Two metro-east educators in running for Illinois Teacher of the Year award

News-DemocratOctober 18, 2013 

Two local teachers will find out Saturday night if they were selected as the Illinois Teacher of the Year.

Donna Whitaker, who teaches science to seventh-graders at West Junior High School in Belleville District 118, and Sina Rowe, a kindergarten to third-grade special education teacher at Goshen Elementary School in Edwardsville District 7, were among 11 teachers statewide nominated for the award.

Whitaker, 58, was surprised when she learned of her nomination. "It makes me speechless. I guess I'm not aware of what I do that's different from a lot of other science teachers," she said. "I'm very humbled."

Rowe, 36, called her nomination "an unbelievable honor."

The 2013-14 Illinois Teacher of the Year will be announced during a banquet Saturday night in Normal. The Teacher of the Year will represent Illinois at NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., and in the Council of Chief State School Officers' National Teacher of the Year Program.

'Hands-on' approach

Whitaker's teaching philosophy is "see it, hear it and do it."

"I try to do a hands-on activity with everything I teach," Whitaker said. "They have to understand why they need to know it. If they don't internalize it, why should they learn it?"

Whitaker, who grew up in the South, has worked at West Junior High her entire teaching career -- 27 years. Originally, she wanted to be a doctor. However, she changed her mind after deciding she wanted to have a family and pursued a career in teaching.

Whitaker said her pre-med background helps her reach students. "I look at my students as patients," she said. "They are not just students. I look at them holistically. Whenever I design a lesson for them, I try to determine what does this child need; what do I need to do to get the point across. Every lesson I do I try to touch all the ways -- see it, hear it and do it."

Whitaker said her favorite thing about teaching is -- "the light bulb moments" -- when a student grasps a concept. "Science is so amazing anyway," she said. "When the light bulb goes on and they say, 'I never liked science until now,' then I've done my job."

Whitaker enjoys teaching seventh-graders. "They are at an age where they ... are capable of thinking outside of the box," she said.

Whitaker encouraged District 118 to provide science classes to its special education students. "A lot of my special ed students never have a class like this," she said. "If I don't get them now, they may never have this experience."

Superintendent Matt Klosterman said he's had the "privilege" of working with Whitaker his entire career at District 118. "She's a genuine individual who is really all about students and all about science," he said. "Donna is an individual who likes to work with all students regardless of what their needs are."

Whitaker's science classes were recently observed by SIUE student Allison Mauser. "In my first year teaching, if I can be half the teacher she is that will be a really, really successful year," Mauser said.

Whitaker has a bachelor's degree in biology from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a master's in science secondary education from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Whitaker and her husband Herb, an artist, live in Belleville. She has two grown children.

In her spare time, she enjoys outdoor activities including scuba diving and traveling.

'All children can learn'

Rowe said she believes "all children can learn. It's my job to find out what their strengths are," she said.

Rowe has worked at Edwardsville School District since 2005. She started as a kindergarten special education teacher at Leclaire Elementary School before becoming a classroom teacher for the CASTLE program, the in-district program for students with autism. CASTLE stands for "Collaboration for Autism Spectrum Teaching Learning and Excelling."

The program -- now in its second year -- brought students who were placed out of the district back into District 7 schools. Rowe works with students who have a wide range of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, emotional disabilities, traumatic brain injury and others.

Rowe grew up in Golden Eagle in Calhoun County. After graduating from Brussels High School, Rowe attended Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she earned a bachelor's degree in special education. She also has a master's degree in early childhood education from the University of Phoenix.

Prior to coming to Edwardsville School District, she was a special education teacher at Calhoun Elementary in Hardin for five years.

Rowe enjoys working with special needs children and their families. "I really love getting to know my families and students," she said. "Sometimes my students are with me for more than one year. I get to see a lot of progress that most teachers can't see."

She described it as a "gift to get to see the growth." Rowe recalled having one student who didn't talk who eventually began to express their feelings verbally.

"I love getting to play with my kids. Play is really important," she said. "It's a fun job."

Rowe's advice for teachers who have a difficult student is to "look past the difficulties to see what's at the root of the problem. There's always a solution. You just have to find it. You have to focus on the positive."

Rowe and her husband Donnie, who is a special education teacher for Pathways School in Belleville, have three children. They reside in Glen Carbon. In her spare time, Rowe enjoys reading and being with her family.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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