Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Donna Gradel is a finalist for 2019 National Teacher of the Year.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister made the announcement Wednesday after touring Broken Arrow High School with Gradel, who taught science there for 21 years.
“It’s humbling to receive this recognition. My goal is to represent my school, my community and the state of Oklahoma with dignity and with honor,” Gradel said.
The winner will be selected through in-person interviews and is typically recognized by the president in a White House ceremony in the spring.
The National Teacher of the Year program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, identifies exceptional teachers and gives them the opportunity to participate in policy discussions at the state and national levels.
From all state teachers of the year, a panel representing 14 top education organizations that collectively represent millions of educators selects four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year. Their selections are based on recommendations from parents and colleagues, the teachers’ work to inspire students from all backgrounds, and community involvement.
During their official year of recognition, the National Teacher of the Year is released from classroom duties to travel nationally and internationally as a spokesperson and advocate for the teaching profession.
Gradel was selected for the state’s top teaching honor for her hands-on work with students to develop a sustainable, low-cost, solar-powered, aquaponic system to help feed people living in poverty in Kenya.
Since the middle of last year, Gradel has been on full-time state Teacher of the Year duty. She will continue to tour the state as Oklahoma’s teacher ambassador, encouraging others to enter or remain in the profession, until July. At that time, Yukon’s Becky Oglesby, who has been named 2019 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, will take over the duties.
Stitt recounted the impression Gradel made on him during a meeting in his office in early 2018, when he was still campaigning for the Governor’s Office.
“She may not remember this meeting, but I remember Donna. I remember her passion for education and her thoughtful and visionary ideas to empower her students,” Stitt said.
In her classroom, Gradel posed real-world problems for her students to solve, and for the past seven years, their international research and design projects have provided clean water and more affordable sources of protein in the diets of orphans in Kenya.
Gradel’s students also recently worked with city engineers in Broken Arrow to develop an outdoor classroom with a floating wetland across the street from the high school.
“Donna spurs her students’ imaginations and helps them dream big for the future. In ways, she brings her classroom to the world and she brings the world to her classroom,” Stitt said.
Gradel said she has been guided by three beliefs she came to hold from her earliest years as a teacher.
“Number one: All students can learn regardless of their starting point,” she said.
“Number two: All students have a sense of purpose, and they want to make a difference in the world. And number three: All students need to know that their teacher has a genuine concern for them and is willing to be their champion.”
Hofmeister said Gradel is noteworthy because she puts a unique focus on students and reverses the typical teacher-student dynamic by asking them: “What problem do you want to solve?”
“By tapping into that, they become innovators whom she teaches to research, to be able to problem solve and think critically,” Hofmeister said, “and then apply what they are learning in a Broken Arrow community or across the globe.”