From kindergarten dreams to a life of educating

Gary Cumberland reflects on career as an educator
Gary Cumberland cuts the cake at an impromptu retirement party held after the Aug. 5 Shawano School Board meeting. Cumberland is retiring from the Shawano School District and will be serving as principal for Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano. (Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Gary Cumberland planned to be a kindergarten teacher.

That never happened for the retiring Shawano School District superintendent, but he has been involved in public education in one form or fashion for more than 35 years. Now, Cumberland is saying farewell to life in the public school system as he takes the principal position with Sacred Heart Catholic School.

Cumberland’s passion for children can be traced back to when he was in high school. He said he enjoyed babysitting, and he particularly enjoyed caring for a boy who lived next to him who was deaf.

“The parents always had me working with him and helping him, and I just felt really good about helping him,” Cumberland said.

He took a class in high school that addressed child guidance that involved working with children ages 4 and 5.

“I fell in love with what I was doing, and that’s when I knew I was going to be a kindergarten teacher,” Cumberland said. “I never was a kindergarten teacher.

The reason Cumberland was never a kindergarten teacher was because, after he went off to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he was told he would do better learning to be a teacher for grades 1-8. He said the college was trying to make him more “marketable.”

Cumberland’s first teaching job was in 1982 with a class of fifth-grade students in a small school in southeast Wisconsin with the Bark River School District where one teacher was enough to teach each grade. To get the job, he said he had to agree to coach soccer, even though he knew nothing about soccer.

“I know it now, but I don’t know nearly as much as I should,” Cumberland said of the sport.

Cumberland shifted from teaching to administration in 1994 when he became an elementary school principal in Wabeno. He noted that the way for teachers to make more money was to go back to school.

“The more credits you got, you got more money,” Cumberland said.

It was then that someone suggested that he take classes that could serve him well later on, so he took classes on school administration at Marian College (now Marion University). After that, he decided to look around and find a principal position.

Upon becoming principal in Wabeno, Cumberland’s superintendent suggested going even further and getting his credentials to be a superintendent. He obtained his certification from UW-Superior.

That’s when his education career brought him to Shawano, when he became principal at Olga Brener Elementary School did not become “intermediate school” until after Hillcrest was builtin 2000. He served the school for seven years before he was asked by Todd Carlson, then-superintendent for the Shawano School District, to serve as assistant superintendent.

In 2013, Cumberland became the superintendent after Carlson announced in August that he was resigning to become the superintendent for the Gillett School District. Cumberland said that Carlson came into his office one day while he was talking with then-business manager Gail Moesch and asked her to leave. Then Carlson told Cumberland he was going to be leaving and believed Cumberland would be the best choice to replace him.

“I couldn’t believe it. School was starting in a week,” Cumberland said. “I thought he was kidding. I thought he was telling a joke, but he was serious.”

The Shawano School Board voted to simply promote Cumberland instead of doing a superintendent search, as was done when Cumberland announced his plans to retire in May of this year.

“I’ve enjoyed my time as superintendent; I’ve enjoyed all of my time here in Shawano,” Cumberland said. “I’ve worked with a lot of great people. There have been issues, but we’ve worked through them.”

District employees have to be at least 57 years old and working for at least 18 years in order to qualify for retirement benefits. Cumberland said he didn’t have any intention originally of retiring from the school district because he didn’t know what he would do with himself otherwise.

That changed in April when Cumberland learned the principal position was opening up at Sacred Heart. He said he’d been approached by people from Sacred Heart previously who thought he would be a good person to lead the school. Even the Rev. Luke Ferris, who had been Sacred Heart’s administrator from 2013-17 before taking a position with the Diocese of Green Bay, felt the superintendent would fit in with the small parochial school, Cumberland said.

“Taking this job on, it feels like it’s bringing me back to my roots,” he said, recalling his days in Bark River as a fifth-grade teacher. “I’ll have more interaction with the kids. For the last 12 or 13 years, I had interaction, but not direct interaction.”

Cumberland feels he’s left the Shawano public schools better than they were. He felt that the Hawk Way system implemented a few years ago has helped to unite the four schools and is one of the things of which he is most proud.

“We have a common focus and a common vision,” Cumberland said.