According to Donna Gradel, teaching is a science and an art.
“It’s the artist who inspires and creates an atmosphere of innovation for their students,” the science teacher says. “I believe the standardization and programmed approach we see in education today has squeezed the artistry out of the classroom.”
Gradel has spent the past 30 years in the classroom – more than 20 of them at Broken Arrow High School, where she teaches innovative research and Advanced Placement Environmental Science and chairs the science department.
For her educational endeavors and ability to inspire students, this 2019 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year was a candidate for the 2019 National Teacher of the Year Award, a designation given to only four educators nationwide.
Gradel has collaborated with students on life-changing scientific accomplishments, including projects that have taken them to Kenya to provide sustainable food and clean-water technologies. In 2014, her students became the first in Oklahoma to earn a $10,000 Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Inventeam grant for their efforts.
“My deepest passion lies in empowering my high school students to be positive-change agents by providing them opportunities to solve relevant real-world problems,” she says.
Above all, she says, teaching is about connecting with students.
“They must know their teacher genuinely cares for them as an individual and wants to see them succeed in their educational journey, as well as in life,” Gradel says. “This requires time inside and outside the classroom. I try to support my students by attending their extracurricular activities and creating opportunities for them to be involved in academic projects.”
However, she adds, “Teachers are asked to do an astronomical number of tasks that steal from connecting with students.”
With her state and national honors, Gradel has taken her message to a wide audience of teachers, students and organizations across the country. A national market would be happy to have her anywhere, but Gradel says she remains dedicated to Oklahoma students.
“The young people of Oklahoma are amazing,” she says. “Whenever I tell teachers from other states the wonderful things my students have done to positively impact the world, they can’t believe it. Our young people have a strong desire to make a difference and help those less fortunate. They are my motivating force.”
She also acknowledges that Oklahoma teachers face extreme challenges.
“In Oklahoma, we need to be intentional about finding a sustainable source of revenue to fund public education,” Gradel says. “It’s created a crisis in which Oklahoma cannot retain and recruit effective teachers into our classrooms for every student in our state. We need to be careful, because they are our future hope.”