By Lindsay Carey
Jennifer Paul, a literacy specialist at Southington High School, was named the 2014-15 Teacher of the Year.
Paul has taught first grade, sixth grade and now works at the high school.
“Whichever level I’m teaching at is what I think I want to be in forever,” said Paul. Each time she works with a different grade level, she loves working with them so much that she sees herself there long term.
Paul said she was shocked when she found out that she had been chosen for the award, because she has known many of the teachers who have received the title in the past and finds it hard to consider herself among such a high caliber of educators.
However, despite Paul’s concern Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski said Paul is, “highly regarded among teachers in Southington and everyone can see the effects of her influence on the high school students.”
Though she appreciates the great honor, Paul said she has a difficult time accepting the individual recognition for her work because she believes that teaching is a collaborative effort.
“Every accomplishment I have had with my students is just a piece of the puzzle,” said Paul.
Paul has come a long way from her undergraduate days at Loyola when she aspired to be a writer. After coming home from college, Paul said she was inspired by a teacher who turned her younger brother into an avid reader. After noticing the impact that teacher had had on him, it changed her perspective on what teaching could do.
Paul went on to earn her Masters Degree from the University of New Haven and then began her teaching career in Bethany. However, having grown up part time in Southington with her father and step mother she has always felt a tie to the town.
“As soon as I started teaching in Southington, I really felt at home and like a part of the community,” said Paul, though she lives in Cheshire. “I don’t see myself leaving.”
Paul has used her experience working in the elementary and middle schools to work with the high school students. She said she is actively working with other educators in Southington to assure that reading is taught cohesively throughout the district.
Paul believes in the importance of bringing committees from different schools and levels together, so that the large school district will be on the same page when it comes to teaching methods.
“I like teaching high school, because I know where the kids come from,” said Paul. “I have knowledge of the elementary and middle schools and I use that knowledge when I see holes in their foundation.”
At the high school, Paul works to incorporate reading in all content areas with her new partner Stacey Simpson as well as assisting students who need additional support with literacy at the high school. The reading advocate also facilitates reading and writing interventions for students.
Paul has also been successful in helping lead a book club program at the high school, which has been recognized by the NBC show “Making the Grade” as well as CBS’s Better Connecticut.
Paul said she noticed a difference in the interest of reading when she shifted from working with middle school to high school students.
“I used to teach sixth grade at the middle school and they were veracious readers,” said Paul. “But when I went to the high school and asked students what they were reading they said they had done very little reading or that they weren’t reading at all.”
This became of great concern to Paul and she began wondering why the high school students weren’t reading.
Paul said she learned the reason from one of the high school students, Dejanae Carpenter.
According to Paul, Carpenter told her, “I’ll tell you why students don’t read, because the books we read in school aren’t telling our stories.”
Carpenter gave Paul a list of books and authors in urban literature that she related to. Paul said she became a student herself, because she had never been introduced to this genre and enjoyed being able to learn from her students.
“We became like a family,” said Paul, “because we would discuss the book and then talk about how it related to their lives.”
The book began with 10 girls meeting once a month. Paul arranged to take them out of class, and they alternated their schedule so that they never missed more than one of the same class.
The Southington High School’s Book Club began with the goal of reading one book a month, however, by the end of the year the students were reading two to three books per week. Once word got out about the book club, more students started to join. Now there are seven or eight book clubs at the high school and the students in the program read about 60 books this year.
Paul said she was impressed by the way Carpenter and many of the other students had taken the initiative to facilitate the club. The students in the book club gained leadership skills, which many of them were able to include in their college and scholarship applications.
“They were able to gain a skill set that they may not have had without the book club,” said the 2014-2015 teacher of the year.
As a result of the program, students, who once took a month to read one book, can now read a book in two days. Paul said the group is now working on recruiting more students for next year.
On top of work and the book club program, Paul was also going to school to finish her Sixth Year Degree in Reading from Southern Connecticut State University. After taking two classes per semester, Paul was able to finish the degree this year.
Paul especially appreciated the program, because everything she was studying and reading about Common Core Standards and other initiative in education, she was using the very next day at work.
Interim Superintendent Karen Smith, who was on the committee to choose the Teacher of the Year, said that she could not be more thrilled that Paul was chosen because of her research knowledge and desire to learn more in order to help the students.
“She has been a major asset to the high school and her developmental knowledge of how students learn has been beneficial,” said Smith.
Though balancing work and school may not have been easy, Paul views it has a large part of the reason she has been successful in getting students to read more in the high school.
“I won’t say it wasn’t difficult, but it was so meaningful and really benefited me,” said the literacy specialist about her busy year.
Paul said she also leads another private book club, a club for her children.
“We try to foster a love of reading at home,” said Paul. “It can be hard sometimes, but we work through it. They definitely love reading.”
Paul will be recognized on August 25 at the Staff Convocation and will also be honored at a reception before the Board of Education meeting in September.
By Lindsay Carey