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The opportunities afforded to Paula Proctor through a financial scholarship from Becker College forever changed her life. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s on a farm in a small town, the idea of attending college seemed unattainable. That opportunity, in many ways, opened Paula’s eyes to the world for the first time. “When I arrived at Becker, I just exploded with ideas,” she says.
Suddenly being able to go to college and thus becoming exposed to so many different types of people—from all walks of life and social backgrounds, with so many different ideas—and to have this happen during the “turbulent ’60s,” was a truly life-changing experience, she adds. Paula recalls her first “sitin” taking place on the Becker College campus. So what if it was over changing the dress code; it was exciting! Her experience at Becker not only broadened her academic knowledge; it changed her as a person.
Typically, the expectation for an average adult American woman in the ’60s was to become a wife and mother. Other options were: librarian, teacher, secretary or nurse. “Within a month, I quickly discovered that I was drawn more toward the science, music, and art courses that I took at Becker,” Paula says. To this day, she still possesses several pieces of music that include works by Stravinsky, Ravel, and Liszt, first introduced to her through her education at Becker College.
The “joy” she experienced studying science concepts in anatomy and physiology classes at Becker enhanced her desire to know and do more in the science field. After graduating, Paula worked as a medical assistant, but soon found herself “snookering” doctors into letting her sneak around on grand rounds with them, attend conferences, and access medical journals. “And it all began with that exposure to the ideas I got at Becker through those science courses,” she declares.
She credits two Becker professors in particular for having an impact on her. One was Alex Belisle, a literature professor who challenged his students. “It was not enough that you read something and did your work,” says Paula. “He challenged you to think every time you turned around.” The second was Ruth Connor, a science professor, who “not only gave you the knowledge, but had to make it real, pulling in every last experience she could think of to deepen the stories, to connect the learning to practical things.” Paula goes on to say, “The staff at Becker was phenomenal and, I reiterate, they expanded my knowledge by transforming my way of thinking, making my time at Becker a powerful experience. A big part of my success today has to do with that thirst for knowledge which I acquired at Becker. It’s an experience that I have never repeated in my life.”
USING HER KNOWLEDGE OF SCIENCE TO EDUCATE After her stint as a medical assistant, Paula took a position as an assistant epidemiologist at UMass Medical Center, during which time she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. It was then that she began to make lists in order to determine where she could best apply what she had learned in the field of science. It was her combined love for science and children that drove her to teaching. “I just felt that I could make the most difference in elementary school,” Paula says. “My own personality is very curious about things, and I just thought it was a good fit—working with kids and the teaching piece—so I ended up going into teaching.”
Paula began at the New England Science Center in Worcester, Mass., as an education associate. When the Worcester Public School system opened the Jacob Hiatt Magnet School, they obtained a grant with the New England Science Center—now the EcoTarium—to develop an exciting new hands-on science program that would attract students from across the district. Paula was instrumental in developing that program, which ultimately launched her teaching career in the Worcester Public School District.
After a number of years working in several different schools, Paula was hired to develop the science program at the Roosevelt School, another new school opening up as a science magnet. She was the third person in charge of administration, behind the principal and assistant principal. When the assistant principal resigned from the position, Paula was chosen to serve in that capacity. She served as an assistant principal at a few other schools before becoming principal of Wawecus Road School four years ago and finally principal of the Elm Park Community School in July 2011. “I absolutely love it here,” she proclaims. “Love, love, love it!”
LEADER, ROLE MODEL, AND VISIONARY Paula has always chosen to work in schools where the student population has significant challenges. As principal of the Elm Park Community School, she has found the experience to be particularly satisfying. “Every day it’s new and different and exciting. I learn, and I have opportunities to expand my work. It’s very rewarding.”
Paula believes “it is absolutely essential that principals value the skills and efforts brought to the table every day, even if you don’t agree with them. Somebody worked hard to do this for a child or for a class—you need to value that. That’s the foundation for upward growth. It establishes a trust. It establishes respect. I think that respect for the practice of teaching is essential. I think it is even more important to understand and truly believe, to the core of your soul, that all children can learn and will learn if we’re doing our jobs.”
“The principal is the primary role model in the school,” Paula states. “You can’t do it from a distance. You have to get out there. The child has to see your enthusiasm for learning, your concern for him and the other children around him, your ability to interact well with other adults, and your respect for all,” she says.
Paula also takes an active role in the school’s curriculum. “I’m heavily involved. The most important part of my job is to listen respectfully to the contributions made by the teachers and then align the practices with the state frameworks and the initiatives of the district. As an educational leader, my primary duty is to bring together a group of people and then create a culture of collaboration among them. It’s respecting, collaborating, and aligning with the goals of the district and state, and of course, the needs of the kids. You always have to pull those in too.” She also recognizes how essential the arts and athletics are to a child. “Today,” Paula shares, “we have many children who can’t focus and who are not successful in the tasks that we ask them to do for a variety of reasons, but many of them can be successful in the arts and in physical education or athletics, so I think they’re key to setting children up to be successful in their school life. Also, they’re an outlet for frustration, an outlet for stress or anxiety, and they’re just a great way, through the curriculum, to expand their learning. For instance, a child who may not have understood the teacher’s explanation verbally may go into the art room, and from the discussion about the structure of a tree, will create the tree the way they know it looks, and suddenly it makes sense that there are roots and leaves and branches. The arts and athletics really help to complement what we’re doing here by reaching out to the child in other ways.”
One of the primary goals of the Elm Park Community School is the implementation of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system, a program designed to enhance the capacity of schools to effectively educate all students, including those with challenging social behaviors. The program encourages preventing troubling behavior from occurring in the first place, rather than reacting to it once it occurs. In addition, PBIS also supports both self-esteem and making good choices. “We have to praise and celebrate those who act as role models and support those who have a different understanding of things and help to bring them along. PBIS has been a longstanding program here at the Elm Park Community School, and one that continues to be extremely successful,” explains Paula. “As principal, it is my job to make sure the program continues to be wellimplemented, which is essential to its success.”
Another important program currently underway involves an approach to reading, called Guided Reading, that provides small group instruction to students on a daily basis. While it’s primarily about reading, this program also involves listening, speaking, and writing. “The Guided Reading Program is really, really important,” Paula declares. “It incorporates writing, which is a way to synthesize the knowledge that you’ve gained through thinking, and it is a way to think. The kids will encounter some books or stories that they’re reading in the program with their teacher, and then they will learn to organize their thoughts in what is called four-square writing, which allows them to develop a writing piece. Vocabulary is also a big component.” To that end, Paula’s vision for the Elm Park Community School includes a library. “I want my kids to read, and so my vision is that parents come in and sit down on the floor with their toddlers an hour before dismissal to read in that library. They’re not my students, but they will be someday, and I want them to read,” she states emphatically.
Paula knows that these students are also the future. Recognizing that it was the opportunity of a college education that allowed her to experience life to its fullest, she is unwavering in her determination to do for these kids what Becker did for her so long ago. She understands that her continued thirst for knowledge, coupled with her dedication, passion, and motivation as a leader, will ultimately encourage these kids to unleash the potential that they each possess.
By Caitlin Visscher Becker Bridges, Spring 2012, Vol. 6, No. 1