Claggett Creek Middle School health teacher Donna Wyatt chats with students about the importance of breakfast. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

It’s a lesson she reminds herself of daily when she encounters a difficult student.

“Sometimes you have to dig deep, but there’s something to love in every child and they deserve that,” said Donna Wyatt, a Claggett Creek Middle School health teacher.

In one recent year, she had a student with autism making a regular disturbance of himself, but found connection over the Super Mario Bros. video games. He was a huge fan and the game was the only one she had much experience with.

“From the moment we found that connection, he started to change,” she said. “He ended up making felt mushrooms from the game all by himself and he started doing all these other cool things that revolved around the games. People started to see him change and see him for the cool guy he could be,” Wyatt said.

On most days, Wyatt calls her classroom “controlled chaos.”

Standing at her door or up in front of the students, Wyatt is quick to offer opportunities to high-five, snap, clap and stomp.

One a brief trip to the back of the classroom, underneath a dozen or so college pennants meant to remind the kids that their journey in education isn’t supposed to end with high school, she reveals why:

“There are three types of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. By nature of the age of the kids, a lot of them are kinesthetic. They want to reach out and touch something or blurt out an answer and they’ll do it spontaneously. Giving them those opportunities before and during class is way for them to do it without getting in trouble,” Wyatt said.

Today’s lesson is about eating healthy and specifically the importance of breakfast.

“Everyone has 24 hours in a day and it’s up to you to decide how to use those hours. Breakfast is important for a healthy lifestyle because studies have shown us that people who eat breakfast eat healthier the rest of the day,” she tells the gathered eighth graders.

During the course of the next hour, she’ll have students take a look at what they’ve eaten, what their favorites are and do a taste test of three cereals high in fiber. Raisin Bran was the winner, but it’s actually a lesson in critical thinking and developing their own opinions with reasoning behind them. When she’s summing up the lesson, she’ll have the students stomp and clap and perform a freestyle rap.

If someone had asked Wyatt 20 years ago if she thought she’d be happy teaching middle schoolers, much less thriving and enjoying it, she would have looked them like they’d grown a second head, but she fell in love with the age group the first day of her first assignment at Walker Middle School. On the best days, she’s still in disbelief that someone pays her for doing something she enjoys so much.

“They’re at that point where they’re still silly and not too cool for school,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. My dad always told me that I had a gift for leading people and they would follow, I was fortunate that I decided to use that gift for good.”

She runs the classroom a bit like a coach, which she once dreamed of being before realizing that teaching students to make healthy choices was where her heart actually lay. In these early weeks of school, the most trying part of the job is simply getting the procedures down.

“There is so much work to get the management piece under control, but after that I start by telling them I’m going to blow their minds,” Wyatt said.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Wyatt had years of struggle before composing her well-oiled teaching machine.

“You really don’t know if [teaching] is where you should be for 10 years,” Wyatt said.

During the early years, she kept her focus on the relationships she could build with students.

“I knew if I could develop those relationships, what I had to teach them could grow out of that,” she said.

Those same relationships, like the one with her autistic student, help her connect over the more difficult aspects of the health curriculum including sex education and, more recently, childhood obesity.

“Sex education is actually one of the most comfortable topics,” Wyatt said. “The kids are eager to learn and want to know. The good thing is sexual activity and even addiction rates are going down. There’s a lot more understanding.”

As more and more students enter carrying the classroom carrying extra pounds, Wyatt has taken it on herself to become a diet counselor and guides students through small changes that can have big, positive outcomes in weightloss.

The most heart-breaking cases are those when she has a pregnant 14-year-old or someone with a sexually transmitted disease. Drug use by parents at home is also a challenge.

“Every year, I’ll be sitting at home and tell my husband and daughters I have three kids I want to adopt just to show them what it’s like to be around a supportive family,” she said. “But I also have students that come out of those families that have this deep resilience and that’s when you know they’re going to be okay.”

Over the years her students have taught her infinite patience and many more on unconditional love. They’ve also shown her that the human heart isn’t constrained by its physical size and shape.

As conversations and squabbles arise over what a teacher is worth and what they deserve, Wyatt keeps her sights locked on the students coming in the door.

“I will skip a meeting if I need time to prepare for my kids, what’s happening now is all of us are being lumped into the same group and that sucks all the creativity out of the job and into paperwork and meetings,” she said. “Teaching takes a ton of energy, a passion for your subject and excellent management skills. You’ve got to be able to manage a class because they’re only getting bigger. I worry about the teachers that love their subjects and don’t have that energy. You can teach management, but you have to invest in your students. It’s what you have to do to be great. “