He gets involved with the athletics, he comes to the football games, he goes to the basketball games. He’s at every staff thing that we have. He draws people together at our school community and beyond, for sure.”
Teaching wasn’t always in Cuny’s sights growing up. He initially got his degree in business from the University of Arizona before landing a job in Los Angeles.
That life, he said, was not for him.
“I just felt like I should be doing more with my life, to try to give back or make a difference in some way,” Cuny said.
He eventually found his way into teaching because, as he put it, “teachers were so influential in my life.”
Now, Cuny is influencing students himself, as well as other teachers. Along with teaching English and other classes, Cuny is also the instructional coach for Valencia. That entails helping to plan lessons or simply providing feedback to his peers.
Cuny also teaches at National University, a San Diego-based four-year college that offers both in-person and online classes. In his 14th year there, Cuny teaches teacher credentialing.
“All the things that make him a good teacher in the classroom setting with his students is reflective of how he interacts with adults,” said Pete Getz, the principal at Valencia High School, in a phone interview with The Signal. “So, he’s actively involved in professional development, he’s an instructional coach. He probably gives as much to the adult community, both here on campus and at the district level, and at National University, as he does to students.”
But of all the things he does, teaching students is what really drives Cuny. One of his big areas of focus is social emotional learning, or SEL, which involves making sure that students are in the right mindset to be learning.
“SEL is really teaching the whole child, teaching them strategies to deal with emotions to be more resilient,” Cuny said. “That’s what its goal is. The goal is to build resilient humans. You know, humans, we’re not thinking machines, we’re emotional beings, who are asked to think.”
Another aspect of Cuny’s teaching style that has changed over the years is how he grades.
At the start of his teaching career, Cuny described himself as “the deliverer of information.” He realized at one point that simply teaching the literature he assigned wasn’t enough.
Now, Cuny utilizes a system in which if a student attempts to answer something, even if the answer is wrong, he will tell the student to try again until the right answer is found.
“I started a thing years ago when I was at Canyon called ‘not yet grading,’ which is based on Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset,” Cuny said. “And so what it is, is where if a student attempts a skill, like say identifying the thesis of an article, but they get it wrong, I don’t mark them down. I give them a ‘not yet.’ And then I give them some feedback as to why they got it wrong. If they get it right, they get some points. So what I’m doing is I’m rewarding growth, but I’m not penalizing learning.”
Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University whose work “bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the self-conceptions people use to structure the self and guide their behavior,” according to her bio on the Stanford website.
Cuny used soccer as an analogy for why the traditional grading scale does not work in today’s society.
“I tell the kids this, that if I took them out to the soccer field and put them on the outside box, and said, ‘You got 10 shots at the goal,’ and they’ve never done it, the first five might miss horribly,” Cuny said. “But then No. 6 through 10 go in the net, and they would feel like a success. But in a typical classroom that’d be a five out of 10, which is an F. And most kids wouldn’t even have tried the sixth attempt, because they would have already felt like such a failure. So, I’ve tried to really change the way I grade, change the way I approach kids, change my vernacular and my word choice in the classroom to try to promote that growth, to not penalize learning, but reward growth.”
In his introduction letter to the state Department of Education, one of eight essays that Cuny had to write throughout the process of being named a state Teacher of the Year — “It was like my whole month of June,” Cuny said while laughing — he told the story of a student for whom he used the pseudonym, “Oscar.”
As Cuny wrote, Oscar was not the best student. Oscar even admitted that to his teacher during class, saying, “I hate reading.”
“Over the next few weeks, I built a strong relationship with him — we bonded over music,” Cuny wrote. “I told him his sense of humor informed me that he was very smart.”
Cuny wrote in the letter that it was the unit on growth mindset that allowed Oscar to flourish.
“He said during our Socratic seminar that most schooling had made him feel dumb but now he realized that with strategy and effort, he could learn and master almost anything,” Cuny wrote. “He was impassioned — arguing that growth mindset and education could battle poverty and inequality.”
Oscar eventually took the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress in 11th grade. Upon returning to school for his senior year, Cuny told him that he had scored a perfect scaled score in English.
“I will never forget that smile — it is why I teach,” Cuny wrote.
Oscar went on to enroll at a community college and then at a University of California school to become a nurse.
Cuny summed up how Oscar was able to do that in one sentence.
“Society had told Oscar who he was — but through education, he told the world who he would become,” Cuny wrote.
Cuny gets to enrich the lives of students like Oscar every day. And he doesn’t have any plans to stop.
“I just love working daily with students and building those relationships,” Cuny said. “Teaching is so challenging. I mean, it’s a constant challenge. Fifteen years ago, I probably thought I had it down. And then I quickly realized, we don’t. It’s a constant improvement process.”