Interview with Veteran Super Teacher Donna Earl

Interview with veteran teacher Donna Earl

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting (well, "meeting" cyberly in our Facebook group) Donna Earl, a veteran teacher of 37 years! I had so many questions for Donna, especially around ways she has kept her passion for teaching all these years. So I sat down, wrote out some questions, and sent them over to Donna. A few days later, her answers arrived in my inbox.


Interview with Veteran Super Teacher Donna Earl


Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you grew up, what college/s you attended, where you got your first teaching job?

Donna: I grew up in West Palm Beach, FL. I attended Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, OK (and saw my first snow!). I graduated in 1980, with a degree in Elementary Education.  I got my first teaching job that fall at The King’s Academy in WPB. I taught there for 11 years before moving to the rural mountain community of Blairsville, GA. I have lived here since. I have been teaching for the Technical College System of Georgia, in the department of adult education since 1992. I earned my MA in Early Childhood from Brenau University in 1996.


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Q: What grades/subjects have you taught? Have you had a favorite?

Donna: I taught kindergarten for 6 years, then 6th grade math and science for 5 years. (I hated math, but I was asked to give it a try.) When I moved to another state, I volunteered in an adult literacy program while awaiting my teaching certification for my new state.  That was in 1992. I am still there. I have taught adults for 25 years. While I enjoyed each grade level, I have found my niche!!  It is challenging, but rewarding and math is now my favorite subject to teach.

Q: Teaching is hard for reasons we all joke about – low salary, stacks of paperwork, not being able to go to the bathroom whenever we want. But it’s also hard for reasons we don’t talk about, like being misunderstood by family members, friends and really society as a whole. How have you not folded under that, “gee, it must be nice getting summers off,” that degrades our very real struggles?

Donna: Mostly, I ignore it. I know the truth. They get paid a lot more than I do to do their job, but I get to change lives!  I get to show folks how the whole world works together, how math is the language that can explain science and even art, how words can explain thoughts and ideas, how people have managed themselves through governments, etc. I’ve got the good job!


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Q: Why did you become a teacher?

Donna: Well, I have always loved reading and children. I started looking into becoming a children’s librarian, until I found out it is far more office work than actually reading books to kids. That didn’t appeal to me at all. During college, I played around with a few ideas, but elementary teaching just seemed to fit. I became fascinated with how the brain acquires new knowledge and how I could facilitate that as a teacher.

Q: If I could go back in time, I’d tell my fist-year self to take seriously that advice I got about perfecting my teacher stare. I mean, it works. If you could go back in time to tell your first-year self something, what would it be?


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Donna: Plan to think on your feet! My first year of teaching, I had a kindergarten class of 30 children and no parapro[fesional]. The first day, I remember telling them to line up for the first bathroom break, and I had a mass of bodies around me!  “Umm, okay, let’s try this again.” Once I got them lined up, I walked them to the bathroom down the hall. I sent the girls and boys in and stood outside. Here came the girls, got a drink, and got in line.  No boys!! I finally left the girls in the hall and went in to check on the boys. One was at the sink, with soap up to his armpits like he was washing for surgery, and one was pushing the button on the paper towel dispenser and turning the crank. He had gleefully made a knee-high pile of paper towels! The rest of the boys were waiting for the only toilet they recognized. Evidently, they did not recognize a urinal. So, I had my first, “This is a Stand-Up Potty and this is a Sit-Down Potty” talk.

After lunch (spent running around opening pudding, fruit cups, and poking those infernal straws into drinks), recess, nap time, and getting 30 children onto busses, parent pick-up, and after-school care, I remember falling into my chair and thinking, “I just spent 4 years in college, and I didn’t learn anything I needed to know!!” Eventually, I realized that all the time spent writing lesson plans, making bulletin boards, and studying Bloom’s Taxonomy had paid off, but the first year, I mostly had to think on my feet! And while I didn’t use the teacher stare much during my kindergarten years, it was invaluable when I taught middle school! 

I am laughing just thinking of how overwhelmed I felt that first week! 


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Q: Mrs. Arena, Mr. Bolduc and Srdjan Divac were my 3 favorite teachers. Their patience, bravery and contagious love of math and science are the reasons I am who I am today. How did your favorite teachers change you?

Donna: My favorite teacher was my second grade teacher, Evangeline Mossholder. Is that not a name?!  She was tall, white haired, and very proper. I don’t actually remember what we did in her class, but I know I always felt that I was challenged, safe, and loved. Her comments on my report card are things like, “Donna tends to day-dream. While there is a place and time for her dreams, we need to help her work on keeping focus in class.” I have always tried to make my comments to students and their parents like that. Finding the positive, but not glossing over an area that needs improvement. It can be tough to balance. 

The other take-away from her class, is making an environment where students feel safe enough to try and possibly fail in that attempt. I preach all the time that I expect mistakes. Mistakes show that someone is trying something new.  If they get it all right, they know that part. Time to move on to the part they don’t know.  That is why I am there!

Q: Before becoming a full-time teacher, I subbed for a year in the Boston Public Schools, taught summer school and then, finally, was offered a full-time position. It was hard getting that first job. Was it hard for you to get your first job? And if so, how did you keep the faith that it would happen?

Donna: No, I was fortunate to find a job right away. That would have been frustrating!  I will say, that both systems I have worked for (a private school and adult education) pay less than public school, so perhaps being willing to work for less enabled me to find jobs easier. Hard to believe that anything pays less than BOE, but it is true!


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Q: When my husband and I get home from school, we are spent. We have nothing left. The toll of managing so many emotions all day simply can’t be understood by a non-teacher. In 37 years of teaching, was there a year when you were just not able to “let go” at the end of the day?

Donna: In a word, yes!  Absolutely, yes!  Some days can still be that way. 

Q: What tips can you give new teachers about ways to manage day-to-day stress so that their careers may someday be as long as yours?

Donna: I am probably the last person who should address this, but here goes. Find friends who teach! Find friends who don’t teach!  Spend time with both of them. Get in touch with your spiritual self. Some days, weeks, years….prayer is all that will get you through. A good year can be derailed by a difficult student, a rotten parent, a crappy co-worker, a nightmare of a boss, 87 new procedures that need to be implemented today, etc. or all of the above! Find a hobby into which you can really immerse yourself. Don’t be alarmed if you need to seek outside help. It is not a shame to need a counselor or therapist to deal with the stress of this job.

Q: My husband plays a hobby game called Warhammer 40K. He and his pals get together, build and paint their little models and film their epic battles. What fun things do you do when not teaching?

Donna: I love to read. I also love sewing, although that has taken a backseat due to health issues lately. Over the years, I have woven fabrics, woven baskets, designed children’s clothing, gardened, baked bread, etc. Right now, while I am working on the health issues, I do more reading and puzzles and poking around on Pinterest, but hobbies and interests are essential in keeping a semi-sane mind.


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Q: We have all had days, weeks, months, years when we feel we just can’t do it anymore. What advice do you give yourself that allows you to push through?

Donna: I focus on the student successes….the 80 year-old-man who learned how to read, so he could read the Bible to his wife who had Alzheimer’s….attending the GED graduation for the student who came to us 14 years before unable to speak English…and then attending her college graduation…..1000 GED graduates on my watch….the face of a student who just “got it”!  It can be big stuff or small stuff, but only the successes have kept me showing up.  BTW – if someone would give me $1,000.000, I would quit tomorrow. I would show up the next day to volunteer!  I put up with the nonsense for the paycheck; I love the teaching.

Q: What are some major differences between the way teaching was 37 years ago and the way it is today?

Donna: Well, direct instruction with learning centers to supplement was standard in 1980. We were fancy if we used an overhead projector, and we actually had blackboards….and chalk.  If we wanted to show a movie, we ordered it from a movie company and it was mailed to the school in a box. It was shown on a reel-to-reel movie projector. You had to request an 8th grade AV tech to come and set the projector up. It was a big deal. Otherwise, you showed your VHS tape on the VCR you checked out from the library. I am laughing so hard!

In middle school math class, no calculators were allowed. We taught only hand calculations. Of course, no one could imagine computers being a part of everyday classroom instruction. They were huge, IBM things that you used punch cards to program. They had no place in classrooms! :) I thought they made too much of the achievement tests each spring!  Wow, I had no idea. Some things have come back around, of course. Bloom’s Taxonomy was all the rage, then Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and now we are back to Bloom’s.

Q: If things were the way they are today, would you have gone into teaching?

Donna: That is a tough one!  I don’t know. I have been able to adapt to the changing role of the teacher to data manager and test giver, but I am not sure I would have wanted to start off with that role. I have not taught in K-12 in so many years, that I probably can’t answer that question. I am guessing that I would not have gone into teaching. Library science doesn’t look so bad now.


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Q: “Parents just want to know you like their kids.” This advice changed the way I approach parent conversations. Now as a parent, I do in fact just want my daughter to be loved and happy at school. What tips can you give a new teacher who is having trouble working with parents?

Donna: Well, I haven’t had to work with parents in a long time. That is one of the benefits of teaching in adult education. :) I know parents are much more hovering than they were when I taught K-12, but I had my share of difficult parents. Starting any parent meeting with a positive comment that lets the parent know that you actually know and like their kid is very important, especially at the beginning of the year. Learning to be honest in a positive way helps. You can’t gloss over problems or ignore them. They have to be addressed. 

Working to create a team with the parents to work on a behavior or academic struggle is invaluable. Depending on the age of the child, having the child present can be eye-opening for the parent. Getting input from the PE, art, music teacher, bus driver, anyone who knows the child can be useful, if the parent thinks you are the only one who “has ever had this problem with Junior”. If the parent continues to be difficult to deal with, always have another staff member present at meetings. Document, document, document!  If all else fails, June is coming! 

I hope to someday have a career as long and as rich as Donna Earl's! What an amazing experience this has been. Thank you so much Donna! 

Free Math Pennants

Everyone loves free! In this post I want to highlight some free math pennants that you can use as warm ups, exit tickets, a review day, a fun day, homework, really anything! Teachers have come up with a bunch of ways they are using math pennants with their kids. And kids love them! I have heard so many stories of disengaged students really getting into their math pennants, and to me this is everything. 

Below are some free math pennants and where to find them...

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free math pennant for order of operations

Here is a free order of operations pennant that has been downloaded by teachers over 20,000 times. My favorite thing about math pennants is how they allow students to showcase their work. My students love showing off their work and would rather hang their papers in our classroom than bring them home. We have an area of our classroom called "The Fridge" where students hang their graded work and it's a real confidence-booster.

free-math-pennant-order-of-operations-PEMDAS
free math pennant for order of operations (younger kids)

A couple teachers emailed to ask for an order of operations pennant that would work for their younger students. I made this order of operations pennant from their request with expressions geared towards students in 5th grade and middle school. 

free-math-pennant-solving-equations
free solving equations math pennant

And this solving 2-step equations pennant is free for subscribing to blog updates. With this, you will also get access to a lot more free math resources. 

You can see even more math pennants in this post


Self-checking Middle School Math Activities


I'm very excited to bring you this guest post from Mandy at Math Dyal. I so admire Mandy for her creativity, her work ethic and her ability to reach students who are afraid of math. Here is a photo I stole from Mandy's Facebook page:

self checking middle school math activities

Her students love her! She's one of those teachers who just knows how to get through to kids because she listens to them and allows herself to learn from them. So without any more gushing, here is Mandy's guest post on self-checking middle school math activities:


Scaffolded Math's Favorite Things


Thanks for stopping by! Through my work at TpT I have met some really great math educators who I am happy to now call friends. We got together this holiday season to bring you a blog hop and giveaway of our favorite math things (kind of like Oprah, only more mathy). 

This giveaway is for a $25 TpT gift card and a copy of the amazing book Mathematical Mindsets. Giveaway details below:)


Giveaway closed! Winner notified in comments and via email!

Thank you to all who entered. I hope you have your most restful winter break yet! :)