Sowing the seeds of teaching after farming: Paxson retires from second career
Farmington Elementary School teacher Dave Paxson recalls the exact moment he decided to pursue a teaching career.
His oldest middle school son warned him about butter on toast and the dangers of high cholesterol because he learned that from his sixth-grade teacher Mr. Eggers.
"I thought, oh, you can teach and that is what teaching is about — you can tell stories and you can tell stories and talk about nature and history and health," he said. "That is when it first entered my mind that I would not mind doing that," Paxson said."
Even though teaching ran in his family and his father worked as a teacher and principal and his sister worked as a teacher and principal, it was not until he was in his 40s he decided to return to college to earn his teaching degree. Paxson attended night and summer school for two years at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and earned his teaching certificate and master's degree.
When he attended a party with his wife who is an artist, he was introduced to Gail O'Malley, an art teacher at Farmington Elementary. She mentioned how Tom Murphy needed a student teacher. That job lead to a full-time teaching job at Farmington Elementary in 1997.
"She said, 'There is a guy at my school who reminds me of you," Paxson said. For years, he loved talking farming and tractors with Murphy and former building principal, Jon Reid. For years Murphy and Paxson were fellow third-grade teachers and became best friends who came to share the love of teaching, education and farming.
Since teaching was Paxson's second chosen profession, he worked as a farmer 1980 to 1997 where for 17 years he farmed corn, soybeans and raised beef cattle on the family farm in Cannon Falls. As a city boy transplant, Paxson realized his enjoyed farming and strong connection with nature.
"I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and had a degree from Penn State, but I met my wife in a summer job and she was a Minnesota farm girl," Paxson said smiling. Before the couple married, they lived in Georgia and New Mexico and grew chili peppers and pinto beans. Then the couple married and moved back to the family farm in Cannon Falls.
Former third grade students report how Paxson was an exceptional storyteller. One former student gave him a small golden trophy thanking him for his stories. Another student recalls Paxson's teaching style led him to craft and weave details about nature, history and life into lessons to teach social studies, history, English and literature that captivated students' attention.
One Farmington mother recalls how her son became a bookworm in Mr. Paxson's class due to his caring, patient way of teaching that inspired her young son to pursue his "spark" in the academic world of learning. Like many elementary teachers, chapter books line walls in his classroom.
Started in computers
As a techie person, Paxson spent the first 12 years at Farmington Elementary teaching computers to first through fifth graders. Then when Riverview Elementary School opened up, he moved over to teach third grade. This is the perfect grade to reach and influence young people, he believes.
"Third grade is really sort of a sweet spot where kids are learning so much, but there is still a sense of innocence that I would say has not really changed," Paxson said. "Third graders still believe in Santa Claus although there are a handful of kids who don't."
"In third grade, kids are starting to get sophisticated enough so you can teach them higher level things and they are still not jaded yet, and they still like their teacher and by fourth and fifth grades they are more influenced by their peers," Paxson said.
Recalling when he tried to breakdown the tale of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer into the setting, main characters and problem-solution story parts. One third grader commented how this worksheet read "fictional story" at the top. Paxson likes to share how this student spoke about how Rudolph story was certainly not fiction. Paxson likes how this student felt strongly in the need to defend the story and proclaim an error was printed on the literature worksheet.
Over the years, Paxson said his students have taught him so many life lessons on how to treat each other. "Kids are really nice and I am a big believer that things like have not changed as much as people think," he said.
Third grade students use iPads in school, but the digital devices do not go home and this may change next year, Paxson said. "Ironically, as a former computer teacher, I love computers and I like the kids using iPads, but I do not believe it is the best thing for education at this grade level," Paxson said. The personal digital devices may be more needed by youth in older grades with research and paper writing, Paxson said.
"For third grade, I would like for kids to read actual books instead of books on devices, but I know that nine out of 10 kids have tablets at their homes anyway," Paxson said. He admits he likes to see kids learn to love reading and stories by holding on to real books and turning pages inside real books.
"I think it is equally important we are teaching kids how to get along with other people and all those character parts that are intangible and how to act and get along in a group and follow your own interests," Paxson said.
In his retirement, Paxon looks forward to spending time with his wife, Becky Jokela, their two sons and wives and two young grandchildren. His son Kelsey lives in Portland, Ore., and works as an arborist climbs trees with chainsaws. His son Nikolai works as a computer guy and lives in San Francisco.
"It is funny how both of my boys have an interest trees, woods and chainsaws," he said.
After his wife inherited a quarter of the family's 300-acre farm in Cannon Falls, Paxson plans to invest his retirement years working outdoors. His goal is to carve out a lush nature preserve and prairie restoration project. He will enlist the muscle from former colleagues and buddies Jon Reid and Tom Murphy who will help clear out the invasive species buckthorn and cleanup the woods, pasture and trails.
Sharing a story about Einstein's explanation on the Theory of Relativity and how time flies, he compares that to how fast his teaching career flew by.
"I have plenty of grown up friends, but I will miss FES and I will miss the kids and I will say one thing and that is I do like kids and that has made teaching great," Paxson said. "Things are pretty much the same today and I am proud to be an American and be part of the American public education system, and I think kids can still get a great education and a great foundation here and it all holds promise for them."