As Tricia Spaulding walks from the main building to her office, only one building away, students stop her to say hi or give her a hug.
She says she only knows half the students on Stewart Home School’s campus, but they all seem to recognize her.
“I love you, Tricia,” one woman says in passing. “See you in class Tuesday.”
She smiles and greets everyone and slowly gets to her office.
Being a journalism teacher at a school for intellectually-disabled individuals was never something she thought she would do. But all it took was photographing one family weekend at Stewart Home School and she fell in love.
After 29-year-old Tricia received her journalism degree from the University of Kentucky, her plan was to be a photojournalist.
She is a self-proclaimed “nosy person” and enjoys taking photos, so she thought journalism was a good career path.
But while working for The State Journal, she was sent to cover various events at Stewart Home School, and she couldn’t stay away.
When the journalism teacher job opened up, Barry Danker, manager of Stewart Home School, knew Tricia would be perfect for it.
“She had a natural gift with dealing with our students. They liked her and she liked them,” Danker said. “This job had her name written on it.”
Leaving the newspaper business wasn’t an easy decision, but Tricia says she loves working at the school.
She’s been here since April and has already expanded her job from journalism teacher to the school’s photographer and marketing coordinator.
As the journalism teacher, she was in the classroom all day teaching back-to-back classes and wasn’t able to get out to take photos of the students.
“I enjoy teaching, but it was killing me inside that all these moments were passing and nobody was capturing them,” Tricia said. “It just hurt that I didn’t have the time to dedicate to that.”
After Labor Day, she started her new role that allows her to teach one media arts class twice per week and gives her time to wander through campus capturing what everyday life is like.
“I get to photograph the most amazing people on the most amazing campus in the most awesome state,” she said. “I mean, what more can do you ask for?”
It’s the first day of her new class, and Tricia is brainstorming with the students about what they want to accomplish during the semester.
The journalism class she used to teach involved talking about everything that goes into journalism – what reporters have to do, what photographers do, how TV coverage works.
“It was sort of out of the box for them,” Tricia said. “For them, they just see what’s on TV. They didn’t really think about all that goes into it.”
Her new class will be more in-depth. She wants the students to cover events on campus, take photos, write stories and experience first-hand what journalists do.
“They’re the ones that came to me and asked me to be in the class,” she said. “It’s going to be a more intense learning experience.”
She explains to them that at events they’re covering, they can’t be participating.
“Some of the time you would spend socializing, you would have to spend doing these things,” Tricia says to the four guys in the class that day.
She stresses that they don’t have to do anything they’re not interested in, but all of them seem eager to get started as they discuss covering sports, elections, Halloween and a horse show.
“Well that would be neat,” Tricia says as she encourages all of their ideas.
Tricia loves capturing candid moments on camera, but that’s not always an easy task.
Walking into an art therapy class one afternoon, she has a camera hanging off each shoulder.
She tries not to disturb the class, but the students can’t ignore her.
“You’re so beautiful,” student Peter Gallion says to her as he walks into the room.
“You’re so beautiful,” Tricia responds and gives him a hug.
Peter sits down, but he’s still not focused on class.
“Are you a princess?” he asks Tricia.
“Yes, I am. How did you know?” Tricia says, smiling.
Even though she can’t be invisible to them, she still snaps photos and tries to be as sneaky as possible.
While she thinks the “smile and cheese” photos are nice, she wants natural shots too.
“Our students are very special in that they really wear their emotions on their sleeves all the time,” she said. “There’s always a moment happening.”
Once she catches these moments on camera, she shares everything on the school’s website and Facebook and Twitter pages.
She said she’s also trying to send more photos to family members, who might not see their relatives very often since students come from all across the country.
“Even if the families are the only people that see it, it’s worth every second that you do it,” Tricia said. “It means everything to them to get that one picture you emailed to them. I get to be the bearer of great news every day, which is awesome.”
Going from working as an objective photojournalist to taking photos with the intention of marketing a school wasn’t an easy switch in Tricia’s mind.
She said she still tries to use her photojournalism ethics as much as she can.
“I want to document campus and students as they really are,” she said, mentioning that the interactions she sees on campus aren’t common at ordinary schools.
“They’re like family. Their relationships are not like our relationships when we were in school. They’re like brothers and sisters,” Tricia said. “I want to try and document what I can.”
Another challenge for her with the teaching job was being seen as a leader on campus.
“To them, you’re like a role model,” Tricia said. “To me, that was kind of hard because I’ve never really had someone kind of watch my every move or look up to me.”
The class is almost finished for the day as Tricia and her students enjoy sitting in the grass under the sunshine.
It’s a brisk 55 degrees, but Tricia wanted to have class outside while the weather permitted.
“I think we came up with some great ideas,” Tricia says to the four students there. “I feel like we’ve been pretty productive today.”
“I can’t wait to get started,” student Charlton Benners says, as he talks about covering a beauty pageant on campus.
Tricia tells him that’s a daunting task, and he’s being ambitious, but that doesn’t stop him.
“I like to ask a lot of questions,” Charlton says to her.
“It’s OK to ask a lot of questions,” Tricia says. “It’s OK to be nosy.”
“You are the best journalism teacher,” he says.