A Look Behind 2018 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year

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The State Fair Park in Oklahoma City was filled with enthusiasm from the crowd and the 12 finalists. The competition had been big and it all was about to culminate, and the 2018 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year was about to be found. The winner was chosen by a 20-member panel of judges of former Teacher of the State winners, and Broken Arrow’s Mrs. Gradel was about to join them in their honor, as the third teacher from Broken Arrow since 1955.

Mrs. Gradel started her teaching career at the University of Virginia where she got a basketball scholarship. Her dream was to become a high school environmental science teacher and a basketball coach but due to lack of science teaching opportunities, she ended up teaching 19 special needs students on an emergency certification at the foothill of the Appalachian mountains.

“It was in that trailer where I really developed my teaching philosophy and also my teaching style which I’ve maintained now for 29 years of my teaching career,” Mrs. Gradel said. It was within that trailer that I realized that every student matters and that each student has potential to learn regardless of where their starting point is.”

All Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 classroom teachers are eligible for nomination. The requirements for nominated teachers are, that they should be exceptionally skillful and dedicated classroom teachers, and they also need to have the ability to inspire the learning in students of all backgrounds and assure academic success.

“I believe Mrs. Gradel won Teacher of the Year because she is so passionate about education, not just in her classroom but throughout the school,” junior McKenzie Denham said. “She really inspires creative thinking in her students, and she was recognized for it.”

One of the biggest projects that Gradel have made with her students was the design of a large-scale aquaponics system to provide clean water and a sustainable food system to raise fish and plants for orphans in Kenya. After months of dedication, research, and data collection, Gradel and students traveled to Africa to complete the system.

Her other volunteer work includes projects with Meals on Wheels, Night to Shine Special Needs Prom, Salvation Army, Gatesway Foundation, Broken Arrow Neighbors and Habitat for Humanity. She has also distributed hundreds of backpacks and supplies to local schools and distributes food and bicycles to foster children at Christmas.

“Donna Gradel is the teacher who goes so far above and beyond what is expected,” Broken Arrow Public Schools Superintendent Janet Dunlop said. “She has such talent and intelligence that she could probably do anything she wanted, yet she’s had this dedication to serving students for so many years. She has opened up the world to her students in ways they would never have experienced without her leadership.”

Mrs. Gradel also promotes environmental education programs through Project Learning Tree and helps monitor water quality for local streams through the Blue Thumb Program. She is also working with local officials to design Broken Arrow’s first ecological green park, and have also built an outdoor ecological classroom with her students.

“One of my philosophies has always been to be real,” Gradel said. “I am who I am and that is really important, and I’ve discovered that students really appreciate that in my classroom.”

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