FSU graduate and National Teacher of the Year Bobbie Cavnar inspires students through literature and humanities

By Amber Deschene

We don’t always realize the impact we have on people in our day-to-day lives, or the impact they may have on us. Teachers specifically have a unique chance to influence the lives of many individuals on a daily basis.  They strive to pass down their love for knowledge to their students.

Florida State University alumnus Bobbie Cavnar, who graduated from FSU in 1999, is one of those teachers. In mid-February 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts Foundation named Cavnar the Nation’s Best Teacher for 2018.

Cavnar earned his English Education degree at FSU. He says some of his favorite courses were English classes, and he remembers taking as many literature courses as his schedule would fit.


Cavnar distinctly recalls Joseph McElrath, one of his favorite American literature professors.

“I remember his excitement and passion for Frank Norris—an author that I had never heard of at the time,” Cavnar says. “He was so excited about Frank Norris, I couldn't help but like the books.”

The passion McElrath had for his subjects was infectious, Cavnar adds, and he took every single course McElrath taught.

 “When I was in his course one year, he experienced a painful and personal loss and was out for a few weeks,” Cavnar says. “I remember when he returned seeing him, for the first time perhaps, as a real person, and being moved by his dedication to us, his students.”

The foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence program recognizes educators around the country who shine in their schools, their communities, and their own learning. These educators, including Cavnar, advocate for each other, the profession, and students, as they embrace the diversity of their communities and the wider world.

It’s teachers like Cavnar and McElrath – he retired from FSU in 2011 after years of being on the department’s faculty and a university administrator – who truly help their students get to the heart of learning. When professors are dedicated to what they are teaching, that enthusiasm becomes inspiring. Cavnar appreciated McElrath’s methods in the classroom.

“It was during this time that I was choosing to become a teacher, and it was Dr. McElrath who made me realize how important relationships are to good teaching,” Cavnar says. “How things like compassion, empathy, and humanity are just as important as your knowledge of your curriculum.”

Cavnar has been sharing his love for Shakespeare, literature, and the humanities with his own high school classes in the Charlotte, North Carolina area since 2003. He was named North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2016.

Known by his students for “bringing Shakespeare to life,” Cavnar believes that—with the recent rise of STEM education and overemphasis on data over all other measures of success—it is his duty to reconnect teenagers to their emotional world and to develop their sense of empathy through careful study of human emotional expression, like with a Shakespeare play.

“I have thought often about Dr. McElrath and that particular moment throughout my career,” Cavnar says. “He taught me how important it is to allow myself to be vulnerable as a teacher in order to make meaningful connections with my students.”

Cavnar and McElrath exemplify the idea that you never know who you may positively influence throughout your life. As Cavnar says, find what you are passionate about, always do your best, and remember to help others along the way. What you give to this world – Cavnar discovered by winning his award – will come back around.

Amber Deschene is earning a Graduate Certificate in Publishing and Editing, and she s an editing and writing intern for the English department.