Paul Nelson Named Teacher Of The Year

Published 12:24 pm Thursday, July 4, 2013

CUMBERLAND – Paul John Nelson says he's the Susan Lucci of Cumberland County Schools' Teacher of the Year.

Every year, staff from each of Cumberland's schools nominate teachers for Teacher of the Year.

Nelson says he's been nominated the past three years. Not bad, for someone who only began teaching at Cumberland High School four-and-a-half years ago.

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The school principal reviews the staff's nominations and, if they meet certain criteria, their names are entered into the pool to be voted on by the staff.

While finishing his degree from Longwood University, Nelson student taught at Cumberland High School. He remembers noticing the Teacher of the Year plaques hanging on the classroom walls of some of the teachers he respected the most.

And now, he has one, too. Not just for the high school, but for all of Cumberland.

An administrative council chooses the district-wide teacher of the year from the three teachers of the year submitted from each school.

“I'm shocked,” he said, during an interview with The Herald.

Nelson is a history and social studies teacher at Cumberland High School.

For him, high school is a second family, so he tries to say “hi” or crack a joke with everyone he meets.

Although Nelson is more than just smiles and jokes, it is rare he isn't smiling, even when talking about serious things.

Sometimes staying at school for 12 hours a day, Nelson jokes that there are times he would stay longer if he had a cot in his classroom.

Nelson has served as the 21st Century Grant Coordinator for the high school for two years, which involves both after school and summer school programs.

He also previously coached the junior varsity baseball team and is currently the chairman of the Social Studies Department.

Because his dad was in the army, Nelson's family moved a lot. He attended many different schools and had many different teachers.

It was interactions with two very different teachers that convinced Nelson he wanted to teach.

First, there was a teacher in Germany.

Nelson says the teacher was horrible. He was difficult to follow and Nelson noticed that other students were falling behind.

“I've always been an Indiana Jones history geek,” Nelson says with a smile. Before long, he found himself helping fellow students in the class.

The next year, Nelson's family was in Virginia and he had a very different experience. Steve Stubbs taught him U.S. History as a junior at York High School.

He was very dedicated, Nelson remembers. Stubbs only missed one day of school that year, the day his wife gave birth. He even had laryngitis twice that year.

No easy movie days for the class. Nelson remembers that Stubbs even brought a megaphone so his students could still hear him while he taught.

The juxtaposition of those two teachers was fate, Nelson says. “Then I said, I definitely want to teach.”

Even talking very quietly through the megaphone, Nelson remembers Stubbs telling his students “when we are here, we are working.”

That is a lesson Nelson tries to pass along to his students.

Nelson believes there are a thousand ways to work. From arranging student desks to mimic Greek city-states, to using a putting mat for review to prepare for the SOLs, to having students elect representatives as they study Rome, Nelson is eager to help his students engage.

But, he is reluctant to say he has the gift of teaching. Instead, he says it's the kids that should be praised. He only hopes to give them a spark.

Nelson wants his students to learn that history is about more than just dates and names. It's about stories. He loves to see students begin to “get hooked” on history and its stories as the school year progresses.

“All you have to do is get them going,” Nelson says, “they're like a snowball. Get them started on the hill. They'll do everything themselves.”

Nelson believes that learning how to study history is a skill that will help his students for the rest of their lives.

“I don't care if you're talking about the Greeks, the Romans or a mistake a family member made,” Nelson says, “the history is there to remind us what to do and what not to do.”

Graduation is bittersweet for Nelson. Last year was the first graduation where he saw freshman he taught walk across the stage. He remembers driving some of those students home from baseball practice everyday.

It is hard, Nelson says, because he knows he'll rarely get to see the end result. A lot of kids never come back to let their teachers know how they are doing.

Teachers may think they see the finished product, because they can look at the SOL scores and say that all their students passed, Nelson points out.<br />
“That's not a finished product, It's a number,” Nelson continues. “The impact you'll have on people. You won't know. You won't know for years down the road.”

As for him, Nelson remembers those who helped him along the way: Dr. David Geraghty from the History Department at Longwood University, the dedication of Steve Stubbs and even the not-so-great teacher in Germany.

Already, Nelson is being stopped at Wal-Mart by former students to talk politics.

The students at Cumberland High School are great, he says.

“You have these kids who…might have been dealt a bad hand and they are just nonstop…Their light bulb, when it goes off, shines brighter than most other kids I've seen.”

When he was announced as the Teacher of the Year at May's Cumberland County School Board meeting, the room, filled with students and parents, broke into applause and shouts.

True to form, Nelson kept them laughing throughout his short acceptance speech. Then he turned around and faced the crowd.

He asked all his students to stand. “Thank you guys for everything you do for me. I really can't thank you guys enough. You guys are the reason that I'm here. So thank you very much, I give you a round of applause,” he told them.

The Teachers of the Year from the elementary and middle school were also recognized during the May meeting.

Jean West Pino, a Pre-K4 teacher at Cumberland Elementary School, and Kimberly Saunders Page, fifth grade math teacher at Cumberland Middle School, were recognized along with Nelson.

Nelson will now be considered for the title of Regional Teacher of the Year. If he is successful, he will move on to compete with teachers from seven other school regions for Virginia Teacher of the Year, and, ultimately if successful, National Teacher of the Year.

Recently, Nelson says he came across a paper he wrote in high school about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Of course, he wrote he wanted to be a teacher and change lives. But, he also wrote that he wanted to be the best teacher in Virginia.

And he is certainly well on his way toward that goal.