For Cynthia Jones, who has been teaching at Hostos Community College for more than 35 years, being named New York State Professor of the Year meant recognition for the college she calls “home.”
“I’m really walking around saying, ‘Finally, finally, finally, Hostos is being recognized for what we do here,’” Jones told Clarion. “We are a hardworking college, and there’s a lot of love here, a lot of grace.” It was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) that spotlighted Jones with the Professor of the Year title, in recognition of her commitment to undergraduate teaching and her profound influence on Hostos students.
Jones has been a teacher, a faculty mentor, a negotiator and a program builder at Hostos since 1977. In each role, colleagues say, she brings people together to reach a common goal. Jones said she learned this collaborative work style from her mother – an educator and social worker who always encouraged Jones to work with others on finding solutions.
“Even if the other person’s thoughts might not agree with mine, I am still open to that person contributing to whatever we’re working on,” Jones said. “That’s how I set up my classroom from day one, making it a safe environment where we can become a community.”
Jones began at Hostos as an adjunct, teaching ESL reading courses; she has been a full-time lecturer since 1981. Her roles over the years have included teaching in the college’s Early College Initiative, mentoring other faculty at the Hostos Center for Teaching and Learning, and working with the American Social History Project at the Graduate Center on its Making Connections program, bringing innovative teaching techniques to high school teachers.
When former Hostos Provost Carmen Coballes-Vega approached Jones about submitting her name for the Carnegie/CASE award, Jones was
reluctant to accept the nomination. “I’m a lecturer, and I’ve been around long enough to know the elitism that goes on – not just at CUNY but in general,” Jones said. “I don’t have my PhD, so I suggested to her that there might be others who were more worthy.”
Coballes-Vega, who is now at Rock Valley College in Illinois, felt strongly that Jones should be recognized for her work and dedication. Coballes-Vega told Clarion she could see Jones’s positive influence from the moment they met; and she believes that people like Jones who often work collectively should be honored individually.
“They’re not the type of people who want to be in the spotlight,” Coballes-Vega said. “They’re hidden in the crowd, but they have a tremendous impact.”
Lew Levine, a faculty member in the college’s Department of Language and Cognition, has known Jones since they were graduate students together at Columbia’s Teachers College. Levine says Jones has made Hostos “her home” – and that whenever something needs to be done, Jones is there. Both with students and with faculty and staff, he says, she always lets people know what she thinks. “She’s respectful of people and their feelings, but she’s straight with people and lets them know where she stands,” Levine observed. “It’s a fine line to walk.”
One of Jones’s areas of expertise is developmental learning, where she works to demystify the learning process. When she heard the struggles her colleagues in mathematics often had in teaching developmental math learners, Jones responded by developing an interdisciplinary class, Reading Mathematics. By reading literary works on mathematics, students could connect with math in a new way. The result, Jones says, was that they were less intimidated by the subject and began to approach assignments as ways to become more effective readers, writers, thinkers and math learners.
“[I’ve] learned that the power of story and making connections were essential to effective learning and teaching,” wrote Jones in her personal statement for the award. “This…approach I utilize in all of my classes in order to elicit the story of the learner, what is known and unknown about the subject and possible impediments to learning.”
“I have been engaged in looking at curriculum development through the lens of students and what their needs are,” Jones said. “It’s always a collaborative process.”
In 2007, Jones created a course for high school students who would not graduate on time because they did not have enough credits. Her semester-long course, “Discoursing the Unspeakable,” was a rigorous reading and writing course, where students shared a written reflection of their life stories and their own personal roadblocks to learning. At the semester’s end, Jones collated all 19 essays, and gave each student a copy.
“They talked about how personal matters often kept them from going to school,” Jones recalled. One student wrote that his identity as a jokester kept him distracted, another wrote about taking an “easy life” by “making trouble in the street.” By writing their own stories, the students took ownership of their own education, and through the story sharing, students felt that they weren’t alone.
Her emphasis on listening served Jones well when she was a PSC grievance counselor at Hostos. Jones said her role wasn’t easy: she was dealing with management officials who often took an antagonistic approach to their relationship with the union.
“It was a challenge, but I think that challenge really inspired me to try to get it,” Jones told Clarion. With a consistent approach in regular labor-management meetings, Jones says she was able to make progress as she sought fair solutions for employees and promoted good practices for the college.
Jones says that one thing she emphasized as a union representative was the need for greater transparency at the college: faculty and staff, for example, should know exactly what to expect from performance evaluations. On an individual level, Jones worked with union members on their grievances. She was successful in overturning a non-reappointment, she recalls, and learned how to “put out fires” before filing a formal grievance became necessary. PSC’s Director of Contract Administration Debra Bergen [retired] says that Jones was “very engaged as a grievance counselor and gave her all to every member.”
After 37 years at Hostos, Jones says she feels lucky every day that she gets to do what she loves – and she’s always striving to do it better. “My father believed that you should always question, dig deeper and not remain in the same place,” Jones said. “So many of the activities that I do with the students are pushing them to challenge themselves, to question, to explore, to inquire.”
The combination of listening, encouragement and challenge has led Jones to become close to many of the students whom she has guided over the years. One is Hostos alumnus Luis Torres, who says he considers Jones his professor, career coach and “second mother.”
As a young Puerto Rican man who was one of the first in his family to get a college degree, Torres says Jones was central to his success at Hostos. “She took me under her wing and mentored me from the moment I met her,” he told Clarion. “She inspired me to continue my education and to believe that I could achieve my goals.” Now an elementary school principal in the Bronx, Torres was recognized in 2013 as a Hometown Hero in Education by the Daily News. “When I became a teacher she gave me guidance on how to become the most effective educator possible,” Torres said. “Today I am a school principal, and it is because of Cynthia Jones that I now am able to touch the lives of thousands of children.”