Cindy Soule, a fourth-grade teacher at Riverton Elementary School, is the 2020 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year and is in the running for the state award. Courtesy photo

PORTLAND —  Cindy Soule didn’t initially set out to be a teacher. Her dream was to be the next Jane Goodall.

Soule

“Even though my life path did not take me to an African jungle studying chimpanzees, I am really passionate about teaching science and guiding my students to figure out the natural world around them,” said Soule, who has been teaching at Riverton Elementary School since 2001.

Soule’s passion for education was recognized last week when she was named the 2020 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education. She is now in the running for the state Teacher of the Year award.

She said she is “grateful to be part of an amazing learning community” at Riverton and couldn’t do what she does with support from her students, colleagues and Riverton families.

“For me, playing a role in cultivating a learning community where students feel safe and welcome and able to take risks and meet their fullest potential is really special,” she said. “Each year at the close of school I feel such immense pride with how much my students have learned and ways that they have overcome obstacles to reach their goals.”

Riverton Principal Ann Hanna said it is “a pleasure” to watch Soule teach fourth grade reading and science.

“She knows how to tap into children’s natural curiosity about our world as a way into new learning,” Hanna said.

Soule, who also serves on the school’s leadership team, was nominated by Brooke Teller, the Portland school district’s STEM coordinator, who won the award in 2017.

“Beyond Cindy’s commitment to her students, her colleagues, and her profession, Cindy has the ability to carefully craft beautifully designed learning experiences that push her students’ thinking,” Teller wrote in her nomination.

A life science unit about how the internal and external structure of plants and animals relate to survival, growth, behavior and reproduction is an example of Soule’s teaching style, Teller said.

At the beginning of the unit, Soule and her teaching partner, Nichole Casasa-Blouin, presented students with a closeup photo of a bee with pollen on its head.

“This led to rich discussions of students trying to figure out what the pollen was and how it got on the bee’s head,” Teller said. “What are the structures unique to bees and flowers that allow for pollination to occur?”

From there, the students went on to study moose and wolf as prey and predator. “What are the unique structures that exist in predators versus prey and vice versa? They culminated their learning with books that they crafted with the support of Side x Side, a local art in education program,” Teller said.

Soule and the winners from Maine’s 15 other counties were chosen from a field of 326 nominees by a panel of teachers, principals and business community members. She is now in the running to be named the Maine Teacher of Year, which will be announced this fall.

Jason Judd, executive director of Educate Maine, said the county teachers of the year will “serve as ambassadors for their community, school and quality education everywhere.”

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said Soule “is an exceptional example of teaching excellence” in Portland schools.

“County Teachers of the Year are selected for their exemplary service in education and their dedication to their students, and Cindy clearly fits that description,” he said.

This end of the year has been unlike any other Soule has experienced because of the unexpected transition to remote learning because of the coronavirus. The initial learning curve was steep, she said, and it was challenging at first to maintain everyday, face-to-face connection with her students.

“Thankfully, Portland Schools and our amazing technology coordinator, Nancy Sirois, were able to get all kids what they needed to be able to be connected virtually.  I am so thankful for that because it is so critical in this uncertain time to be able to stay connected and be able to provide a consistency to our students,” Soule said.

“It has been really fun to see the kids whose voices are stronger virtually.  As someone who values student voice, it has been remarkable to see kids really shine in this format,” she said.

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