‘I’ll never stop serving children:’ Georgia’s first guidance counselor retires

Cindy Little’s job interview started off a little rocky.

A senior at University of Vermont in spring 1977, Little was adamant she’d be a teacher despite widespread skepticism about the availability of education jobs then. Having finished her student teaching at H.O. Wheeler, the Burlington native took a compass and drew a 25-mile radius around her hometown. She applied to every school on the map, and Georgia called.

Scheduled to meet with then-principal Marvin Alderman and superintendent John Barker, Little arrived at the rural school – “it smelled of manure,” she recalled – and found two separate buildings, as no link yet connected the middle and elementary spaces.

A candidate for a third grade teaching job, she headed to the smaller building designated “elementary” and found it locked, so she waited. And waited.

Eventually, the administrators realized “they better come down the hill” and retrieve their prospective hire, which they did.

“I said, ‘Oh, this is such a nice school tucked away here,’ and they said, ‘We think we’re the center of [town],’” Little said. “I was like, ‘Blew this interview.’”

To her delight, she got a call for a second one instead, where she met the school board. The next day, she was pulled out of the shower in the UVM dorms for a call – there were only two phones on either end of the hall.

TOP: Georgia Elementary School guidance counselor Cindy Little is pictured in her office earlier this month. The veteran educator, who was Georgia’s first-ever counselor after first starting as a third-grade classroom teacher in 1977, retires this year. ABOVE: A piece of art from Little’s son hangs in her office. (Photos by Abby Ledoux)

“I ran down in my towel, and I got offered the job,” she said, laughing. “I was so excited.”

Forty years later, Little is retiring from the only school she ever worked for.

“I never wanted to be anywhere else,” she said from her office earlier this month. “This is my home away from home.”

Little was Georgia’s first guidance counselor, a role she’s cherished since completing her master’s in 1983 after realizing she was more drawn to helping children’s social and emotional needs.

After six years as an elementary school classroom teacher, Little split her time between third grade and a new position, K-8 guidance counselor.

“I was so exhausted from doing that,” Little said. “I had everybody’s problems in my head, and then all of a sudden I was a teacher. I actually burned out. I said, ‘I’m never gonna be a guidance counselor.’”

For a while, at least, it looked like that might be true: 1983 was a particularly busy year for the young educator, who earned her counseling degree in May and married in June. Pregnant with her first child the next year, Little put her career on pause.

She took the next decade off from teaching to raise three children in Milton with her husband, David, a family physician. His long hours, coupled with childrearing and her volunteering in Milton schools, meant a busy life.

Little hoped to wait for her youngest daughter to enter first grade before returning to work, but then Alderman offered a preK-4 guidance counselor position in spring 1994.

She was apprehensive until her 4-year-old said, “‘Mom, it’s time for you to work,’” Little recalled. “So I said, ‘Well, that does it.’”

And so she went back to school, counseling elementary children for three days a week, then four. At first, she second guessed her decision, but her colleagues bolstered her – even cheered her return – for the next two-plus decades on the job, helping children debrief about anything from playground drama to bereaving a grandparent.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in children,” Little said. “I keep saying to children, ‘Your breathing is free. It’s with you. You don’t have to have a fidget spinner. You’ve got that breath – practice it.’”

Today’s children are more occupied and engaged than ever with a slew of extra-curriculars and the ceaseless allure of technology and have fewer role models to look to, Little said.

“I tell parents, ‘You are their role models. You’ve got to resolve conflicts peacefully, even at the stoplights,’” she added.

To adapt to this generation’s changing needs, Little has slowed down her approach. She often goes off-script, preferring instead to engage in a real discussion.

“That’s that looking each other in the eye that they don’t get other times,” she said. “I’m not gonna criticize their teachers, because their teachers have to impart information. But I want to have a dialogue.”

To that end, she eats lunch eight times a week: twice a day for her four days on the job, where she counsels kids on friendship skills and runs a support group for children with divorced parents called “Banana Splits.”

She also helps bridge the gap from elementary to middle school, introducing fourth-graders to her 5-8 counterpart, Melissa Fisher, and reassuring them fifth grade is “not so bad.”

She’s even gone so far to make detailed plans for her successor, who was hired full-time at elementary principal Steve Emery’s request, including for programs Little has spearheaded like “Warm Hearts, Warm Homes” which provides families with fuel assistance around the holidays.

To ensure the transition is “flawless,” she’s not ruling out coming back to school, either, especially if higher-need students could benefit from a personal hand-off to their new counselor, she said. She’s also arranged to mentor some children after she retires, and she’ll continue to volunteer in school when she can.

“There’s another way for me to serve children,” she said. “I’ll never stop serving children. That’s my life.”

Little is pictured outside her office on Thursday, June 8. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

It’s that daily connection with children – a hug or a lunchtime chat – Little will miss the most. That’s also what’s sustained her during the most trying times of her job, like reporting to the Department for Children and Families or testifying in court.

She’s also developed close friendships with her fellow educators, assuming leadership roles on a host of internal committees to boost staff morale and otherwise support colleagues.

In turn, they nominated her a UVM Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013, when she was formally recognized for her work along with 80 other educators in the state.

“She reaches everyone,” Emery said then. “She is admired and respected by families, children and colleagues.”

Little remarked she feels like a grandmother, having taught children of former students. She even keeps photos of her original third-graders on-hand to show their kids.

She’s heartened by the mark she’s left on children, some of whom have wandered down from the middle school to knock on her office door after hearing she’s retiring.

“That has been the nicest thing,” Little said.

For that, Little leaves especially big shoes, but she’s confident Georgia’s next guidance counselor will succeed so long as he enjoys the same support she always has.

“People will say, ‘Oh, nobody can take your place,’” Little said. “Yes, they can, and they will. This person will, if you let them. You must let them. You must help them … He’s got to do it his way. It may be different, and different’s gonna be OK.”

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