Paul Gray ~ Arkansas’s Teacher of the Year ~

Story by Sam Stasner

There are moments in life when persistence is the most important quality a person can have.

As a non-traditional student making a second attempt at college during the late 1980s, Paul Gray had one of those moments.

“I went to Arkansas Tech when I was a young man, and I didn’t do too well,” said Gray. “So I worked for a while and then went into the U.S. Army. After that, I decided to come back to Tech, but I had this really bad grade point average. I was embarrassed about it. So I took the first step toward trying to get back into school, and the first person I visited with was not very pleasant. I was devastated, and I almost drove away.

“But I had another appointment,” continued Gray. “I don’t know what would have happened to my life if I had driven away, but I decided to go ahead to Dr. Bill Seidensticker’s office for the appointment. He sat me down, and he told me that he could always spot someone who had become a disciple and decided they wanted to come back to school.

“He said that my transcript was kind of a mess, but that we could fix it. So, I went from almost not going to that appointment to it becoming a life-changing experience.”

It was Gray’s first step toward earning two college degrees and establishing a career as a geography teacher at Russellville High School.

In December 2007, almost 20 years after that fateful day at Dr. Seidensticker’s office, Gray was named Arkansas Teacher of the Year by the Arkansas Department of Education during a ceremony at the State Capitol.

“Dedicated, innovative teachers are the backbone of our schools,” said Gov. Mike Beebe following the announcement. “Mr. Gray epitomizes the qualities that we should demand in all of our teachers.”

Gray, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1992 and his Master of Education degree in 1998 from Arkansas Tech, is in his 15th year on the faculty at Russellville High School.

“The positive side of the award is that it has been wonderful to be recognized for the things that you do,” said Gray.

“The part that I would really like to change is that there are a lot of teachers (at Russellville High School), in this district and in this state that do the same things that I’m doing. They work hard, they stay late and they’d do anything to help kids, but they’re not recognized for it. It’s been a wonderful experience on many levels and I look forward to fulfilling this thing that has happened to me.

“But at the same time, they were reading all about the 11 other nominees right after I received the award, and they were all remarkable. I was just wondering, ‘Why me?’ It has been rewarding, but it has been very humbling.”

Gray’s ties to education and Arkansas Tech University run deep. His father, Paul Gray Sr., graduated from Tech with a degree in music education in 1962 and went on to serve as a band director for 37 years. His mother attended Tech, and the late Johnny Paul Thaxton, past president of the Arkansas Tech Alumni Association and longtime educator, was his second cousin.

Today, in addition to his teaching duties at Russellville High School, Gray serves as a visiting lecturer in the Arkansas Tech Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy. His connections to Tech were made even stronger in 2007 when he married Beth Wilson, a faculty member in the Arkansas Tech Department of Emergency Administration and Management.

“Tech’s in my blood,” said Gray. “My father got in trouble with Gene Witherspoon because he showed up for band practice on the day that my mother was in labor with me. Mr. Witherspoon sent him packing toward Saint Mary’s Hospital to be with my mom, but dad was too scared to not at least show up for band practice. We lived in Turrentine Apartments on the Tech campus for the first year of my life, and now I teach at Tech, my wife teaches at Tech and we’ve got a Tech license plate. Tech really does course through my veins.”

In addition to Dr. Seidensticker, Gray noted Dr. Patricia Roach, Dr. Elizabeth Salmeri, Mr. Bobby Taylor and Mr. David Krueger among the many professors who made a significant impact on him during his days as a student at Tech.

“I still tell my students, everyone has to take a history class to graduate, and you haven’t had the full Arkansas Tech experience until you have taken a class under Professor Krueger,” said Gray.

Teaching, however, has not been Gray’s only pursuit in life. He was a member of the Russellville City Council from 2002-2004, and he remains a prominent face on the local political scene as one of three hosts for the television program “Equal Time,” which airs weekly on Suddenlink Cable Channel 6 in Russellville.

“I found out that politics is not something I want to live every day,” said Gray, “but I learned more from being on the (Russellville City Council) for two years than I ever could in a classroom. I had the book learning and I received a great education at Tech, so I had a good understanding of how the system works. But when I got in the middle of all that and the human interactions that I had through that experience, I learned a lot that I was able to bring back to the classroom.

“I learned about zoning codes and laws that the average person might not ever encounter unless they become involved in them,” continued Gray. “I was able to see how the Americans with Disabilities Act works.

“And now, with the TV show, we have these people from throughout the community on as guests. Just a few weeks ago we had the coroner on, and I had no idea what all was involved with that job. It is all very useful in helping students understand how and where politics meets geography.”

During the 2008-09 academic year, Gray will have an opportunity to participate in the political process that influences education. As Arkansas Teacher of the Year, he will have a voice in meetings that will help determine policy for school districts and students all over the state.

“The legislature will be in session next year, so I will try to use my position to make some inroads there once my sabbatical begins in August,” said Gray. “I’ll be a non- voting member of the Arkansas Board of Education, so I’ll be going to those meetings and will have an opportunity to offer my input from a teacher’s perspective.

“I am a member of the Arkansas Geographical Alliance, and I plan to use some of my year promoting geographic literacy. We just don’t know where things are, and in this world we live in, people have to know about other cultures and other religions. We have to know why people are angry at us or why they are our friends.”

However, Gray said that he will miss the chance to teach high school students those lessons on a daily basis.

“I’m apprehensive about it, because I’m not sure what I would do if I couldn’t teach,” said Gray. “I’m not sure I would be good at much of anything else. So, I’m a little bit scared about that. The saving grace is that I will have my night class at Tech both semesters, so I will get to teach.”

The other good news for Gray is that when he returns to his Russellville High School classroom full-time in the fall of 2009, there will be a new group of students and new opportunities to teach, shape and mold.

“I used to come out to Tech and talk to a beginning education class every year, and I would always start by telling them that I get paid $1 million a year,” said Gray.

“I told them that about $40,000 of it comes from the district, and the other $960,000 or so comes from the little notes or e-mails when a former student tells me that I made them want to become a teacher, I made them want to major in geography or I made a difference in their lives. That’s what makes it all worth it. That’s the reward.”

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