Dr. Terriyln Rivers-Cannon was named the 2019 National School Social Worker of the Year by the School Social Workers Association of America (SSWAA) for her contributions to the profession of school social work. She is not only the first school social worker from Georgia, but is the first African American and African-American woman to receive this national recognition.
As the current president of the School Social Work Association of Georgia, in the second year of her two-year term, she is the first social worker from Atlanta Public Schools to serve in this leadership role at this level. She is also an SSWAA endowment fund board member.
“There’s a saying that says ‘You turn your can’ts into cans.” Because when individuals look at you all they see is what’s on the outside. They have no idea of what’s on the inside,” stated Rivers-Cannon when reflecting on her accomplishments. “For me, it was sheer determination. Every time someone looked at me and said what I couldn’t do, I would always turn it into what I could do. That determination and resilience were empowering. I kept that inside of me.”
She attributes her love of social work to her Auntie Katie Mae Tindal, a college social work professor at Voorhees College. Rivers-Cannon would go on to earn her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Voorhees College, her Master of Social Work at Florida State University in 1993 and her doctoral degree in educational leadership at Argosy University in Sarasota, Florida.
“Thanks to my aunt, I developed a love for social work,” Dr. Rivers-Cannon explained. “The more she talked about it, the more I wanted to learn about it – especially when it came to advocating for individuals and having a voice for individuals who couldn’t have a voice for themselves, and that’s what drew me more and more into social work
Since 2009, Rivers-Cannon has been a school social worker with Atlantic Public Schools with a clear commitment and passion for her work and the role she serves in students’ lives.
“Social work is so vitally important to me because with our job as social workers we are the gateway to opening up those doors and providing an understanding of what’s going on with students,” said Rivers-Cannon, about her role at Booker T. Washington High School and Fickett Elementary School. “That’s why I love what I do each and every day with the children here. It’s that network, it’s that bonding, it’s that connecting those links together.”
Rivers-Cannon draws on her extensive professional experience in both school and medical social work as well as juvenile justice, along with her personal experience as an adolescent mother. She noted that both experiences helped her to grow as a person and a professional. She uses her drive and determination to better the lives of the students she serves.
“When our children don’t feel that they’re at a point where they can settle themselves down and think clearly, then they can’t move about their day,” she said. “Mental health is a key element of that.”
She sees her role as a school social worker as someone on the forefront of mental health, trauma, and crisis, with a calling to provide these services to all the student she serves regardless of the challenges or experiences they face.
“As school social workers, we try to come in and peel back those layers to identify what’s going on with our children, and seek out those resources and connect the dots and link together the pieces,” explained Rivers-Cannon.