Eric Eaton, Teacher of the Year, inspires others

Published 10:42 pm Sunday, February 23, 2014

Students learn from all five senses in Eric Eaton’s social studies classes.

Students learn from all five senses in Eric Eaton’s social studies classes.

Eric Eaton’s grandmother  taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and teaching has become a family tradition. Eaton, the Polk County Teacher of the Year, and his wife, Celeste, have been known to don the clothes of the Revolutionary War and camp out among other re-enactors, reliving a simpler time.

“I’m very humbled by the confidence my colleagues have in me. I was honored to be named Teacher of the Year for Polk County Middle School. At the district level, former teachers of the year in the county have a say,” Eaton said. “To be chosen by my colleagues who are in the trenches with me feels like a special honor.”

Eaton strives to make history and social studies come to life for his students.

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“As a teacher, I try to engage all the five senses, because learning isn’t done only by pencil and paper. It’s so much more,” Eaton said. “I like hands-on learning and analysis of artifacts. We can’t smell how things smelled 200 years ago, but we can look at the documents and can get more in depth, and begin to feel something of what they were feeling at the time.” “I try to get the students to understand that there’s a bigger world out there, so they can be literate, aware, and discerning as they make choices in their lives and become productive citizens.”

In his 20 years of teaching in Polk County, Eaton has taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes. His average class size ranges from 21 to 25 students, all of them tweens and teens hovering in the gap between childhood and adult life.

“I really think that I have found my niche,” he said. “At this age, students have intellectual curiosity and they still like to do fun things, while wanting to be more independent at the same time. When you walk into the classroom, you never know what you’re going to get.”

“Teaching isn’t an easy profession. To do it well, it has to be a calling,” he said. “The reward is not monetary, but it’s intrinsic, and it’s difficult to describe the internal reward that comes from knowing you’re making a difference. You know you’re not doing it for the money.”

Eaton with his son and wife on a recent family trip. (photo submitted)

Eaton with his son and wife on a recent family trip. (photo submitted)

Teaching sometimes feels like an under-appreciated profession, he said, and yet the difference made in students’ lives by a caring teacher can be profound.

“One thing about teaching is you often don’t see an immediate reward,” Eaton said. “There’s no immediate applause or rave reviews, the way there would be in theater. It might be years before you hear that someone really learned this or that thing, and sometimes you never get any appreciation. I really cherish students and parents, and sometimes they will return years later to tell me what something meant to them. At the time, I didn’t know.”

Eaton loves seeing the little sparks of new knowledge set light to his students’ minds and imaginations. He specializes in hands-on art projects that make history a three-dimensional experience, such as facilitating students in making medallions of shells and beads for Native American studies. His students have made Cherokee tribal masks, done simulations and readers’ theater. As they make connections to the subjects of their studies, they also make connections to each other and begin to deepen their own intellectual acumen.

“Teaching can bring peace of mind and peace of heart. It’s rewarding,” he said. “I like to incorporate audiovisual and tactile content into every day. It’s work to manage the pacing, the state standards, the Individualized Education plans. Every day it’s a challenging job.

“Students come into the classroom with emotional needs at times, and as a teacher, I am not immune to dealing with this. I’m on the front lines, the one to assess and get others involved. Some students really are trying to survive their lives on a daily basis, and history is not their first concern. I get them the help they need, get them to the guidance counselor. In teaching, there’s always a human side.”

Eaton has learned to release the smaller aggravations while focusing on both student strengths and intensifying his own teaching strengths. He grew up in a rural community in Davie County, supported by a strong family.

“I was blessed with strong faith and family,” Eaton said. “Many of my students have had to grow up without these blessings.”

To teach effectively, Eaton has to modify and differentiate his curriculum based on individual needs, and now that social studies has become a required assessment for North Carolina Accountability, the demands on teaching excellence have intensified in a new way. Eaton has to get his students ready for the test, even as he helps them engage in stimulating projects.

“I think we all need to step back and look at the value of that testing and its emphasis,” Eaton said. “We may get good information from testing, but it puts a lot of pressure not only on students, but also on teachers. The effort spent preparing students for a test could be used working with individual students or doing hands-on learning.”

He has learned to value taking real time for self-care, while maintaining adaptability.

“At the end of the day, you have to let a lot of things go,” Eaton said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let go. “You have to sometimes juggle so many different learning styles and abilities, while trying to engage students in their strengths. You have to take good care and good time for yourself, because teaching can be very stressful. The most important quality in teaching, in my opinion, is flexibility.”

Eaton teaches his students that they have rights as citizens. He believes in modeling lifelong learning, not only discussing it and asking it of his students, but also embodying those traits in himself.

“You can’t teach without learning yourself constantly,” Eaton said. “You have to take some time to yourself, decompressing, time for reflection. In summer, you have to reflect on what worked well so you know how to change for next year.”

Parenting his 13-year-old son also has deepened his insights. Eaton and his wife, Celeste, relinquished their Revolutionary War re-enactments after their son was born, because the expense and the required travel to sites made it feel like a second job. Instead, they often visit historical sites, such as Colonial Williamsburg, on their family vacations.

Eaton also has become a Scout master for his son’s Boy Scout troop, although he wasn’t a Scout as a youth. He wrestled and played football when he was the age of the students he teaches, but soon found his greatest joy in academia.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Eaton said. “My mother remembers how even in kindergarten, I said I wanted to be a teacher. For a while, I thought of being a scientist or an astronaut, but I didn’t really like math that much. A teacher in high school truly inspired me. He made learning history not only facts and figures and people’s names, but also a time for relaxed conversations. We didn’t cram facts, but took a real interest in thinking about history. I could tell he loved what he did, and it was very motivating.”

Eaton became a recipient of a North Carolina Teaching Fellow program, which has been discontinued now, and he graduated from Appalachian State University in 1993.

He hailed from Davie County, and his major emphasized high school teaching. Eaton spent several summers in Rhode Island, taking courses in history and architectural history and working at the Newport Historical Society Museum.

He worked as a guide in Old Salem. After graduation, Eaton found work in Polk County and never looked back. He met his wife, a longtime local from the Fischer family, soon after he had moved to the area.

Eaton became a national board certified teacher in 2002 and renewed his certification in 2011. During his 20 years of teaching, many things have changed, and the Internet has become a widely used tool.

“The Internet has primary source documents in digitized forms, but navigating to get to that information almost takes more time than it’s worth sometimes,” he said. “There’s an information overload as we have to filter out the junk. It’s time-consuming.”

Eaton continually reassesses his own experiences in light of historical antecedents, and he encourages his students to learn to look at history as a living, breathing, continuing force.

“I’m a firm believer that if you fail to remember your history, then you are doomed to repeat it,” Eaton said. “We must look at the past to learn from our mistakes and have perseverance to overcome obstacles. It helps us make life decisions.”