At a very young age, Shirley Hughes knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do in middle school,” said Mrs. Hughes, who teaches physical education at Barlow Mountain Elementary School. “I’ll never forget when I started applying at jobs to become a public school teacher — all I wanted was to do was teach in a red brick school and here I am 25 years later, I am still teaching in a red brick house.”
For her dedication beyond the gymnasium, Ridgefield Public Schools named Mrs. Hughes its Teacher of the Year.
She started at East Ridge Middle School in 2001-2002 and then spent a year at Scotts Ridge Middle School before settling at Barlow Mountain when it re-opened in 2003.
Mrs. Hughes remembers first being inspired at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury by a new, young gym teacher named Kathy Sullivan.
Ms. Sullivan went on to become a mentor for Mrs. Hughes, both as her teacher and as her gymnastics coach.
“She’s the reason I got into this line of work — she gave me the incentive to make it happen,” Mrs. Hughes said. “We still communicate with each other and we share the same birthday, so every birthday we get together and celebrate.”
Besides studying sports medicine in her first year of college, Mrs. Hughes said she’d always been on track to become a physical education teacher.
Her first job was at Gainfield Elementary School in Southbury, where she worked for 13 years as an adaptive physical education teacher for the state before returning to Fairfield County, the place she’s always called home.
“I grew up in Danbury and attended school there,” she said. “My family still lives there, so I am very deep rooted to this area.”
Twenty five years into her dream profession and she remains motivated to go into work everyday because she loves working with kids.
“I am as excited to get to work today as I was when I first started — I feel a deeper responsibility today than I did years ago,” she said. “My motto has always been ‘all kids can learn’ and that was engraved in me way back when and has never changed.”
The tools she uses to teach specific have changed over the years, and her focus these days is more on “conceptual learning” to apply skills, rather than just teaching the generic skills themselves.
“An example of a sport skill would be dribbling, passing and shooting a basketball,” she said. “The conceptual learning is when to use a certain pass in a certain situation. The skills are the same, but I am teaching how to apply them.”
Beyond the balance beams and hoola-hoops, Mrs. Hughes has participated in study groups and workshops to shift her focus beyond just physical education. As a result, she developed an integrated program called “Math and Movement — It’s a Calculation Thing” several years ago with her colleague Nancy Pires, a math teacher at Barlow Mountain.
“In the first four weeks of the program, we do different cardio activities in the gym at different intensity levels and the kids record the data as they go along,” she said. “It’s their choice to increase the intensity level, but all of them are able to use estimation skills, convert steps into miles and figure out the number of miles they’ve completed over a week.
“My portion of the program is to front-load the data and then give it to Nancy so she can apply it in her graphing lessons and the students can interpret their scores, write about them and determine what it means. It goes beyond the scope of math and physical education, it deals with literacy as well.”
The program has been recognized locally in her Teacher of the Year award and, last November, she was given the Professional Honor Award by the Connecticut Association for Health.
She constantly discusses with her students the problems of obesity, food choices and the challenges of electronics so they can recognize the “life skills” they need to be healthy.
“It’s an underlying message that is weaved into every lesson,” she said.
One message she stresses to her kids and peers alike is that teaching isn’t simply about delivering information.
“Teaching is about facilitating learning — we need to remember that,” Mrs. Hughes said. “Of course, I strive to make it fun, but there is a very measurable goal in every lesson I teach. My kids know it and they have to work to achieve it.”
Mrs. Hughes also heads the Barlow Mountain Wellness Committee, teaches summer PE at the high school, coordinates Run for Life, Field Day, Jump Rope for Heart and played an instrumental role in the Barlow Mountain winning the USDA Bronze Award for a wellness school.
In addition, she was a member of the first-ever State of Connecticut Physical Education Cadre of Trainers, a group of 18 gym teachers who meet in Middletown.
“I am fortunate to have the strong leadership and wisdom of our principal, Rebecca Pembrook,” Mrs. Hughes said. “Her caring approach toward others and commitment to learned has made being at Barlow Mountain so rewarding.”
However, her deepest gratitude is reserved for her children — Allie, 19, TJ, 18, and Colin, 13 — as well as her husband Terry, who grew up in Ridgefield and is a former director of the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club.
“They have seen me at high and low moments and always understand me and I thank them for it,” Mrs. Hughes said.
Outside of teaching, she is a self-described “car pool mom” who can be found on the soccer field watching her kids play and cheering them on.
But as a Danbury native, who does she root for in the Ridgefield-Danbury rivalry?
“My heart goes with Danbury, but we live here and my kids are on teams here, so I always cheer for the Tigers,” she said.
She likes to run year-round and swim in the “glorious summer months.”
In high school, she was a three-sport athlete, participating in field hockey in the fall, gymnastics in the winter and softball in the spring. She also played tennis.
“I was very active in my high school years,” Mrs. Hughes said. “It’s always been my dream to do something based on activities and sports, so I am lucky that I get to play all day.”
She praises her fellow teachers.
“It’s an absolute privilege to teach in this district and here at Barlow Mountain,” she said. “My fellow teachers support my initiatives and understand the expectations I have in my classroom.”
She said that, “At Barlow, we have the best kids in town. Students understand that this school has learners of all types and it shows in their kindness and patience. Kids learn best through positive reinforcement, so when I see evidence of learning going on it, I make sure to give them a high five or something to make them feel good, and honestly, that makes my day as much as it makes theirs…
She adds, “I would not be nearly as successful without the great support of the parents. They see physical education has evolved and is not just a place for those gifted in movement — the best feedback I receive are from the parents whose kids traditionally don’t like physical education.
Mrs. Hughes believes that “It’s no secret that the Arts program — music, art, library, physical education — struggles amongst the academic folks. I continue to believe that all teaching disciplines make the character of a whole child and have a stronghold in our learning community.”