Lessons for a Lifetime

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

When I first arrived at the Colleges, the new curriculum had just been instituted,” says Paul Birkby ’76. “And I remember hearing from the faculty: ‘the most important thing we can teach our students is how to teach themselves.’ That has stayed with me throughout my life.”

It’s a message that Birkby, a librarian and media specialist at Penfield High School near Rochester, N.Y., passes along to his own students today. After earning his B.A. at Hobart and his J.D. at Rutgers University, Birkby practiced law in New Jersey for several years before realizing that his true calling was working with children.

“One of the things I noticed as an attorney was that many folks who needed my services hadn’t developed good critical thinking skills, and that if they’d been able to think more critically, the difficulties they had gotten into might have been avoided,” Birkby says.

Birkby returned to Central New York with his family, and having volunteered at his children’s schools, decided that rather than taking another bar exam, he wanted to work with students to help foster their growth into healthy adults. He entered the master’s of library science program at the University of Buffalo and soon after began his career as a school librarian.

“One of the things I like about my role as a school librarian is that I get to see growth over four years, both intellectual growth and social and emotional growth,” says Birkby, who worked for 13 years at the elementary level before taking his current position at Penfield High School.

When his partner (now-husband) was transferred to Atlanta, Birkby took a year’s leave of absence but says, “It didn’t take me long to realize that I am a northeastern boy.”

When he returned to Penfield, there was an open position at the high school, and although he arrived to secondary education with some trepidation, within months, Birkby says, “I got very comfortable. Many of the kids I had taught in elementary school were now in high school, and in those first few years, it was amazing and fulfilling to see these kids maturing.”

Now, having been at the high school for the past nine years, “I can’t imagine going back to elementary,” says Birkby, who is the faculty adviser to the Class of 2015 and to the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “The social and emotional side to teenagers is as important to me as their academic growth. At the elementary level, I knew there were kids whose orientation and gender identity would someday become an issue, but I didn’t feel equipped to help them address that. At the high school level, I am much more able to help them, and working with students is very fulfilling.”

Birkby was recognized in 2014 for his service with the WROC Golden Apple Award, for which he was nominated by a current Penfield High student. He is on the Board of Directors of Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley and has facilitated or co-facilitated Safe Zone training courses through the area, including within the Penfield School District and recently for resident assistants at Hobart and William Smith. “It’s important for me to give back,” says Birkby, who trained HWS students on LGBT vocabulary, the Cass Identity Model and helped answer questions through role played scenarios. “I’m fond of saying that Hobart and William Smith, in addition to outstanding academics, taught me how to be an adult,” he says.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.