Last summer, Debbie Gaulden was finally dipping her toes into the waters of retirement after a long career as a teacher in Culpeper County.
Gaulden, who started her career in 1977 at Floyd T. Binns Elementary School before transitioning to Emerald Hill Elementary when it opened in 1997, had made the decision early in 2019 that it was time to step away from the classroom.
Newly retired as of June 1, 2019, Gaulden was just beginning to get a taste of the next phase of her life when she received a phone call from Culpeper County Public Schools executive director of human resources Michelle Metzgar on July 17.
Metzgar was reaching out to Gaulden with a plea: Emerald Hill was short on fifth-grade teachers, and she wanted to know if the veteran educator was willing to come out of retirement to help fill that void.
Gaulden didn't hesitate, jumping at the chance to return to her old position at the school for the 2019-20 school year.
Fast-forward almost a year, and Gaulden's unwavering dedication to her craft led to her being named the 2019-20 CCPS teacher of the year. The school board announced the honor during its June 8 meeting.
"To be selected as [CCPS teacher of the year] was astonishing," Gaulden said. "I never expected anything like that, to be honest. It is an amazing accomplishment in my teaching career, and it also makes me feel extra glad that I came out of my two months' retirement to return to Emerald Hill."
Gaulden said she had second thoughts after her initial decision to retire, but continued on with that plan. However, Metzgar's call struck a chord with her.
"It's incredibly gratifying when you see that 'light bulb' go on in a child's face when he or she finally gets a concept that you've been teaching them," she said. "That's why most teachers do what they do, and it's why I didn't hesitate to say yes when Michelle called."
Emerald Hill principal Tori Gelbert said the impact Gaulden has made on her students over the years is invaluable.
"The dedication she has to her students and our school is evident upon first meeting her," Gelbert said. "She is not your average 8-3:30 teacher; she mentors new teachers, helps plan lessons for the whole fifth-grade team, is a member of our PTO, attends every spirit and family night and also volunteers at multiple other community agencies.
"Because of how dedicated and passionate she is, myself and the rest of the Emerald Hill faculty and staff were so excited when we found out Mrs. Gaulden had been named CCPS teacher of the year."
As much of an honor as it was for Gaulden to receive that award, she pointed out another honor she recently garnered that means just as much, if not more to her: Emerald Hill's teacher of the year award.
"Being chosen as [Emerald Hill’s teacher of the year] was such a big deal because my fellow teachers voted on it," Gaulden said. "It is very rewarding to know that my peers think that I am deserving of that award."
Gaulden's return won't go down as just a one-year wonder either. She said she plans to be back for the 2020-21 school year, regardless of if it's in a real or virtual classroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Being out of the classroom due to [COVID-19] has been a mixed blessing," she said. "Doing distance learning was a new experience for both the teachers and students; I enjoyed my sessions with my students online, but unfortunately not all of them have access to computers or the internet. However, doing this type of teaching has given me the opportunity to try new methods that I would never have used while in the real classroom."
Having to think outside the box to reach her students is nothing new for Gaulden.
"There are many different methods to teach a concept, and you often have to try each one so that everyone understands what is being taught," she added. "The toughest thing is not being able to reach every student. Even trying everything in the 'teacher’s toolbox,' you still sometimes find that you cannot make it work. That is heartbreaking."
"That's why she's different," Gelbert said, "because of how much she cares about every student she's taught for the past 43 years."