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Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series about the 2012 Marion County Chamber of Commerce “Outstanding” award winners.
Paula Walston’s love for books began before she could even read.
She vividly remembers sitting with her grandfather as a little girl and “picture reading” to him.
But, what she didn’t realize at the time was that her grandfather was doing the exact same thing.
“Once I learned to actually read words, I came to the realization that my grandfather had been picture reading right along with me,” she said.
Walston said her grandfather had to drop out of school when he was a young boy to help support his family.
“He worked hard all of his life and he was a successful farmer, but it was difficult without a formal education,” Walston said.
Her grandfather always told her she would make a wonderful teacher. And when she reached the fourth grade, she decided her grandfather was right.
She became her grandfather’s teacher.
“I began teaching him basic sight words and with time, practice and encouragement, he learned to read classic stories from a basal reader,” Walston said.
From that point forward, Walston had her eyes set on becoming a reading teacher.
But, reaching that goal wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come quickly.
For 10 years, she worked at Fruit of the Loom in Campbellsville. The factory started laying people off in 1997, and it closed in 1998. Like many of her coworkers, she was inspired to go back to school and fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. She was the first member of her family to go to college.
Walston admits that being a nontraditional student was difficult.
“It's hard to juggle the responsibilities of working, taking care of a family and being a student,” she said.
She worked at Kroger in Lebanon while also attending classes. It was tough, but she said it was more than worth it.
“One of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life was when I attended Campbellsville University to get my teaching degree,” Walston said. “Not only was I fulfilling a life long dream, but I was able to share and grow in my faith. I built a lot of positive relationships at the university.”
In fact, it was her faith and her two sons, Patrick and Nicholas, along with her husband of 30 years, David, that kept her going.
“I knew teaching was my calling and I finally reached the pivotal point in my life where I was ready to accept the challenge and make my lifelong dream a reality,” she said. “I also wanted my children to be proud of me. I wanted to model for them the importance of learning, setting goals, having strong work ethics and perseverance.”
And her hard work and dedication paid off. Not only did she receive her teaching degree, but the university also honored her with the P-5 Elementary Education Award.
“That truly was an honor and a tribute to the hard work and effort I put into earning my degree as a nontraditional student,” Walston said.
After doing some substitute teaching and working in the Casey County school district for about a year, Lebanon Elementary School hired Walston in August of 2002 to be a reading teacher for fourth and fifth graders.
“My first day of teaching at Lebanon Elementary was special,” she said. “I knew in my heart this was where I belonged.”
Watching her students gain self-confidence and become passionate about reading is what excites Walston most about teaching. While she admits the profession can be very demanding, Walston said seeing her students succeed is the greatest reward.
“Self-confidence is half the battle in whatever we are trying to accomplish in life, so I want my students to have confidence in their ability to learn,” she said.
Her motto, which is posted on a wall in her classroom, is “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." If children believe they can do something, and they work hard, they can accomplish anything, she said.
“I want my students to always remember that they can do whatever they set their minds to,” Walston said. “They just have to work hard and believe in themselves as much as I believe in them.”
A personal goal Walston has set is to eventually become a principal. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher and she received her principal certification in 2010.
“Becoming a principal is one of my goals because I want to be a leader and a role model,” Walston said. “I want to play a bigger part in making the decisions that will positively impact student learning.”
However, her No. 1 goal as an educator is to meet the needs of her students and prepare them to become productive members of society, she said.
Being recognized as the Marion County Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Educator of the Year was truly an honor, according to Walston.
It’s an honor she deserves, said Lebanon Elementary School Principal Donna Royse.
“I have watched her develop into a strong, dedicated teacher over the years,” Royse said. “She strives each day to help her students face the challenges of the classroom and life, in general.”
Walston’s love for teaching, for reading and for her students is very obvious when watching her in the classroom, according to Marion County Superintendent Dr. Chuck Hamilton.
“You feel a sense of purpose when observing Mrs. Walston with her students that it is more than just book learning, it is about being a good person,” Hamilton said. “She models for her students a passion for learning and treating each other with dignity and respect.”
But, as Walston will tell you herself, she is merely a representative of her peers, as there are many others who share her qualities as an educator, Hamilton said.
“It is her humility that is humbling and helps us remember teaching is a vocation, not a job,” he said.