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A driving force

It was supposed to be a pit stop.

Lynn Hughes watches as Brie Sosnov picks up a chicken that is cooped
just outside her class.
Lynn Hughes watches as Brie Sosnov picks up a chicken that is cooped just outside her class.Read moreRon Tarver / Inquirer

It was supposed to be a pit stop.

In 1967, Lynn Hughes was 20 and a new teacher at the Miquon School in Conshohocken, where her husband also worked. But the young couple had plans to move to California - their careers at the independent school were not supposed to last forever.

Forty years later, Hughes, 60, still presides over the fifth-sixth grade group at Miquon, where on a recent weekday she explained algebra equations, instructed her students on how to hit a high note, and helped them mix and cast concrete for a study of structures.

Hughes is more than a fixture at Miquon. She's a beloved teacher, a model of enthusiasm and energy, and an expert bad-joke teller.

She landed there accidentally. Hughes, who grew up in Lansdowne, began as a counselor at the school's summer camp when she was 16. When she was 19, Hughes left a job as a computer systems analyst and returned to Miquon as a teacher's assistant.

Computer work was dull. And her husband, Tony, came home happy every day from his job as Miquon's music teacher.

"He was having a much better time than I was," Hughes remembered. "We saw this as a temporary job, but it has now been 40 and 41 years, so I guess we're not going to California."

Hughes still loves to go to work each morning. She arrives early, after a long drive from her home outside Quakertown, and relishes the one-on-one moments she spends with children before the formal day begins.

"I love the constant variation of it. It's never the same from one day to the next, or one year to the next," she said of teaching. "It's a constant challenge."

Miquon is a distinctive, progressive place – physically and academically. Classrooms in the wooded campus sit in individual cottages, and are equipped with everything from a stove and refrigerator to computers and a loft where children can work quietly. Because there are no hallways, students move between rooms by walking outside.

Individual attention and hands-on learning are stressed. Students address teachers by their first names, recess is "choice time," and instead of a fixed curriculum and required textbooks, teachers have a set of core curricular goals to achieve by the end of the school year.

Spending 40 years at such a small school - there are just 150 students from the nursery to sixth grade - has meant sacrifices, but they've proved to be worth it, she said.

"Independent schoolteachers don't make what public schoolteachers make," Hughes said. "But I like the smallness of the place. I like the fact that we are a committed elementary school, that these kids are not in a college admissions pipeline."

Standing in front of her class in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, Hughes speaks in a voice that carries. She enunciates every word carefully. She asks lots of questions.

"This assignment needs to be a priority for you. What needs to happen for you to get it finished on time?" she asked one student having trouble meeting deadlines in a pre-school pow-wow.

"Why do I ask you to consult each other first, before coming to me?" she asked her first math group of the day. "You learn by explaining, as well as by figuring out."

And of course, there are her jokes - groaners that go over big with her 10- to 12-year-olds. ("She's the funniest teacher ever," student Lital Netter-Sweet says.)

To wit: "You're the third person I'm stalking for Miquon Grass," Hughes said to one student, referring to the school's literary magazine. "Get it? Stalking for grass!"

As she praised a student struggling with math, applauded children after oral presentations, inquired about someone's headaches, Hughes' love for her pupils was evident. They are just as vital a part of her classroom as she is.

"At this age, I look at them as people with a tremendous amount to contribute to the classroom; I have great respect for their minds and their interests,"  Hughes said. "They're emerging as independent thinkers who can use their skills as tools, but they haven't yet decided they know everything."

For now, the students are pretty awed by Hughes, who brings to the classroom a rich life experience.

In her late 20s, Hughes parlayed her love of driving into a brief career as a race car driver. She bought a Formula Ford and ran it in the United States and Canada.

"I turned out not to be very good at it," Hughes said. "I kept thinking how much it was going to cost if I wrecked the car, and I think you have to be young enough not to care."

A musician, she plays guitar, tin whistle, accordion, and concertina - mostly Irish music - in clubs along with her husband. She's a gardener, and as a result each student in her class has his or her own garden. She's interested in social justice issues, so her students donated the proceeds of a hoagie sale to an orphanage in Zimbabwe.

And she's really into math, writing columns for and serving on the board of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

Standing in the spring sunshine, checking out their blooming gardens during choice time, a group of girls in Hughes' class said they loved having her as a teacher.

"She's really smart and fun,"  Brie Sosnov said. "She can fix two computers in a minute."

Lital praised Hughes' instructional methods.

"Everything is really clear in her class," said Lital. "She's very patient."

Miquon principal Julia Finney agrees with the girls' assessment of Hughes.

"She is a phenomenon," Finney said. "She is to be celebrated."