Staff Spotlight: Paula Avchen
Paula Avchen has been an integral part of the AJCC’s preschool program for 20 years. She has a B.A. in education from the University of Denver, Colorado and has devoted her life to education—she holds three teaching credentials in education, has a clear credential to teach high school sociology, and is a licensed preschool director. Paula is very animated as she explains, “I’ve always been a teacher. I taught middle school 6-8th grade, in Chicago (where I grew up), as well as here in California. And even though I am licensed to teach in the public schools and could be a preschool director, I love what I do here at the J and want to stay in the classroom with the kids.”
When Paula moved to California from Chicago to begin a life with her late husband Michael, they started in West LA and then in 1986 moved to Los Alamitos to live closer to their plumbing business. “We chose Los Al,” she says, “because we wanted to be in a good school district for our daughters. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom and raise our children, and I did a lot of volunteering. My eldest daughter, Rebecca, is 36 and also works here in the preschool. And,” Paula says with a laugh, “she’s been here a long time, too!” I also have a 34-year-old daughter, Julie, who lives in Chicago with her wife, Andi, and their 16-month-old-daughter, Mari. I love being a granny!
“When the girls were in middle school, I went back to work part time. I temporarily switched careers and worked part time as the Executive Director of We Care in Los Alamitos, a family support center. In 1996, a few months after Michael died, I ran into Lori Davidson [ECE Director at the time] in Target. I knew Lori because my kids went all through Camp Kadimah [now Camp Komaroff] and through summer stock at the J. She asked me what I was doing and asked me to come to work at the preschool, and I said ‘OK’! I started out as an assistant, then a co-teacher, and then a full teacher. Lori also recommended me for a mentor program through Long Beach City College, and I became a mentor to students at City College who wanted to become preschool teachers. The J was fortunate to hire several of my mentees when they had completed their classes.”
Paula has also been trained for the Ethical Start Program that we use here at the J, which teaches the Mishna (the “Oral Torah”) to the children: “It has been wonderful to impart that Jewish knowledge to the other teachers so that they can bring it to their classrooms. Judaism is very important to me. I have a Jewish background: I went through religious school and confirmation; I had an adult Bat Mitzvah with Temple Israel; and I’m active at TI. I’ve been on a few committees, and I’m currently on the Board of Directors for the Sisterhood in my second year. I also attend services on a regular basis.
“I’ve always taught the oldest 3-day preschool class, the 3 1/2 to 4-years-olds. I like that I’m able to expose the children in the ECE to the importance of being Jewish in so many areas of their lives and to be able to give them an understanding of life through a Jewish lens, even the non-Jewish kids. I teach a big Jewish curriculum.
“I also feel that I have made a difference to many of the families. They know that in addition to being a teacher for their children, I am here to support them. The other thing I’ve really enjoyed is having so many kids who still remember me. My oldest students are now around 23 years old. It’s great when they come up to me at Temple and say hi! Most of them tower over me!
“I’m still very enthusiastic about teaching here at the preschool. I love the kids and I get a lot of love back from them. One of the little boys just last week walked over to me, looked at me closely, and asked if I would like a hug. I said of course! That was great! Our ECE is there to meet the needs of our community. We offer before and after-school programming, and it’s really nice that when they get too old for the ECE, they can continue upstairs in Kids’ University and to Camp Komaroff for summer camp.”
Anyone who knows Paula knows that she follows sports religiously and is a DIEHARD CUBS fan. She also plays Mah Jongg and belongs to a women’s group that is very important to her. Laughing, Paula ends our interview with this anecdote: “When I first started working here, I used to ask my families at back-to-school-night if they knew a nice Jewish man they’d like to fix me up with. Now I ask if they know a nice Jewish grandfather! I haven’t remarried, but I’m fortunate I have a supportive group of friends, a loving family, and a place that I work in a place that I love so much.”
Thank you, Paula, for everything you have given to our children over the past 20 years. We have a stronger program with teachers like you as part of our preschool program!