Paul Kuhlman aspired to extinguish fires; instead, he found a talent for lighting them.
Kuhlman, known to me as ‘PK’ since my first math class with him, wanted to be a fireman – or maybe a garbage man. Instead, he’s spent 26 years teaching math and science classes in Avon, S.D., and igniting students’ passion to learn.
Despite his childhood dreams, the New Knoxville, Ohio, native headed to the University of Cincinnati uncertain of what he wanted to do.
Changing courses, Paul headed to North Dakota State University Bottineau with plans to be a wildlife biologist. After showing a group of middle school students a science demonstration and seeing their excitement, Kuhlman realized his passion for teaching and enrolled in the teaching program at North Dakota State University.
“I loved it right away,” Kuhlman said as the Coffea Roasterie server brought our drinks. PK took a drink of his iced mocha latte.
Lea, Benita Kuhlman, PK and I paused to admire the latte art in my hazelnut soy latte.
Kuhlman started teaching in Hosmer, S.D., where he met his future wife, Benita, and befriended math teacher Connie Gretschmann.
Next, the Kuhlmans accepted teaching jobs in Waubay, S.D., but returned to North Dakota, remaining in contact with Gretschmann. Her letters encouraged the young couple to look for jobs in Avon.
After multiple inquiries into Avon teaching positions, the Kuhlmans were interviewed by then-superintendent Tom Oster. PK accepted a position teaching middle school and high school, and Benita accepted the first-grade teaching position. In Avon, the couple was reunited with Gretschmann, who had accepted a position as eighth- through twelfth-grade math teacher.
“One thing we talk about a lot is that [Paul, Connie and I] started together and so it would be cool if we could end together,” Benita said.
Kuhlman teaches a variety of classes: seventh-grade math, geometry, physical science, chemistry I and II, and physics.
The time Kuhlman has dedicated in the Avon School District has not gone unnoticed. He received the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST), 2008 South Dakota Outstanding Physical Science Teacher and 2009 South Dakota Teacher of the Year.
When Kuhlman returned from the Teacher of the Year awards in Washington, D.C., he was welcomed by the Avon student body, all dressed in T-shirts decorated with his face.
“They keep me young,” Kuhlman said of his students. He finished his coffee.
Paul Kuhlman’s enthusiasm is contagious, as well as his passion to keep pursuing knowledge. This passion encourages students to remain involved in science fair, which is led by Kuhlman. Avon hosts an annual science fair and takes students to the South-Central South Dakota Regional Science and Engineering Fair at Dakota Wesleyan University each year.
His favorite project?
“That shade ball one!” PK laughed.
Under Kuhlman’s teaching, Avon earned a reputation for bringing home a majority of prizes from the fair.
“We have notes all over the house!” Benita laughed. She said her husband is constantly coming up with project ideas.
Kuhlman’s constant hunt for projects requires a positive attitude, which carries into his teaching.
“When you’re teaching, you have to bring your ‘A game’ every day,” Kuhlman said. “The important part about being enthusiastic is it rubs off.”
His enthusiasm is heard throughout the school – literally. Kuhlman is known for his loud voice, making it impossible to miss a word he says. He frequently blasts music with his door open, providing a perpetual rock concert. If a student is upset, you’ll hear “the Annie song” and if a student is happy, you’ll hear something along the lines of P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass.”
Kuhlman’s enthusiasm makes him an excellent keynote speaker, most recently to his alma mater in Ohio as the commencement speaker. At my senior awards night, PK gave the keynote address and awarded each member of my class a certificate of what we’ve taught him. Many tears were cried that night.
My certificate said “try” as a reminder that I always keep trying. Every opportunity that interested me, I tried my best.
PK’s words at my senior awards night stuck with me, as well as his encouragement for me to keep trying. However, I don’t think he realized that my eagerness to keep trying came from him.
PK’s encouragement, enthusiasm and genuine care for our lives inspired me to work as hard as I could to achieve my dreams. Although I always wanted to write, I willingly took every class with PK that I could because his wisdom is not solely in the science field; PK had the answers for every question about life.
I’ve never met a student who didn’t appreciate their time in PK’s classes or wished for a different teacher. He sees every student’s potential and refuses to give up until that student has reached it – but don’t expect PK to take any credit.
“I’m thankful to all my students for everything they’ve done for me,” PK said. “They’ve brought great joy to my life. And my wife, of course, who has stuck by me.” (Happy 26 years, you two!)
Avon students past and present are thankful to you, PK. You’ve given us the answers when you could and ignited the passion to keep learning.