Minutes after the last bell rang recently at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School, I was in a conference room there talking to Terriyln Rivers-Cannon, the National School Social Worker of the Year.
She is not only the first Georgian to hold that title, she is also the first African American awarded the title from the School Social Workers Association of America. That intrigued me, but being a student of newspaper headlines, I’m pretty sure social work is not for the faint of heart. Today’s students are faced with a plethora of problems, from drug and sexual abuse to homelessness to thoughts of suicide and it’s the social worker’s job to help them successfully navigate it all.
Terriyln was once a teenage mom so she’s been there, which might explain why to her social work feels less like a job and more like a ministry in which you get the chance to serve others and are reminded, if you’re lucky, how blessed that makes your life. Her own journey began, she told me, more than 30 years ago seated at her grandmother’s kitchen table in Savannah, Ga., the place where she often found herself half listening to conversations between her Aunt Katie and the students she was charged with helping. Done, Katie would look over the glasses forever at the tip of her nose at young Terriyln and inevitably suggest social work as a career choice.
“That’s not for me,” Terriyln would tell her.
By her junior year in high school, Terriyln was starting to rethink her answer. More and more she was struck by Aunt Katie’s ability to relate to her students, how she advocated for them, encouraged and empowered them to speak up for themselves. Now instead of taking the seat farthest away from Aunt Katie, Terriyln was sitting next to her, shuffling through the pages of her social work books and journals, listening to her talk policy.
“It just grabbed me,” she recalled.
In 1986, Terriyln, by then a single mom of a 23-month-old son, graduated from Tompkins High School and left Savannah for Denmark, South Carolina, where she enrolled at Voorhees College. Four years later she had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree there in criminal justice and political science and was heading to Florida State University to pursue a master’s in social work. Professors, she said, welcomed the incoming class with a stern warning. Some of them would not make it through.
“It was a struggle … but I was determined it would not be me,” she said.
Terriyln remembered all those conversations she overheard between Aunt Katie and her students. Not only was she working two jobs to care for her son, she felt responsible for her three younger siblings, too.
“I’d work in the morning and then a midnight shift,” she said. “During breaks between classes, I’d try to take a nap.”
Her second year didn’t go well and Terriyln was placed on academic probation. When it was time to get a field placement to practice her craft, the professor suggested she just quit.
“You’re not going to finish,” the woman told her.
Undaunted, Terriyln spoke up, requesting a field placement instructor who believed in her. She would go on to complete the program requirements, graduate in 1993, move back to Savannah and began work as a medical social worker at Memorial Medical Center. She was at a local laundromat three years later when a young man in a red Nissan truck drove up. Audrey Cannon was a Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Army on weekend leave from Fort Stewart, Ga. He and Terriyln struck up a quick friendship and within a year were married before a small group of friends and family. They’d soon add another son to their family and began a trek around the country. As Audrey moved up in the military, Terriyln found jobs working with children in juvenile justice, mental health or local school systems. Audrey was at Fort Riley, Kansas, when he decided to retire and the family moved to Decatur, where Terriyln finally landed a job as a school social worker at an alternative school.
In 2003, she joined the Atlanta Public Schools and in 2007 earned an educational leadership degree from Argosy University.
Two years ago, she was elected president of the School Social Workers Association of Georgia. People were watching and liked what they saw. Pamela Jemerson, a social worker with Gwinnett County Public Schools and a member of SSWAG’s executive board, was among her many admirers.
“She’s very innovative and energetic,” Jemerson said. “She’s always looking for ways to enhance us, market us. It’s never just about her.” Jemerson was one of two board members to nominate Terriyln for the 2019 National Social Worker of the Year. She was en route home from Washington one day in mid-January when her phone dinged and she’d learn later, she’d been chosen for the top spot.
Early this month Terriyln was still processing the news, still pondering, after all these years, how Aunt Katie’s influence is still being felt in her life.
“At the end of some days you feel so exhausted,” she said. “But you get up and do it again because you know the students need you to speak for them and that the moment you think they won’t pull through, they’ll make a turn and do the unbelievable. That’s why I enjoy social work. That’s why every day, I carry Aunt Katie Mae Tindal with me.”