In a Class by Herself

Faith, humility and the drive to see her students succeed in the classroom and beyond provide Dr. Cecily Gunter with all the motivation she needs. The Newton County School System ‘Teacher of the Year’ for 2023–24 takes whatever recognition she receives in stride.

by Gabriel Stovall

Dr. Cecily Gunter was named the Newton County School System “Teacher of the Year” for 2023–24 in September, but she still has not gotten used to wearing the recognition. In fact, more than half a year later, she continues to use words like “surreal” to describe it all. 

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Gunter said. “I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really great teachers in Newton County for the last 12 years, and to be selected as ‘Teacher of the Year’ for the county when I know so many others who could have easily been selected, yeah, it’s very surreal.” 

Perhaps overriding humility was why Gunter attended the recognition ceremony without any pre-conceived notion that she would walk away with top honors. 

(L TO R) Dr. Cecily Gunter, Lawson witcher, Haley Jarrell, Ella Jarell, Amber Woods, paisley tomberlin, Karly Mitcham, hayden miller, Jarentez Horton, Kaitlyn cox, Katelynn O’brien, destiny powers, summerrai mitchchell, trintie greitman and kennedy webb

“I remember being at the ceremony and listening to them read a portion of the winning teacher’s essay,” Gunter said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds really good,’ but I didn’t even recognize it was my essay at first. When they called my name, it really is like one of those out-of-body experiences. I didn’t think about any of this happening for me.” 

Considering where Gunter started, hers was an unlikely rise.

“Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I wanted to go to vet school and be a veterinarian, so I went to [the University of Georgia] to major in animal health. Then, three years in, I realized, ‘I don’t want to do that.’” 

“When they called my name, it really is like one of those out-of-body experiences. I didn’t think about any of this happening for me.”

Cecily Gunter

From there, Gunter describes her path as one that included a good dose of divine intervention. When the idea of getting into an agricultural program of study came to her, navigating it felt like trying to learn a new language. 

“Ag programs, [Future Farmers of America] and all of that was so new to me,” she said, “but I looked into it and realized all of the classes that I had taken before transferred perfectly. I don’t think any other major I could’ve chosen would have lined up my transfer credits so well. That was really my first God moment, where it was like, ‘This is what you need to be doing.’” 

(L TO R) Dr. Cecily Gunter and Allie marks

Gunter grew up in the Conyers and Covington area, and unlike some who want to get a taste of life far away from where they were raised, she had no qualms about staying close to home. After earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Georgia in 2012, she realized the old “there’s no place like home” adage resonated with her. It was how she ended up spending her first five years in the classroom at Alcovy High School before moving to the Newton College & Career Academy, even after completing a master’s degree in agricultural leadership and a doctorate in P-20 education and community leadership from Murray State University. Gunter enjoys the challenging nature of her job. As an agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor, she revealed that her days often begin as early as 8 a.m. “On an easy day,” she finishes by 6 p.m. 

“If we have competition or some other activities or events happening, it’s longer,” she said. “Sometimes, I won’t get back home until 9:30 or 10 p.m.” 

No one should think “regular classroom” when imagining a day in Gunter’s life. The NCCA operates a full farm on campus, complete with cows, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens. Gunter typically starts by checking on the farm and monitoring the breeding programs, with its population of lambs, goats and cows. Sometimes, a “good plan for inside” gets thwarted by the pressing needs of the animals. 

“You can get to school and realize an animal is close to labor, and you’ll have to completely adjust,” Gunter said, “or you’ll have a sick animal and you have to handle that on the spot. All of my classes are hands-on, and I try to make the learning experience as engaging as I can.” 

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That means intentionally working to learn her students. 

“I take pride in knowing my kids one on one,” she said. “If I get to know a student loves cows, I make sure that’s the area they work in.” 

Once students go home, Gunter’s attention often turns to contest preparation, meetings with the FFA officer team and an adult component of the ag program, such as Young Farmers of America, that she has a hand in hosting. She admits it can be tough to manage, but working alongside Newton County Young Farmer Advisor Marcus Pollard and his wife, Catrina—they came to Newton County to teach a year after Gunter—eases some of the burden. Gunter points to the close bond she has built with the Pollards. 

“You get to work with your friends,” she said, “so even if you’re having just the hardest or longest day imaginable, you’re still hanging out with your friends at the end of it. We get along; our families are friends. That helps, because it takes a village, and I believe Newton County’s blessed with some of the best ag teachers in the nation, and I feel lucky to be a part of that team.” 

Additional God moments greet Gunter almost daily and serve to keep her grounded.

“The best part of my testimony is that every time I start questioning if I’m supposed to be doing what I’m doing, God always answers in a big way,” she said. “It can be little things from seeing a student getting a job they wanted or kids getting into their dream college. Covington is big but also still a small town, so I can go to grocery stores and see former students and their families. Seeing them working in the industry, at our feed store, at the farm bureau office, just seeing them grow up and being successful, is proof of where I should be.” 

After 12 years, Gunter still feels fulfilled by the work she does every day. She has no plans to take her talents elsewhere.

“People ask that all the time: What’s next for me?” she said. “Right now, I’m very content and very happy with where I am, but one of the biggest mistakes we make is to have a plan and not give room for God to come in and mess it up for you. If I ever feel like I’m in a place where I’m not reaching my full potential or living for a greater purpose, then I may look for something different, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I’m blessed to be where I am, and I never want to take any of that for granted.”  

Click here to read more stories by Gabriel Stovall. 

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