Spotlight: Paul Campbell (AK '16)March 10, 2017
First- and second-grade teacher Paul Campbell (AK '16) loves the way his young students reflect whatever he's feeling or is excited about: "It's a huge reminder for me each day to model a genuine love for learning new things." Campbell received Alaska's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Chester Valley Elementary in Anchorage on November 22, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Paul Campbell: I definitely took a roundabout path into education. As a kid growing up in Alaska, I had a love affair with fish! I know that sounds a bit strange, but to us locals fish is a driving factor in many of our lives. I just knew that I wanted a career in fisheries biology where I could extend my passions into practice.
I was lucky enough in high school to get an internship with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in their Commercial Fisheries department. I was doing all kinds of fun work, from counting fish returns to meeting and helping folks get ready for fieldwork assignments. All the while I noticed that the biologist under whom I was working was doing very little "fun" work. When I asked him why, his response was that the majority of his time was collecting data from seasonal employees (the people doing the fun stuff) and compiling them into reports for the state. Essentially I learned that the job I thought I wanted consisted of mainly sitting at a desk in front of a computer. I knew then that it was definitely not for me, but I didn't want to end my internship.
Someone suggested that I try helping out with the Educational Outreach Program that the Department had to offer. I spent my time doing classroom fish dissections, setting up touch tanks filled with locally-caught sea life from tide pools, even helping out with ice-fishing field trips. I loved it. And that's where my passion for teaching began.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Paul: What I love most about primary-age children is their ability to feed off your enthusiasm. I think the best way to describe it is to imagine that I have a big mirror on my chest. Whatever I am feeling or showing interest in reflects back into my students. It's a huge reminder for me each day to model a genuine love for learning new things.
The most frustrating thing? Glitter! It gets everywhere. Kids pour it in their hair if I'm not looking. I wish there would be a world shortage of glitter.
MEA: What was your first job?
Paul: My family owned and operated a small paint and home decoration store in Anchorage. So naturally all us kids had our first jobs working for the business. Often there were jobs that needed to be done that fell outside of our normal job descriptions. My job was supposed to be mixing and selling paint. But when the toilet backed up, I fixed it. When it snowed, I shoveled. When the coffee pot ran out, I made a new batch. You did it because it needed to get done. I am not afraid to step outside my normal duties if it means helping a child. Sometimes jobs just need to get done.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Paul: Mr. Brewer, my sixth-grade teacher. He pushed me harder than any teacher I had at any level, including college.
MEA: Any educators in your family?
Paul: My mother taught junior high and high school for over 20 years. The fact that she was a teacher didn't really push me into education, but it definitely has helped to shape me as an educator today. I remember the extra hours she spent in the classroom or grading papers and the connections she made with her students. Those traits are a model for me.
MEA: What subject did you like (or not)?
Paul: I always loved writing, and I still do. I had a teacher who once said, "Writing is an amazing subject because it gives someone the ability to appear more intelligent than they truly are." I hated math, probably because it didn't come easily for me. I had to work twice as hard compared to all the other subjects. I only tackled math when I was older; real-life application helped math make sense for me.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Paul: They were amazing and still are the kindest and most empathetic group I've ever had. We had a little girl with Down Syndrome in our class. While I struggled daily to be an effective teacher for her, she taught my kids more than I ever could have about how to be a genuinely kind human being. She is one of the most amazing people I have ever met.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Paul: I hope the kids saw that teachers and education in general are valuable resources. I hope that those children looked at the work that their teachers do with respect and admiration.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?
Paul: I hope they remember the way I tried to make them feel. I try to empower the kids to be independent and self-reliant. I want them to realize that they have the ability to solve any problem and accomplish whatever they want. I hope they look back and remember feeling smart and worthy.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Paul: I have an open-door policy where parents are free to come and go as they please. I personally check in daily with many parents to let them know how their child's day went or how they are progressing.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Paul: From 8:40 a.m. to 9 a.m. I love greeting kids as they come in and talking with them as they eat breakfast or work on an entry task. I love the informality of it. There isn't a feeling of teacher and student, but instead just a group of people who are all part of a community that works together.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Paul: Sadly, many of my students are in life situations that hinder their education. It's difficult to focus on a lesson if you're hungry or if you've experienced trauma. It's hard to excel if you're worried about what will happen at home. We as teachers do everything in our power to help our children succeed while they are under our guidance. But far too often there are situations that are simply out of our control.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Paul: I’d try to institute a pre-K program that could accommodate all eligible-aged children in our zone, regardless of income. So often we get kids who are struggling from day one. Adding early learning experiences, structured play interactions, and in some cases interventions for this age group would better our community immensely.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Paul: I'm not sure. I've always loved flying so maybe a pilot.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Paul: I think for people to take teaching and teachers seriously, we have to recruit our best and brightest individuals. I strongly believe that teachers not only need to be highly intelligent and hardworking people, but they also need a great deal of empathy.
Our teacher preparation programs need to be much more selective and rigorous. A teacher's preparation should be on par with a lawyer or other postgraduate professions. Why we don't have a longer mentorship program or residency is beyond me. The first few years of teaching are a real struggle. Teachers, and more importantly students, would benefit from strong mentorship and guidance from experienced professionals.
In terms of how to recruit these people, I think my previous points would help. No one looks down their nose at someone who has been through the rigors of med school, passed the bar, or completed some selective training process. Hard work, dedication, and the talent required to be successful in those fields is respected. I believe teaching needs to follow in that path. People should be impressed when you're a teacher, not just for your patience but for the skills you have.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Paul: ...my students are happy, feel safe, and can independently work through (or find the supports they need to solve) any problem that comes their way.
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