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The Soul of a Teacher


Cynthia  HughesCynthia is a veteran educator with more than thirty years in the field. Her experience includes serving as a public school classroom teacher and reading specialist in Vermont, where she is currently a Library Media Specialist for the Springfield School District. Cynthia has also worked extensively over the years as an environmental educator, and music teacher. Her work with children has always had at its heart a hands-on approach to fostering a sense of place and connection to the natural world. She has designed both classroom and library curricula that integrates service-learning and nature studies with literacy standards. As a faculty member with the educational nonprofit Community Works Institute (CWI), Cynthia has facilitated numerous professional development events and led a series of weeklong service-learning institutes for elementary students. Cynthia was a member of the original team of educators who developed CWI's Connecting Service-Learning to the Curriculum. She also enjoys composing and performing music.

In a recent chat, a teacher told me he was concerned that the soul of teaching was disappearing. He felt it sinking under the weight of standards, testing, standardized curriculum, and what he called the McDonald’s phenomenon that is sweeping the country unifying and smoothing out regional differences and making sure we’re all on the same page (literally).

Well, souls have always interested me. I don’t mean this in a Bible-thumping redemptive sort of hallelujah kind of way. What I am talking about is the elusive, amorphous, ever-changing part of our shared existence. I think of it as the core, the feelings, the intelligence of a person, group, place, or situation. It can be revealed in one simple moment—if we are paying attention.

Sometimes I think that I am a teacher because I am interested in souls. This interest appeared at an early age. I may have discovered my own "soul" one day, as I sat in the large dusty entranceway of our old house. We often played there as kids, and it was there one sunny morning that I saw millions of specks bouncing around in a shaft of light that was coming in through the window. I didn’t know what this was. My sister told me it was dust particles, “you know pieces of dust, dirt.” I was in awe of their number, their movement, and I waved my hand through them, stirring them up. I sat watching for a long time. I then began noticing them everywhere I went. Sometimes their numbers were few, like upstairs in Mrs. Blood’s clean apartment. Sometimes their numbers seemed downright dangerous, like in the cellar coal bin. But it was in that quiet moment in the hallway and later, during quiet moments under the lilacs or watching rain run down the window panes, that I came to know a little bit of what was inside of me by connecting to what was outside of me. This got me wondering all kinds of things. What was the air made of? Did I breathe in all that dust and where did it go? What was the wind? And who was I, anyway? People had told me I was made of dust, too. I had discovered my own curiosity for learning, my own personal reality.


It’s our job to help kids learn to read and to write, to learn math and spelling conventions, to give them ways to discover their thinking and to find the best home for their unique talents and abilities. Somewhere in all of that lies the soul—the part of each of us that can’t be measured with a rubric, scale or test score. The unique experience of each person’s interactions with each other, each learning opportunity, each conversation, each perception. We simply cannot know that by testing it. We need to take the time to listen for it, and to allow and encourage it to be expressed. I’m not just talking about the kids. When we as a staff of educators gather each Wednesday, there are times when a bit of soul gets revealed, when someone dares to speak what she or he really feels. Or, when in exhaustion—as the latest person tells us of the latest curriculum program we ought to try—we can all sense the hard work we are sharing. And we certainly feel it when someone feels safe enough to express his or her passion or enthusiasm for something.

One day in the woods, walking up toward the stream, Alex (one of my students) suddenly said, I love the sound of water”. He said it with conviction, and I knew it was his own experience, his own soul talking, not something someone told him he should appreciate or learn about. To me, it is the small moment like this that measures a person’s intelligence for living. A moment will matter a lot more twenty years down the road than one's ability to achieve a high test score. This is what I appreciate about school at its best.

In school, I have witnessed countless examples of kids feeling happy and feeling safe enough to express their souls in different ways. Once in a group conversation about anger, one boy told us he gets so mad when his shirt won’t come off over his head that he bites the shirt. The group erupted in laughter, and what moments earlier could have been a stern reminder about appropriate school behavior became a delightful sharing between kids of the silly things they’d done in frustration. Isaac admitted that when he tripped over a chair once he kicked the chair and hurt his foot –lots of laughter. The student who had lashed out earlier in the classroom no longer felt like he was alone in his inappropriate outburst—he got the message, everyone did, but no one left the meeting feeling ashamed.

In another classroom Sean became the bard and recited poems to us. Everyone in the meeting area waited patiently as he sat with his back to us for two minutes, remembering the words. There was a respectful pause when he finished his recitation, then applause, and in his own quiet way Sean beamed. On another day, making mini Mexican marketplaces, Rebecca, Brandi and Haley discussed what should be sold at each booth. It was clear that they understood what can be found at the marketplace and I enjoyed watching them as they helped each other make tiny colorful replicas from clay. Many times at the Primary Program morning meeting the songs carried us into our day with kids and teachers singing our hearts out, I mean really singing our hearts out and smiling at each other, so happy, so free. How does one measure the successes and learning that come out of these interactions?

I have been deeply moved by the strength and commitment of each of the programs in which I’ve worked over the years, the dedicated work of teachers and staff, the ways in which children are valued and listened to, the collaboration and collegial support, the expectations of good work from both adults and children.

I think the "McDonald’s" folks should come for a visit to see the range of structures that actually support children’s thinking, development and happiness before they waste any more money on making every classroom the same.

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