08/21/12 — Physician says he is far happier in the classroom

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Physician says he is far happier in the classroom

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 21, 2012 1:46 PM

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Wayne Community College biology professor Paul Mitchell talks with students Joseph Pittman, left, and Christopher Carr, right, in his class in the Walnut Building on the Wayne Community College campus during the first day of the new semester last week.

If there is ever a need for a poster child depicting a knowledgeable doctor, passionate teacher and enthusiastic resident of Goldsboro all rolled into one, you can look no further than Dr. Paul Mitchell.

But no need to call him "doctor," he says.

He may have spent years earning the distinction, but now that his life is morphing into a new chapter as a basic skills teacher at Wayne Community College, he's going the more approachable route.

"It's a disability for them to know me as a doctor because they immediately feel intimidated," he says of his potential students. "I want them to feel open, like they can connect with me like any other teacher, any other person."

Classes started last Thursday and he is teaching biology and physical science.

It's a sharp contrast to working as a physician in radiation oncology, but no stretch at all from what he knew he wanted to do as a high school student.

Growing up in Seattle, Wash., he says he aspired to be a teacher and also enjoyed doing research.

"I was a lab rat. I spent a lot of time in college doing research with physicians," he said. "But my ultimate goal was always to be a teacher. That's the most natural thing for me is to teach."

He was encouraged to attend medical school as a bridge to more opportunities. And it provided them for a while -- from having papers published on oncology to practicing radiation oncology for 10 years, both in a hospital and at a cancer center.

It may have brought success, but it was a hollow victory, he says now.

"I was so unhappy," he said. "For 10 years I was miserable because it was actually frowned upon to actually teach patients, to educate patients, and you were there to see the patients for five minutes and get out of the room. It was very frustrating for me."

Circumstances provided the needed push when he had to deal with his father's terminal illness. He moved to Florida to be close by and decided to get out of medicine.

"It was a huge thing, a huge kind of decision because I would eventually have given up on all this training and education, but I felt that (teaching) was my calling," he said. "But it was also frustrating because no one wanted to take a chance on a doctor, someone with an MD, teaching. They thought, OK, he really doesn't want to teach or there's something wrong with him."

He could make far more money in the field of medicine, he admits, but simply wasn't satisfied.

"It makes no sense to gain the world but to lose your soul, and I had lost my soul at that point," he said. "I decided as difficult as it was, and in Florida it was very, very difficult, I ended up tutoring because no one would give me a chance."

The real turning point, though, came during a weeklong visit to Goldsboro, where his sister, Earlyn Green, lives with her husband and family.

"I fell in love with Goldsboro," he said. "I have never been in a place where the people were so friendly, so kind and warm. I'm talking about just how warm they are to people on the street, people that don't even know you. I have never been in a place where that's been the case.

"From then on, I said, this is where I'm going to live."

Mitchell got a job last year teaching health at Johnston Community College and tutored at Wayne Community College. He even volunteered at WCC just to prove himself as a teacher.

When the opportunity opened up in Basic Skills, he knew that was the right fit for him.

"I'm dealing with students that have dropped out of the regular traditional high schools," he said. "I'm dealing with adult students who have never completed their high school diploma.

"These are students that have issues, OK, and they're issues not necessarily, in fact, I have not found one student that it's an academic issue -- it's transportation, there's all kinds of stories."

His role, he says, goes way beyond imparting knowledge and teaching science. It's to help students realize they can be successful.

"My whole job as I see it is to build skills and confidence and self-esteem," he said.

At 49, the former physician says he is "very comfortable" and content.

"As I told (college president) Dr. (Kay) Albertson, I found the way, I found the light," he said, smiling. "Wayne is the only place that I would work and I'm very happy here.

"It took me a long time -- 49 years -- the bottom line is I was distracted by other things. There were other influences in my life that pushed me away from what I wanted to do. I can imagine myself doing this at 70, 80 years old."