On Oct. 15, there was not a dry eye in the crowd as Paola Epstein was named the Teacher of the Year for Dawson County at the board of education meeting.
In her five years as a Spanish teacher at Dawson County High School, Epstein quickly became a staple in the high school, serving as the world language department chair, sponsor of the Anime Club, International Club, National Spanish Honor Society and the Tiger TV and commissioner of homecoming.
“In the classroom Mrs. Epstein is second to none,” said DCHS principal Brody Hughes. “You can often find her late in the evenings working with her students and making sure that they are operating at their fullest potential to gain as much as they can out of her class and to push them beyond their limits.”
It was a long and winding road that brought Epstein to Dawsonville, and it wasn’t always an easy journey.
Born in Chile with an educator for a mother, Epstein knew her passion was teaching from an early age. In her formative years she served as a leader and mentor to younger children at her synagogue. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in education and taught history and geography in Chile, and later studied and taught Judaism in Israel.
She later taught in a private British school and obtained a master’s degree in school psychology so that she could better understand and help students with disabilities. She was also instrumental in creating an integration program for students with special needs.
Fifteen years ago she came to Georgia where she hit a few road blocks in her career, causing her to start from the bottom and work her way up.
“When I came to America… first thing is that you need to go to Georgia Professional Standards and it’s not easy to get your degrees recognized because Georgia does not have the possibility to just bring your degrees and start teaching. You need to go through a big process,” Epstein said.
That process wasn’t an easy or fast one as Epstein’s degrees were in Spanish and Hebrew and needed to be validated to see if they met Georgia’s standards. Epstein also graduated before computer records and had to provide the syllabi and transcripts from every class she had taken.
The process took two years and resulted in Epstein’s bachelor’s degree being accepted, but her master’s degree was 15 credits shy.
“All that time, what do you do? Without a degree it’s hard,” Epstein said. “When I arrived in Georgia 15 years ago my English was not as good as it is now so it was very tough for me and I had to put my pride in my pocket and say ‘okay what am I going to do? All I know is to teach.’”
Epstein began working in daycare, something that was quite an adjustment for her.
“All my prestige as a teacher, all my experience means nothing at that point so I had to start from the very bottom,” Epstein said.
Eventually, Epstein worked her way through the ranks from daycare to teaching pre-K to kindergarten to assistant director to director at various schools in Georgia.
During her journey she realized her weakness was English, so she enrolled at Kennesaw State University to pursue her first degree in the U.S., a degree in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) that helped open more opportunities in education.
Epstein accepted a position as a Spanish teacher at DCHS five years ago and continues to learn and improve her teaching with the help of her students. Thanks to their constructive input, Epstein earned her master’s in Instructional Technology and is currently seeking her doctorate in that field in order to provide the best learning experience possible.
“I’m kind of like the eternal student. I think that the day I stop learning is not a good day because there is always something that you can get, something new that you can adopt. Here, I am blessed because with the kids -oh my gosh - I learn every single day. Every single day they come up with different things that help me with not only my English but with life,” Epstein said. “Everybody thinks that I got the big deal because I had the chance to spend time with kids. No, they teach me so much. That’s where I get the good deal.”
Her students also convinced her to obtain her American citizenship and became involved in the process.
“For me taking the citizenship, I didn’t feel like I needed it because I was able to speak the language and have no problems… but it was not enough. For me the biggest concern was no matter what I do I will always be a foreigner,” Epstein said. “I thought ‘okay I need America to grow with me’ because it’s not enough to have an American husband, an American daughter. I thought ‘I need to feel American.’”
In October 2016, Epstein became an American citizen after months of studying.
Epstein also wears many hats, both literally and figuratively at the high school. After seeing several needs at the school, she stepped up to sponsor a number of clubs.
Two years ago, she helped found the Anime Club which now has close to 60 members who explore Japanese culture and go to conventions. She also leads the International Club which serves both as a fun way for students to get together and explore world cultures but the students also serve as ambassadors to non-English speaking visitors to the high school.
Epstein also runs the Dawson Tiger TV news station, helping her students gather material for their Friday morning news show which she edits on Thursdays.
If that weren’t enough on her plate, Epstein also is in charge of all the homecoming and prom court nominations. And with time to spare she still finds time to dress up in the Tiger mascot and cheer on many of the school’s sporting events.
"This is never about me. It’s not about what Mrs. Epstein wants or what Mrs. Epstein would like to do. It’s about the kids,” Epstein said.
In her free time, Epstein is a big NASCAR fan and is a sanctioned official in the sport of curling. She loves to travel with her husband Jacob and has a daughter, Dafna. She lives in Cherokee County.
Despite the obstacles and setbacks, Epstein said she is a proud Chilean American that loves Dawson County and hopes to continue to inspire the students she loves so much.
“As teachers we are the mediator between the knowledge – it’s not that I know everything. I’m not the center of knowledge. I’m the mediator,” Epstein said. “I’m here to present you this. This is what you have. Do whatever you want with this knowledge, and I hope that I inspire you enough to go beyond.”