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Teaching is a ‘sacred exchange’ for Sparta educator

Why I Teach: Paul Owens

Sparta — After decades with the district, Sparta High School teacher Paul Owens planned to hang it up in 2021 to dedicate more time to a second career in commercial fishing. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to say goodbye to teaching entirely.

Opting for semi-retirement instead, Owens stayed on part-time, continuing to teach technology and oversee the Spartan News Network, through which students produce video news content for the district. 

The setup gives him time to pursue his dream without giving up his passion, and he’s thankful for that. 

“Just the thought of leaving, walking out of the parking lot for the last time, I would just cry like a baby,” Owens said. “I love Sparta High School, I love the kids and the community, and I couldn’t see myself giving it up.”

As much as he loves fishing, he sees teaching as a “sacred exchange” with the parents who entrust their kids to him.

“I feel like I’m part of something really important and big, and it transcends anything and everything,” Owens said.

Teacher Paul Owens with seniors Peyton Petack, Tanner Bormes and Logan Sidlaukas in the Spartan News Network room (courtesy)

What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “The kids themselves. … I really like high-schoolers and that time in their life when they’re emerging into adults — the butterflies emerging from their cocoon. … It’s a beautiful thing to watch, to see their creativity come alive, to feed off their energy and hopefully be a positive influence on them as well. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

“And I learn something new every day, and that fires me up too. I love to learn; I always have. I’m alive, and I’m learning.”

Also, he said working on Spartan News is invigorating. 

“Every single day, new stories, new news, every single day we’re sprinting together. … It’s high stakes. There’s a lot of fist-bumps.”

‘I feel like I’m part of something really important and big, and it transcends anything and everything.’

— Sparta High School teacher Paul Owens

What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “Right now, it’s almost all good. When I was teaching full-time, (a challenge was) that feeling that the legislature and certain political leanings were just bashing public educators. … The whole (of) education in the world was politicized and tribalized. 

“That’s the noise that you have to drown out and say, ‘I’m going to focus on the kids that are in front of me, right now, today,’ and then the joy comes back, the vision comes back.”

What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “The pandemic was new. It was like nothing ever before. Because I teach technology, that part of it was not a struggle for me. But I did have COVID a couple times, and my wife would say that that was difficult for me. It made me less energetic and made life a little harder for me. … She would say I semi-retired because of the effects of COVID on me. I don’t know if that’s true or not.” 

“I think we’re still in a rebuilding, reshaping mode, trying to get kids up to speed. It’s better now than it was last year. I think there’s a value put on in-person education; a lot of people realized that the idea of online learning for everybody is ridiculous. For some people it works, but a lot of students need eye-to-eye contact with their educational coach. … There’s true value in being able to send kids (to school in-person).”

What’s the most amazing thing about high school students? “I’m just really encouraged by their creativity, by their work ethic and by who they are as people. 

“I do not fear the future. I get upset when I hear people say, ‘Kids nowadays …,’ but you know what? Kids nowadays are awesome. I think it’s important as educators that we look for the best in this generation. … Not to just give them shallow praise and platitudes, but to say, ‘I see this in you.’ Being able to see them emerging from children to adults, it’s a beautiful thing. In my language, I call it a miracle.”

Paul Owens takes a look at one of the Spartan News Network cameras with ninth-graders Melody Koopman, center, and Brooke Owens, right (courtesy)

What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “If that’s where your heart and your passion is, stick with it. … I’m all about teaching and education. I think it’s a fabulous life. 

“It’s a little bit like climbing a mountain, in that you can’t see the big picture until you’re closer to the top. After you’ve been in the profession for 20, 30 years, you can see more clearly the effects that education’s had on you and that you’ve had on others. But sometimes you’ve got to put your head down and trudge.”

What do you like about teaching technology? “Watching students take the skills that you have tried to teach them, and use their own creativity and their own passions to create something new, their very own, something they’re proud of.

“My favorite thing is when students jump out of their seats and high-five their neighbor because they just figured something out. That is a great feeling. I just love watching it.”

Read more from Sparta: 
A place for greatness: Student art display dates back decades
Sparta tennis facility named best of 2023

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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