Cynthia Kinsey didn’t have the best home life growing up, but that has allowed her to connect with her students in ways that have altered the course of their lives.
Her knack for bonding with students is part of the reason she was named the 2022-23 Teacher of the Year for Gainesville City Schools.
“It's important to realize that there are things going on at home that you have no control over,” Kinsey said when asked how she balances those tenets of her pedagogy. “Yes, you're going to meet my expectations, but compassion comes with understanding and knowing that not every kid is the same.”
Kinsey knew that all too well growing up.
Her father was an alcoholic and her mother moved her and her siblings in and out of the house.
“I think that upbringing actually helps me relate to a lot of these students,” she said. “I didn't have the best home life.”
Kinsey has spent the entirety of her 14-year teaching career at New Holland Knowledge Academy, where she currently teaches second grade.
She recalled a young boy who was acting out — yelling, crawling on the ground, running out of class and making a second home of the principal’s office.
“He had a very unstable home life, and he had told me some things,” she said. “I thought, ‘You know what, in order to help him, I need to let him know that my home life was unstable when I was growing up.”
“Once he understood that he wasn't alone and that we shared a commonality, it changed him,” she said. “It changed his perspective to know that there was someone in the boat with him. He wasn't alone.”
She wasn’t sure whether he would wind up graduating high school, but years later he donned his cap and gown and made that walk across the stage.
“I bonded with him, and that’s what I try to do,” she said. “I’m not just here to get a paycheck and to be off in the summers. I'm here to make a difference in kids’ lives.”
She also taught a young girl who had to repeat first grade and who nearly found herself in special education classes before Kinsey intervened.
“I said, ‘You know what, let me have her,” Kinsey recalled.
She said she was shocked at the girl’s transformation.
“You should have seen her come back on her graduation day when she graduated from high school. I mean, just cord after cord after cord around her neck. And she came back to thank me for helping her.”
Kinsey was born in Hiawassee but considers Gainesville home, having lived in the city since she was 13.
She always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“I had three brothers, so I was definitely the teacher,” she said, laughing.
But it wasn’t until the age of 33 that she returned to college and earned the requisite degrees. Before that, she had been a stay-at-home mom for 17 years and worked for a couple of years as a paralegal at Nathan Deal’s law firm.
“I was considered mama by a lot of kids, a lot of students at college, because I was very organized,” she said. “So the kids were like, ‘Hey, will you help us with this? Will you help us do that?’ It was actually a lot of fun.”
In under four years, she earned a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education from the University of North Georgia and later attended Piedmont University, where she earned her master’s in elementary reading and math and a specialist degree in curriculum and instruction.
A year or two after becoming a teacher, a lawyer offered to double her salary if she came to work for him. But her heart belonged in the classroom.
The teacher of the year honor comes with a $10,000 check from the Melvin Douglas and Victoria Kay Ivester Foundation, which has agreed to award the prize until 2029. That tradition was started recently by Doug Ivester, local philanthropist and former chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Co.
Kinsey often tells her husband of 30 years: “I love my job today just as much as the first year I taught.”
In her free time, she enjoys camping in the mountains and spending time with her two grandchildren.