Mr. Richard Paun
Douglas High School / Douglas Unified School District
In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, all Dorothy wants is to go back home. In fact, as she clicks her ruby red slippers, she keeps repeating the mantra, “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home.”
Richard Paun, an art teacher at Douglas High School, is like Dorothy in many ways. Well, except for the ruby slippers…and maybe those pesky flying monkeys that kept getting in her way. Paun, born and raised in the small, southern Arizona town of Douglas, knew that he wanted to remain in the tight-knit community where he grew up and had his roots. It’s where he attended Douglas High School, the same high school in which he now teaches, and ironically, where his own father taught English years earlier. However, in order to reach his goal of becoming an art instructor, Paun had to leave Douglas to attend college at Northern Arizona University. He later moved to the Midwest where he landed a job in Kansas City, Kansas. Unlike Dorothy, all Paun wanted was to leave Kansas and get back home to Arizona.
“They offered me the moon to stay in Kansas City where I was a high school art teacher, but all I could think about was getting back to my hometown,” Paun recalls. “I spent a year calling my friends and family back in Douglas asking if they knew of any teaching positions open.”
Finally, an opening did come up and he grabbed it. He became a science and English teacher at Ray Borane Middle School in Douglas. The job wasn’t in art instruction, but he was thrilled to be back home. When the art teacher at Douglas High School finally retired (Paun’s original high school art teacher and mentor), Paun jumped at the opportunity to teach art at his alma mater.
“I really didn’t feel like myself away from Douglas and the small town,” he says. “I felt like someone completely different; it wasn’t me. I love it here; just the small town morals and ethics and old school traditions and culture. I totally missed that when I was in Kansas.”
As DHS’ art teacher for the past 16 years, Paun finally feels like he’s “home.” He loves teaching the students the basics of drawing, painting, ceramics and design. Whether the students are adept at art or not, Paun believes the design tools they’re learning lay the foundation for activities they’ll pursue in life, such as designing their house, working on the computer or thinking through a project with a creative, imaginative eye. Paun’s students support the school in a variety of artistic ways, including designing posters or artwork for dances and events or designing floats for local parades.
“We’re pretty much the go-to people when others need original design work,” he says.
In recent years, liberal arts subjects such as art, music and theater are taking a backseat to state-required core subjects of reading, science and math, so one might think that art classes like Paun’s would be almost nonexistent, especially in a rural school such as Douglas. Not so, he says. With approximately 150 students attending his beginning, intermediate and advanced art classes, Paun’s classes—and days—are always full. At DHS, students are required to take either one fine arts credit or two CTE (career and technical education) credits to graduate. Paun believes they’re choosing art as a way to express their individuality.
“It’s the fine arts where you show your individuality; it’s the thing that sets you apart from everybody else—away from the pack,” he notes. “Respite is a great word to describe our art classes. Students can come in here from their English, math or science classes and enjoy a creative outlet. It brings a good balance to their lives.”
In addition to the DHS art classes he teaches, Paun also is deeply involved with Art Awakenings. The program, in partnership with the Phoenix-based organization that originated it, uses art and the power of creative expression to help build confidence, socialization and coping skills in youth who face behavioral health challenges.
“I was raised by my parents to give back to the community. Art Awakenings is one of those areas in which I can do that,” Paun says. “The program really provides kids something positive besides sports or other outside activities that they can participate in, and it provides parents with a safe place for their kids after school.”
Paun must be doing something right in his hometown of Douglas, Ariz., because he recently was named the 2016 Cochise County Teacher of the Year, as well as the 2016 Arizona Rural Schools Teacher of the Year.
“I do think in rural schools you have more of an opportunity to make a connection, not just with students but with their parents and the community, because everybody knows each other,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade this job or this town for the world.”
To Paun, there’s no place like home.