HED: Bramlett's Paul Garner returns to teach at his primary school
By Monique Harrison
Bramlett Elementary teacher Paul Garner ambled down the hallway, flashing a boyish grin as he approached a group of lunchroom-bound second-graders.
"Hey, Mr. Garner," one boy after another called, reaching out to give the polo shirt-clad teacher a high five.
Several girls in the group smiled shyly, also offering their hands for high fives or reaching out to give the rookie teacher a hug.
"The children just love him," said Garner's teacher assistant, Margaret Sturdivant. "They like him because he has an outgoing personality and because they know he cares about them. He wants them to learn. But mainly, I think they like him because he's Mr. Garner. I guess that's enough."
Males aren't a common sight in Bramlett Elementary's classrooms.
Of about 90 staff members, Garner is the only male classroom teacher, aside from an art teacher who teaches part time.
Statewide, less than 5 percent of all teachers are male, meaning there are about 830 male elementary teachers.
Almost all of those male teachers are part-time physical education teachers or teachers assigned to upper-elementary classes.
'Quite a stir'
When reporting to the state, school districts define elementary teachers differently, with some limiting their count to kindergarten through fifth grade, while other districts include teachers in sixth through eighth.
"I understand I caused quite a stir when the rosters went up (at the district's administrative office) last year," Garner said. "Everyone saw there was a male teacher on the list for first grade. Some people were asking around, trying to find out who had children in the class. I understand why they were interested, I guess. Most children don't have a male teacher at this age."
Garner said most parents were receptive to his classroom efforts during his first year of teaching.
"I think one or two were apprehensive at first, but once they got to know me, things were great," he said. "A lot of the parents pitched in and helped out on different projects. No teacher could have asked for better support."
Garner had to prove himself to his assistant.
"He's a very good teacher this year - a fine teacher," Sturdivant said, nodding her head. "But last year he was still a little nervous. He had to find his way. All teachers go through that."
His youthfulness meant he had to prove himself to some of the school's veteran teachers. Garner's classroom is the same one in which he learned as a second-grader to write in cursive and perform double-digit addition.
"Two of the teachers here taught me when I went to Bramlett," the 27-year-old said with a chuckle. "They had to get used to having me around. I think I made them feel kind of old."
Young Garner remembered
Bramlett Elementary teacher Mary Lou Hale remembers Garner as a quiet third-grader who struggled to improve his reading skills.
"He was an average reader, but he wasn't excellent," Garner recalled. "He was determined to become a better reader. He was very hard on himself. He had to work hard but he improved."
Garner said her former student's childhood struggles make him a better teacher today.
"Paul understands what it's like to work at something that doesn't come easily," she said. "It gives him more patience to deal with students who don't always pick things up on the first or second try. He's an encourager."
Encouragement is a big part of Garner's teaching philosophy.
"He's nice," said 6-year-old Ebony Brady, a student in Garner's class. "He tell us when we do good."
Garner said he tries to treat each child as an individual and to meet their unique needs.
"I think if you are constantly praising a child and constantly challenging them to do better, they will meet and surpass your expectations," Garner said.
Garner admits that's not always an easy task.
"I had one child last year who I really worried would never learn to add," he said. "I would tell him to put the largest number in his head and then count up. The boy would just slap his head, like that was what he had to do to put the number in there and add. It was frustrating. But he did finally learn. It was just something that was very hard for him."
'I like what I do'
Frustrating or not, Garner said he knows his decision to teach was a good one.
"I like what I do," he said. "I just like being with the kids and teaching them."
Elementary education was not Garner's original career choice.
He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1992 with a degree in exercise science.
He taught as a substitute in Oxford and Lafayette County for a year after graduating and then accepted a one-year temporary position as Bramlett's P.E. teacher.
"That year of coaching made me realize I really wanted to be in the classroom," he said. "I decided to go back and get a degree in elementary education."
He returned to college in the fall of 1995, graduating in the spring of 1996 after student teaching in fourth grade.
"Originally, I'd imagined myself teaching fourth grade," Garner said. "But it worked out that I came here. I like this age because you can look at their work in August and then again in May and there's an incredible difference. They learn so much. It's rewarding."
Garner said he almost stayed out of education because of the pay.
"Teaching had crossed my mind before," he said. "But I was worried about the money. I'd intended to return to school and get a master's in business and maybe go into sales. But things change. I'm glad they did."
Garner said he has considered getting a license in real estate or opening a business.
"There are things you can do to supplement your income," said Garner, who also said he would not consider coaching. "The important thing is that you like what you're doing - that you're where you should be."