Education

Award-winning teacher who ‘didn’t want anyone left out of science’ will retire

West Junior High School science teacher is retiring after 30 years

Donna Whitaker, a seventh-grade teacher science teacher at West Junior High School in Belleville, is retiring after 30 years. Whitaker said she rarely used the textbook, but instead developed hands-on lessons and real-world examples for generation
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Donna Whitaker, a seventh-grade teacher science teacher at West Junior High School in Belleville, is retiring after 30 years. Whitaker said she rarely used the textbook, but instead developed hands-on lessons and real-world examples for generation

Donna Whitaker discovered a passion for science at a young age — but not in a classroom.

“... I spent a lot of time outside playing in the mud in Georgia, just looking at nature and wondering why it all happened,” she said.

In school, Whitaker, 62, says her science teachers were asking her to memorize facts. That’s not what she wanted for the students in her classroom when she became a seventh-grade science teacher at West Junior High School in Belleville.

“If you give them the answer, what do they learn?” Whitaker said. “If you give them something to solve, they learn to think. ... Anybody can look something up, but to figure it out, that’s a different story.”

For the last 30 years, Whitaker said she rarely used the textbook and instead developed hands-on lessons and real-world examples for generations of seventh-graders. “See it, hear it, do it” was her motto, she said. She covered topics from astronomy to anatomy.

If you give them something to solve, they learn to think.

Donna Whitaker, retiring West Junior High School science teacher

Now, Whitaker is getting ready to start a new chapter in her own life: retirement. When she leaves the classroom, Whitaker said she wants to spend some time hiking and running, but beyond that, she’ll be making plans later.

“I have the summer to think about that,” she said.

During her career, Whitaker was recognized among educators in the St. Louis area with an Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award. She was also a finalist for recognition at the state level: the 2013-14 Illinois Teacher of the Year award.

Belleville District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman says Whitaker was willing to work with any student in her time at West Junior High. He remembers that she brought students who had special needs into her classroom even before the state required that integration.

“She didn’t want anyone left out of science,” Klosterman said.

Whitaker says she’s been “blessed” to create her lessons for three decades. “I just love to see them react to it,” she said of her students.

She has unmatched passion about science and teaching science to kids.

Matt Klosterman, Belleville District 118 superintendent

Her favorite lessons have been on anatomy. Every year, Whitaker said seventh-graders can feel like surgeons as they dissect pigs in her classroom. She said they learn more about the body by seeing it for themselves rather than in a book.

“They’ve held the heart and the lungs in their hand. ... If they learned nothing else from my class, that’s what they remember,” she said.

Whitaker said she wanted to give students that opportunity because they might not be able to take an anatomy class in high school.

“The time I did that, I was in honors biology, and they’re doing this in seventh-grade,” she said.

Before Whitaker was a teacher, she was a chemist microbiologist out of college. But she said she realized she wasn’t ready to be out of a classroom.

Whitaker picked the junior high level because she said she wanted to inspire children to become as interested in science as she was at that age and continues to be.

“This is where I think it begins for a lot of students,” she said.

Klosterman says he thinks Whitaker has “unmatched passion” for science and teaching.

“Donna’s passion carried over to kids,” he said.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Donna Whitaker

  • Age: 62
  • Lives in: Belleville
  • Family: Husband Herbert and two daughters, Heather and Lindsay
  • First school: West Junior High School
  • Favorite area of science: Forensics and anatomy
  • Her philosophy: “The purpose of education is to bring real-life situations into the classroom, teach the students how to learn from it, so that they may have the desire to become lifelong learners.”

Who’s retiring?

These school administrators and teachers are retiring from St. Clair County:

Belle Valley 119

  • Lou Obernuefemann: Superintendent, seven years
  • Kathy Goetter: Principal, Belle Valley School, 12 years
  • Alycia Obernuefemann: Teacher, Belle Valley School, 23 years
  • Toni Richter: Teacher, Belle Valley School, 36 years

Belleville 118*

  • Mary Ann Arnold: Teacher, Washington Elementary
  • Teresa (Blomenkamp) Case: Principal, Douglas Elementary
  • Barbara Harnist: Teacher, Westhaven Elementary
  • Chuck Lugge: Teacher, Roosevelt
  • Jim McHaney: Teacher, West Jr. High
  • Gretchen Phillips: Teacher, Roosevelt Elementary
  • Donna Whitaker: Teacher, West Jr. High

Belleville 201

  • Mary Guest: Teacher, Belleville East, 19.5 years
  • Tammie Hettenhausen: Teacher, Belleville East, 23 years
  • Mary Kaemmerer: Teacher, Belleville East, 27 years
  • Debra Stierwalt: Teacher, Belleville East, 13.5 years

Brooklyn 188

  • Henrietta Young: Superintendent, three years

Cahokia 187

  • Kelle Bess: Teacher, Maplewood Elementary, 13 years
  • Ellen Carr: Teacher, Morris Elementary, 24 years
  • Robyn Darnell: Teacher, Penniman Elementary, 19 years
  • Lynne Jones: Teacher, Cahokia High, 17 years
  • Barbara Larson: Teacher, Huffman Elementary, 26 years
  • Brenda Mitchell: Teacher, Estelle Sauget School of Choice, 26 years
  • Kathy Morgan: Teacher, Morris Elementary, 14 years
  • Georgia Reed: Teacher, Penniman Elementary, 23 years
  • Laurie Wobbe: Teacher, Lalumier Elementary, 14 years

Dupo 196

  • John Bione: Principal, Bluffview Elementary, 18 years
  • Debbie Brimm: Teacher, Bluffview Elementary, 28 years
  • Karen Copple: Assistant principal, Bluffview Elementary, 11 years
  • Debbie Tuggle: Teacher, Bluffview Elementary, 34 years

East St. Louis 189

  • Johnnie Davis: Teacher, Lincoln Middle, 12 years
  • Linda Giannoni: Teacher, Mason Clark Middle, 17 years
  • Karla Jaklitsch: Teacher, Wright Elementary, 18 years
  • Florence Lewis: Teacher, Avant Elementary, 16 years
  • Frances Murry: Teacher, Bush Elementary, 26 years
  • Vickie Neumeyer: Teacher, Bush Elementary, 11 years
  • Alfred Turner: Teacher, Lincoln Middle, 17 years
  • Reshay Yow: Teacher, Bush Elementary, 31 years

Freeburg 70

  • Nanette Wiesen: Teacher, Freeburg Elementary, 37 years

Freeburg 77

  • Judy Ebers: Teacher, Freeburg Community High, 14 years
  • Dave Fahrner: Teacher, Freeburg Community High, 26 years
  • Tom Range: Teacher, Freeburg Community High, 28 years

Grant 110

  • Jaye Smith: Teacher, Grant Middle, five years

Harmony‐Emge 175

  • Nina Marifian: Teacher, Harmony Intermediate Center, 19 years

High Mount 116

  • Marsha Ernst: Teacher, High Mount Elementary, 38 years

Marissa 40

  • Pamela Campbell: Teacher, Marissa Jr./Sr. High, 13 years
  • Deborah Klausing: Teacher, Marissa Elementary, 21 years

Mascoutah 19

  • Deb Atchison: Teacher, Mascoutah High, 19 years
  • Sam Graf: Teacher, Mascoutah High, 32 years
  • Gail Frey: Teacher, Mascoutah Elementary, 24 years
  • Susan Friederich: Teacher, Mascoutah Elementary, 18 years
  • Sandy Jouglard: Principal, Mascoutah High, 14 years
  • Glenn Knobeloch: Teacher, Wingate Elementary, 39 years
  • Kathy McFall: Teacher, Mascoutah Elementary, 23 years
  • Jan Mueller‐Hamann: Teacher, Mascoutah Elementary, 39 years
  • Lee Piner: Teacher, Mascoutah High, 32 years
  • Kent Snyder: Teacher, Mascoutah Middle, 34 years

New Athens 60

  • Autumn Peck: Teacher, New Athens Elementary, 18 years

O’Fallon 90

  • Mary Jane Hilden: Teacher, Marie Schaefer Elementary, 16 years
  • Jane Obernuefemann: Teacher, Amelia Carriel Jr. High, 41 years

O’Fallon 203

  • Eric Curry: Teacher, O’Fallon High, 30 years
  • Ronald Koch: Teacher, O’Fallon High, 24 years
  • Becky Merrill: Teacher, O’Fallon High, 27 years
  • Berta Schneider: Teacher, O’Fallon High, 29 years

Our Lady Queen of Peace

Pontiac 105

  • Mary Edwards: Teacher, Wm. Holliday Elementary, 22 years

Smithton 130

  • Cathy Helms: Teacher, Smithton Elementary, 23 years

St. Clare Catholic School

  • Maureen Williams: Teacher, 13 years

St. Teresa

  • Sheila Rapp: Teacher, 29 years
  • Peggy Tribout: Teacher, 45 years

Whiteside 115

  • Debbie Gain: Teacher, Whiteside Elementary, 34 years
  • KayDeane Rodriguez: Teacher, Whiteside Elementary, 15 years
  • Debby Wafer: Teacher, Whiteside Elementary, 23 years

Wolf Branch 113

  • Lynne Clapp: Teacher, Wolf Branch Middle, 30 years
  • Kay DeVore: Teacher, Wolf Branch Elementary, 27 years

These school administrators and teachers are retiring from Madison County:

Alton 11

  • Gary Banks: Teacher, East Elementary, 36 years
  • Timothy Jarden: Teacher, Alton Middle, 32 years
  • Mark Kennedy: Teacher, Alton Middle, 28 years
  • Teresa Kennedy: Teacher, Alton High, 20 years
  • Vicki Reeves: Teacher, Alton Middle, 24 years
  • Vicky Brandon: Teacher, North Elementary, 26 years
  • Vicki Osborn: Teacher, Early Childhood Center, 19 years
  • Carl Day: Teacher, Alton High, 26 years
  • Marie Elliott: Teacher, Alton High, 20 years
  • Rebecca Retzer: Teacher, Alton Middle, 23 years

Bethalto 8

  • Vicky Newberry: Teacher, Civic Memorial High, 28 years

Collinsville 10

  • Cathy Carpenter: Teacher, Renfro Elementary, 45 years
  • Deborah Colyott: Teacher, Dorris Intermediate, 23 years
  • Lee Curtis: Teacher, Webster Elementary, 32 years
  • Nancy Doyle: Teacher, Kreitner Elementary, 27 years
  • Mark Jiles: Teacher, Collinsville High, 23 years
  • Diane Lafikes: Teacher, Collinsville Middle, 20 years
  • Jan Mattea: Teacher, Dorris Intermediate, 20 years
  • Carol McFall: Teacher, Kreitner Elementary, 25 years
  • Doris McFall: Teacher, Jefferson Elementary, 38 years
  • Melinda Myers: Teacher, Dorris Intermediate, 22 years

East Alton-Wood River High School

  • Susan Ledford: Teacher, 32 years
  • David Sobol: Teacher, 26 years

Edwardsville 7

  • Allan Hagin: Teacher, Edwardsville High, 15 years
  • Sally McLauchlan: Teacher, Columbus Elementary, 27 years
  • Joe McNamara: Associate principal, Edwardsville High, 19 years
  • Kathryn Motley: Teacher, Edwardsville High, 32 years
  • Linda Nota-Eubinger: Teacher, Worden Elementary, 44 years
  • Cliff Parker: Teacher, Edwardsville High, 17 years
  • Martha Richey: Principal, Cassens Elementary, 26 years
  • Addie Washington: Teacher, Lincoln Middle, 20 years

Granite City 9

  • Allen Harris: Teacher, Coolidge Middle, 22 years
  • John Neibur (deceased): Teacher, Wilson Elementary, 23 years

Highland 5

  • Susan Bentley: Teacher, Highland Middle, 20 years
  • Sheila Gruender: Teacher, Highland Middle, 30 years
  • Theresa Tucker: Teacher, Highland Middle, 28 years
  • Linda Watts: Teacher, Highland Primary, 23 years

Madison 12

  • Dennis Coy: Teacher, Madison Senior High, 16 years
  • Vandelena Lee: Teacher, Bernard Long Elementary, 24 years
  • Susan Parr: Teacher, Madison Jr. High, 16 years
  • Yolanda Williams: Teacher, Bernard Long Elementary, 30 years

Region III Special Education Cooperative

  • Sheila Severs: Teacher, 35 years

Roxana 1

  • Don Bechtoldt: Teacher, Roxana Senior High, 18 years
  • Stan Hunt: Teacher, Central Intermediate, 30 years
  • Darla Knopf: Teacher, Roxana Senior High, 23 years
  • Anette Lewis: Teacher, South Primary, 19 years
  • Melissa Ray: Teacher, Roxana Senior High, 16 years

St. John Neumann Catholic School

  • Kathy Parker: Teacher, 23 years

Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic School

  • Janet Christian: Teacher, 18 years

Triad 2

  • Tammy Frey: Teacher, Triad Middle, 26 years
  • Cristie Lewis: Teacher, C.A. Henning Elementary, 24 years
  • Sharon Logan: Teacher, Marine Elementary, 20 years

Wood River-Hartford 15

  • Renee Koprivica: Teacher, Lewis & Clark Elementary/Jr. High, 23 years
  • Lisa Kaman-Ammon: Teacher, Lewis & Clark Elementary, 17 years

These school administrators and teachers are retiring from Monroe County:

Career Center of Southern Illinois

  • Patricia Fahey: Teacher, 23 years

Columbia 4

  • Cail Furkin: Teacher, Eagleview Elementary, 28 years

Valmeyer 3

  • Sara Schoenborn: Teacher, Valmeyer Jr. High, 27 years

Waterloo 5

  • Catherine Baldridge: Teacher, W.J. Zahnow Elementary, 21 years
  • Gina Pfund: Teacher, Waterloo Jr. High, 34 years
  • Connie Weatherfield: Teacher, Rogers Elementary, 37 years

These school administrators and teachers are retiring from Randolph County:

Chester 139

  • Linda Sward: Teacher, Chester High, 35 years
  • Mike Coffey: Teacher, Chester High, 33 years

Red Bud 132

  • Connie Bergman: Teacher, Red Bud Elementary, 28 years

Sparta 140

  • Claudia Kerens: Teacher, Sparta High, 42 years
  • Jim Jeffers: Teacher, Sparta High, 23 years

St. Mark’s-Steeleville

  • Larry Luedders: Teacher, 45 years

Trinity Lutheran

  • Sherry Prange: Teacher*

(*Years of service not provided)

Reporter Elizabeth Donald contributed information for this story.

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