Cynthia Vainstein: Using Nicknames to Bring the Community Together


Cynthia Vainstein, Upper School Spanish Teacher

You may know her for her unique nicknames or her unusual views on spending time in nature. Cynthia Vainstein, Upper School Spanish teacher of five years, grew up in Peru and took international studying opportunities in Israel and Texas before moving to Philly and joining the FSS community. 

Cynthia was born and raised in Peru. Her upbringing offered an undiverse perspective on the world: she attended a primarily Jewish high school growing up and had only Jewish friends in her childhood. During her sophomore year of high school, she spent six months with her classmates at a boarding school in Israel. They attended an international school during the week and had the weekends free, so she “stayed in hostels, stayed with families, and slept on the beach.” Now, every time she visits her childhood home, she meets with her high school friends to reminisce about this trip.

Cynthia always knew she wanted to major in teaching during college, but her father wanted her to be a “lawyer or [an] architect.” However, she originally took a different path completely and majored in hotel management. While finishing her degree and simultaneously working in a local hotel, she discovered she would rather “be in the hotel than work at it.” Although she did complete the degree, she quickly found that she was not passionate about hotel work.

These experiences, as well as the positive things she’d heard about American education, inspired Cynthia to move to the U.S. in 1998 to pursue teaching. She applied to only one school, The University of Texas at Austin, without ever visiting or knowing English, and was accepted. After passing her TOEFL exam, she moved to Austin and graduated with a degree in Special Education. 

In college, the most important lesson Cynthia learned was to get “out of her comfort zone.” Without knowing the language or culture of her new community, she was inspired by the diversity of people from all over the world. She recounts being surprised by the large variety of religions and sexual orientations of her classmates. In an English class, one of her classmates immediately introduced herself as a member of the LGBT community. Cynthia says that in Peru, you were “straight, or you didn’t say anything.” After seeing how open people were, she believes that she “became much more progressive, and it shaped the person [she is] today.” 

This appreciation for diversity is one of the reasons why Cynthia loves teaching at FSS. She believes that the community is very “low-key” and loves seeing how people’s identities and interests can intersect and interact with one another. “Friends Select allows you to be the best person that you can be. I’m not saying that it is the perfect fit for every student, but [the school] does not have a mold or a pattern for each student. They will help you reach your highest potential…they respect each person.”

Cynthia teaches Spanish I, III, and IV. She prefers to teach higher level Spanish because she can be more creative with the curriculum, particularly discussing current events in class and pushing the students to express their opinions in Spanish. She also feels that she is “funnier in Spanish,” and can bring jokes and sarcasm to advanced classes, where her older students will better understand it. 

This year, her Spanish I class has only four students, including three freshmen and one senior. Although it is difficult for her to go back to the complete basics of the language such as greetings and the alphabet, she finds it “rewarding to see how [the younger students] grow.”

Because her classes are primarily conversational, it will be difficult for Cynthia to keep all her students engaged during iSelectLearning. Some techniques she will use are weekly participation grades, Flipgrid videos, and special invites to her office hours if she feels individual students need extra help and attention. She misses the community aspect of Friends Select more than anything and still wants to find ways to connect with new students. She believes that the initial connections she makes in the first few weeks of school can set the tone for a whole year: “when you connect with a student, you have that student, and they would like to learn in your class.” 

All of her Spanish students are familiar with one way she chooses to connect with each person: nicknames. Cynthia was called “Chichina” as a child and gave everyday objects in Peru nicknames as well. She says she used to call objects “little things.” For example, she called her casa (Spanish for house) casita. Now, she has fun using nicknames to make the class environment more lighthearted and personal. Cynthia says one of her favorite nicknames she has given to a student would belong to Ewilica Nicolas ‘21. She loves how the name “Ewi” sounds. 

Cynthia is a very present community member and loves to see students grow. She is also an advisor for the class of 2022, and she has loved to watch them develop into mature, independent students. Cynthia says she is inspired by her fellow teachers. She admires “how they are able to maintain the calm, and the ability to engage everybody in the class.” After switching between schools repeatedly for many years, she admires the teachers here more than anywhere else.