Amelia Cheatum is always happy to receive recognition for her work, but earning the Burbank Unified School District teacher of the year honor was extra special for the John Muir Middle School history teacher after seven challenging months of distance learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every teacher I work with, even at the other [BUSD] schools, everyone worked so hard, and I think this year we were forced to try new things,” said Cheatum, who teaches 7th- and 8th-graders. “Some things worked, some definitely didn’t, but I think this year was special because when I go back to the classroom in a few weeks, I have all of these digital tools that I plan on using that I never would have used before.”
What also worked for Cheatum — a product of the BUSD system, having attended Edison Elementary, Luther Burbank Middle School and John Burroughs High School — was her approach to instruction. Rather than simply recapitulate textbooks, she encourages her students to question the source of each story and draw their own conclusions — similar to what professional historians do.
“We look at a lot of the primary sources and talk about whether they are accurate or not, and what students think about them. I love having my students work toward big essential questions,” Cheatum said. “Big questions with lots of different answers where we can always push our thinking a little bit more.
“I love hearing different perspectives from different students depending on their interpretation and life experiences,” she continued. “My class isn’t just about what I think about history. [The students’] opinions on it are very valuable as well.”
Questions explored in Cheatum’s class include “Why do civilizations fall?” and “What does it mean to be an American?” She even managed to incorporate current events into the lesson plan while discussing the bubonic plague.
“It was definitely a different experience this year when talking about the bubonic plague,” Cheatum said. “Though [the COVID-19 pandemic] is not comparable to that plague, students definitely had more insight about what it means to wash your hands. We had conversations about how illnesses can affect communities.”
It’s a method of teaching that not only her students appreciate, but also her colleagues and school administrators.
“Amelia is an amazing teacher who is beloved by her students,” Muir Principal Greg Miller said in an email. “She makes the history curriculum come alive for her students and challenges them to apply the lessons of the past to how we live today. She also brings the lives and stories of those that have been historically overlooked to her students and helps them to have a more inclusive view of history.
“It is a great honor for all of us at Muir to have Amelia recognized. She is extremely deserving and contributes to the school community in so many ways. Also, she collaborates with so many of her colleagues and they support one another and learn from each other.”
Another reason students and colleagues respond so positively to Cheatum’s teaching is her evident passion for the subject. Her love for social sciences developed when she was in middle school, and she fondly remembers looking forward to her history classes at Burroughs. Cheatum went on to study at UC Irvine as a history major and soon realized that she wanted to stay in the classroom.
“I was just so happy in all of my history classes,” Cheatum said. “At some point in college, I thought maybe I wanted to work in history professionally, and I always really loved school. This is my dream job, and I literally cannot imagine doing anything else.”
The Burroughs alum received her master’s degree from Irvine and then taught in Eagle Rock before returning to her hometown, where she has taught for the past five years. She originally wanted to teach high school students but is happy to work with junior high schoolers.
“I taught 7th grade and it was very challenging, but now I can’t imagine teaching anything else,” Cheatum said. “Middle schoolers are really silly but also very capable of advanced thought. I love that.”
Cheatum, whose mom worked in the BUSD as a substitute teacher, has served as the social sciences department chair at Muir and helped found the school’s Culturally Responsive Education committee. She is also a member of the Burbank Teachers Association Justice and Equity Team.
The summer vacation is winding down for BUSD teachers, but not fast enough for Cheatum, who is eager to return to instructing on Aug. 16.
“I’m ready to go back,” she said. “I’m excited.”