Patty Walker

Patty McClanahan Walker was born in Virginia, grew up in Eastern Kentucky and ended up in Florida, where she taught elementary school for 30 years.

Walker was the 2011 Osceola School District Teacher of the Year and the 2008 Bellalago Academy “Just Read Florida! Teacher of the Year.” She had a special expertise in math and science during her career, serving as a coach to teachers, and enjoyed reading programs for elementary students. The grandmother of four and husband Rick Walker moved to New Smyrna Beach two years ago and began volunteering at MDC last year.

Read more about Patty in MDC’s June 2024 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa D. Mickey:

Where did you spend your youth?
I was raised in Eastern Kentucky and my dad and grandparents were coal miners. I’m related to the Hatfields in Pike County of the [infamous] Hatfields and McCoy’s feud. We lived in the mountains back in “a holler” and I rode horses. My stepfather was in the military, so we moved a lot. When I was 7, we moved to Flint, Mich., then back to Kentucky, then to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and then to Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Fla. When I was 14, we moved to Nuremburg, Germany, and I enrolled in an American school for three years until we moved back to Homestead where I graduated from high school and met a Miami boy, Rick Walker.

Did college come next?
I was going to go to Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas to be a physical therapist, but I got engaged to Rick and decided to get married, instead. My parents asked us to wait a year before I got married because I wasn’t yet 18. We stayed in South Florida because Rick’s father was a fire chief for Dade County and Rick spent every weekend fishing in the Keys. He also went into firefighting, retiring as the fire chief for the City of Orlando.

What happened to your career aspirations?
I decided to go to cosmetology school and worked as a hair stylist for about four years. Then I went to work for UPS in Homestead for three years, loading the trucks that make home deliveries. Around that time, the Mariel boat lift happened in Miami. [This was a mass emigration of Cubans to the United States between April 15-Oct. 31, 1980.] There were security road stops everywhere and it had become dangerous.

Did you stay in South Florida?
We had traveled to Osceola County for Rodeo Weekend and ended up buying five acres of land in St. Cloud, where we later built a home and farm for our family. My son and daughter were in Osceola County’s 4H program and we raised horses. My daughter was a rodeo queen and equestrian in English and Western pleasure riding. They raised market hogs and chickens. We even had the 4H “Grand Chicken” and “Grand Champion Hog.”

Patty flexes her teaching skills in MDC education programs

How did you end up in education?
A friend at church said she needed an assistant at school, so I was hired as an Osceola Schools paraprofessional at Reedy Creek Elementary in Poinciana. I assisted teachers, helped in the cafeteria, the nurse’s office, art classes or wherever I was assigned. You find out if you want to be a teacher or not by starting out in that assistant position because you do everything. I absolutely loved it!

How did you eventually become a teacher?
There was a shortage of teachers in Osceola County because the population had grown so much in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So, Osceola County, along with the University of Central Florida and Valencia Community College, created a partnership called CORE, which stood for Creating Opportunities and Resources for Educators. They approached paraprofessionals with an offer to earn our education degrees. We would have to commit our nights and weekends to attend [all-expenses-paid] classes at Valencia, while continuing to work fulltime as paraprofessionals. Once we graduated from the four-year bachelor’s program, they would provide us teaching jobs with an agreement to work for Osceola County for three years. This was a gift!

How difficult was it working fulltime, going to school and having a family?
My two teenagers were watching me go through college. I graduated from Valencia Community College with my Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree the same year my son graduated with his AA degree, so we walked together at graduation. It took me a little longer than two more years to earn my bachelor’s degree at UCF, but I did it.

Did that program help matriculate more teachers for Osceola Schools?
We started as a group of 30 and when we finished, 16 of us graduated together in the four-year program. I was proud to graduate at the top of our class in education. I ended up being a spokesperson for UCF and I went all over the state talking about CORE and recruiting paraprofessionals to become teachers.

Where did you teach?
After spending 10 years as a paraprofessional at Reedy Creek Elementary, I got a job teaching second grade for three years at Bellalago Academy in Poinciana before moving up to fifth grade. I spent 10 years at Bellalago, seven years at Celebration Elementary and three more years at Creation Village in Celebration.

What did you love about teaching?
The kids were the best part and I loved seeing their little lightbulbs come on. I also loved math and science and developed a passion for letting girls know that they can be just as strong in math and science as the boys. I wore a science lab coat at school and when I had it on, all the kids were excited because they knew it was lab day. There was a saying in my class: “Mistakes are good, they help us grow, they teach us things we need to know.” We always built on that.

When did you retire from teaching?
I ended my public-school teaching career at Celebration Elementary and then I went to work for a private school in Celebration called Creation Village. It started out as a small daycare for the doctors, nurses, custodians and employees of Advent Health across the street, then it became a preschool, an elementary school and an international baccalaureate school that now goes to high school. I taught there for three years and retired in 2022.

When did you move to New Smyrna and start volunteering at MDC?
We moved here two years ago and friends told me to check out MDC for our grandchildren. We came here and it felt like home. Teachers are naturally nurturers. To me, this felt like a place where nature meets nurture. It was the perfect place for me, so I started volunteering at the Welcome Desk, then I began working with children through the education department. I’ve told my friends about MDC and now they are volunteering here, donating things and bringing their grandkids here on the weekends. Rick and I are also helping with horseshoe crab surveys.

When did you take the Coastal Systems class in the Florida Master Naturalist Program?
Rick and I both took the Coastal class in fall 2023. When we told Rick’s mom that we were going to become naturalists, she thought we were going to become nudists. [Laughter] Now, my coffee table books are books from MDC’s gift shop. I’m always looking up birds and plants. Nature just feeds your soul.

How do you think your background best fits MDC’s programs?
Just being able to open up nature for the kids and helping them see how valuable this is and to understand that they are an integral part of it. I love when we take the microscopes into the schools and do our Plankton Project presentation. For some of those kids, it’s the first microscope they have ever touched, and when they actually view plankton under the microscope, it’s amazing to them.

What has been your big lesson here at MDC?
Just the vastness of the lagoon and all the interdependent species that are there. Living at the beach has opened my eyes to how pollution can affect such a large area. We find all kinds of plastic on the beach and last summer, something must have happened to a container ship out in the ocean because I picked up all different kinds of toothbrushes that washed ashore. Someday, I’d like to be a naturalist on MDC’s boat. I’m not brave enough to do it right now, but I love being a docent at the center.

Your teaching career might be over, but in a different way, it continues.
For sure! There is true excitement when kids hold a horseshoe crab for the first time or learn about plankton. If we can speak to their heart, then we can get to their head. Marine Discovery Center has helped make this a home for us. We have found where we fit and how we can help. I am just so blessed to be able to come here and fill my cup because being here absolutely fills my bucket.

Patty is a natural working with our visiting students