English Teacher Mr. Paul Dreisbach Pushes His Students Towards Curiosity and Persistence


Photo courtesy of Paul Dreisbach

“What I’ve really tried to encourage my students to do… is reach out,” Mr. Dreisbach said. “Talk to people, express your frustrations, say the things that are on your mind.”

Paige Baines, Assistant Editor

After many long days at the library sending numerous resumes into the deep job void and hearing nothing but silence, Mr. Paul Dreisbach was starting to lose hope in the idea of being an English teacher in the fall of 2003. 

But when a small and vague ad in the newspaper reading “English teacher needed ASAP. Call Bill George at La Salle,” landed before him, he jumped at the opportunity.

He said that he remembers what he told his wife, Molly, the day that he saw the job advertisement. 

I said, ‘I’m going to get this job,’” he said. “‘I have no idea what it is. I have no idea where this is, but I’m going to get this job. I don’t even know if I want it, but I’m going to get this job.’”

Needless to say, he got the job. And 17 years later, he still has it.

When Mr. Dreisbach was six years old, his family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they lived until he was 16. Then, they packed up and moved overseas to a small town on the outskirts of Nice, France where he attended an American International School for his last two years of high school.

He then found himself back in his hometown at North Carolina State for his first four years of college. 

Starting off as a history major, he never thought that he would be an English teacher, but rather, a history teacher or somehow involved in political science.

“I can’t honestly say why I stopped that [major] or why I changed, but I think I just had a couple of really good English teachers,” he said.

One of those English teachers was his 18th Century Novel professor, who he can’t remember the name of.

“He was really good at giving us a chance to talk, and giving us a chance to discuss,” he said. “I try to do [the same] in my class, where I ask a lot of questions and don’t try to give a lot of information.”

Mr. Dreisbach said that he was pleasantly surprised by his 18th Century Novel course.

“When I first walked into that class I thought, ‘Ugh, this is gonna suck, this is gonna be awful, what possibly could be good from this writing?’” he said. “But we read some of the funniest works. There’s a lot of comedy in that time and a lot of melodrama. It’s almost like watching soap operas that are handled comically.”

Another teacher he enjoyed was his 20th Century Southern Novel professor, who he also can’t remember the name of. 

He liked this professor in particular because of the variety of books she chose to focus on and how they were written primarily by women and people of color, which Mr. Dreisbach had not been previously used to.

He said that in high school, his curriculum had consisted of popular classics written by “dead white guys,” so to have a teacher who left those classics out was a breath of fresh air.

“We were reading about this very traditionalist society, the southern United States, and we were talking about these books that were really challenging and undermining a lot of those traditions,” he said. “For the first time I think I saw educators that I really admired their thinking and… their intellect.”

After he graduated from North Carolina State, he worked in a restaurant before later getting his first teaching job as a substitute teacher at a local high school that was also in North Carolina. 

“It was definitely the worst teaching job I’ve ever had,” he said.

During this time, Mr. Dreisbach filled in for a 10th grade English teacher who was on maternity leave. However, he had little freedom in this role, simply following that teacher’s lead and replicating whatever she did. He had to provide students with the handouts and worksheets she chose and printed for him, and he would replicate the teacher’s lesson several times throughout the day.

The repetitiveness of his day, combined with not being able to use his own materials and ideas, didn’t give him the opportunity to grow as a teacher, which made his English-teaching dreams a little dimmer.  

“I’ve had multiple times in my life where I thought, ‘Nope, I’m not going to teach anymore,’” he said. “‘I’m going to run and flee from this,’ and that was one of those… The hilarious thing to me is that I actually thought I was going to get… the [full-time] job there. And now I look back and think, ‘Whoo, I would not have wanted that job in that school.’ I don’t think that would be the place for me at all.”

After his first teaching job as a substitute, he decided to go back to college and get his graduate’s degree in English at the University of Montana, avoiding teaching for a few more years. 

But once he got to the University of Montana, he said that he found himself surrounded by people who were chasing after the approval of others and aiming to show off how “large their brains were,” and it drove him crazy.

“If I had gone for a PhD, it would have been another four years of school,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be in this environment for four more years with people who I really don’t find a lot of attractive features [in].’”

After he graduated from the University of Montana, he moved back to North Carolina and continued to work various jobs for about six months before landing his second teaching job at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina where he was able to truly conduct his own classroom. 

“[I] had a very different experience because it was me, it was all mine,” he said. “I was given the reins to develop things and work on things and I had a lot of support in that school… And so, it just clicked. It just seemed logical and from that point I was like, ‘Yeah okay, I can do this.’”

As much as he was happy teaching at Athens, he and his wife Molly weren’t happy in North Carolina anymore.

“There was a lot of kind of ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’ sentiment in North Carolina,” he said. “Like you’d have to have the right kind of car, right kind of house… right kind of clothes … and my wife and I are not that way at all, and so we wanted to do something different.”

Ready for something new, the pair decided they wanted to head west, and landed in Portland because it felt active, as if it were “living and breathing,” he said. But also, “it just felt very homey,” he said. 

So they packed up their things and drove across the country with no plan except to land in Portland. No planning, no house, no jobs, they just left.

And from there, Mr. Dreisbach stumbled his way to La Salle, once again with no plan or knowledge of what the school had in store for him.

I went into teaching as kind of a teacher of English, and now I’m much more of a teacher of students, and English just happens to be the class that I’m teaching.

— Mr. Paul Dreisbach

When he first started at La Salle in 2003, he was teaching part time for three classes: two sections of English I, and one section of Honors English IV. 

But when Jack Cleghorn, the PE teacher at the time, was thrown from a horse and had to take a leave of absence, Mr. Dreisbach took over his classes, which he ended up teaching for two years.

“I was not a good PE teacher,” he said. “I remember very distinctly that my model for PE teaching was [a teacher] who left not too long after, and his method was basically to walk around yelling at kids with a whistle, and most days he would show them how to play some sport and then he would throw a bunch of balls at them, and that’s what they did.”

Most days, he would teach them how to play a sport, give them the equipment, and then tell them to go play the sport. 

Looking back on his time in the physical education field, he jokes, “I should have stuck with that because that’s two classes of fewer essays to grade.”

Now, Mr. Dreisbach has taught English for 21 years and grades over 1,000 essays a year. At La Salle alone, he has taught English I, English II, Honors English II, AP English IV, English IV, and English Support. 

“It’s just been a lot of trial and error,” he said. “I think back to my first couple years of teaching and think, ‘God, I feel bad for those people who had me as a teacher.’ Because… personality wise, I was very much like I am now, but in terms of actually being a good teacher I was not.”

Over those 21 years as an English teacher, he has learned and adapted the content he teaches a great deal. But also, he has developed a deeper understanding of the students in his classes.

“I went into teaching as kind of a teacher of English, and now I’m much more of a teacher of students, and English just happens to be the class that I’m teaching,” he said.

Mr. Dreisbach said that he wants to make a lasting impact with his teaching — an impact that not only changes how his students think about reading and writing, but also how they approach the world and become present in it. 

“I hope that my students are led to be questioners and people who are curious about the world and curious about things around them,” he said. “And I hope that my teaching style… facilitates some of that, and helps push them along.”

There are two things that Mr. Dreisbach feels are most important for his students to take away from his classes. The first lesson is that there will always be challenges, but it’s all about the perspective that they carry in facing them. The second is that they are not alone.

“I’m hoping that my students will have a greater understanding that they are not alone and that none of us lives this life in a vacuum,” he said. “We are connected to all kinds of different things, and our actions impact other parts of the world, not just people but other parts of the world.”

With the growing cultural awareness from Black Lives Matter protests and the constant addressing of social ills and injustices over the summer and recent months, he has become more aware of the personal impact of these powerful events and tries to drive the works he assigns in class to a deeper level with his students. 

“I tried to be a little bit more personal with the students in terms of getting them to think about their own personal lives and their own personal thoughts, and tried to make the material a little bit more relevant and a little less academic,” he said.

Like many people, online school is not Mr. Dreisbach’s favorite, not only because it increases screen time, but also because it is difficult to engage in Socratic discussions over Zoom. Because of the loss of engagement from students, he’s had to revert to calling on kids in class, which is not something he likes to do.

“The best possible scenario is that a conversation is organic,” he said. “I asked a question, and that in the process of starting to answer that question, students come up with other questions and those create or those elicit responses, which create other questions, which elicit more responses, and by the end of the class, all of a sudden we realize ‘Well where did the time go?’ and I’ve asked one question.” 

Mr. Dreisbach said that with Zoom classes, it is “really hard to have that kind of organic conversation.”

“Students are muted and then they have to unmute themselves, and because they can’t look at body language of other students and figure out when someone’s almost done talking and when it’s going to be their time to jump in, it’s just really hard to have that kind of organic conversation,” he said.

No one thought that quarantine on top of online school was going to be fun. Being swamped in assignments, not being able to see friends, declining mental health stability, and constant Zoom classes don’t describe a vacation. Or, to put it as Mr. Dreisbach did, “this sucks.” 

He understands that it can be hard to continue to have a positive attitude all the time, but said that is alright. There is nothing wrong with being sad or depressed or anxious because, “we all have our baggage.”

“Many of us are having heightened anxiety and depression and loneliness and isolation,” he said. “And yet, it’s a very common experience and so we’re not isolated in that sense.”

“We’re going through something together, and I think if we can keep that in mind, and continue to think about other people and be empathetic towards other people… something really good could come out of this,” he said.

Mr. Dreisbach said that because we each have our own struggles, it is important to “treat everyone kindly and positively and with compassion and with humanity.”

“Some of us have bigger stuff than others,” he said. “Some of us have a much larger bag of baggage than others. And then sometimes those bags are lighter than other times and sometimes they’re heavier than another time.” 

One large piece of advice that Mr. Dreisbach gave for getting through the pandemic is to talk to someone about what you are going through. 

He said that when we keep feelings of stress and isolation inside and do nothing about them, things can only get worse. “[I like to] say it out to the universe, get it out there, get it off my brain so that I can move forward,” he said.

“What I’ve really tried to encourage my students to do… is reach out,” he said. “Talk to people, express your frustrations, say the things that are on your mind. Get those things off of your chest. If you don’t have someone that you feel like you can do that with, then write those things [and] get them out of your head.”

Another major point of advice that Mr. Dreisbach emphasized was the story of Sisyphus.

Mr. Dreisbach teaches this Greek myth to his students. It explains how Sisyphus offended the gods and was punished to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom again each time; it’s a grueling and unending cycle.

“Life is ups and downs, life is failures and achievements, life is suffering and joy — all those things are part of life,” he said. “Our willingness to persist, our willingness to persevere, our perception that, ‘yes, this is difficult, but I can make something good out of this, I can come through this, I can survive, I can celebrate, I can achieve,’ is really, I think, the right perspective and the perception to have.”