By Jodi Marze, Lifestyles Editor
The Picayune Item
Picayune Memorial High School teacher Donna Porter has received a The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.
Porter is an oral communications teacher at PMHS.
The award recognizes teachers who have made an extraordinary impact on lives of students. The nomination process must be initiated by a former student and must come with a brief story of the impact the nominee had on the student’s life. Dewayne (D.J.) Batiste nominated Porter for the award. She said he was her biggest challenge.
Porter sees her classroom as a mission field. In her essay, which she sent in to The Kennedy Center, she gave her philosophy of teaching: “I believe that every individual is designed for greatness. I believe that I was designed to bring to light the greatness that lies within others. I believe that the road to success is paved through empowering the human spirit. I became a teacher to unlock that greatness into the world.”
Porter was interviewed at a local coffee house where she was greeted with congratulations from former students who had learned of the award. Even as she is being congratulated, she is responding with words of encouragement. The deep connection Porter (Miss P. to her students) shares with her students was obvious as she discussed upcoming wedding plans with one and college essays with another.
“It’s all about ripples. Think of a lake and how one rain drop can create a ripple. I believe that life is a series of ripples,” she said about how she views teaching and life, “and our actions can create a ripple for good. The ripple never just stops with affecting one person. It continues on and affects many. I hope to be a drop that creates a ripple in my students’ lives so they can leave my room to create the same for others.”
Porter said she was inspired in what she does by her high school speech teacher, a Ms. Durbonnet. Porter could not remeber her teacher’s first name.
“She noticed a gift in me that I did not know I had and she hauled me to speech and debate teams because she believed in me. I began thinking that I wanted to notice people’s gifts and help them realize how special they were just like my teacher did. What a tragedy to have greatness inside and not realize? I could not sit by and let students shuffle through the system unaware of how special they are,” she said
Porter first worked as a speech therapist in the school system before spending the last ten yers as an oral communications teacher. This position has enabled her to launch a program for at-risk students as well as to teach motivational workshops for teachers.
“As a 2006 Congressional (District) 4 Teacher of the Year, my platform was focused on classroom management. They asked me to go around school districts and give motivational workshops. I have done that for years. Today, D.J. attends college and comes with me to some of my workshops. I have found that it makes a greater impact for them to see a student like D.J., who has made a transformation, than students who always do good in school,” she said.
As she talks, Porter is bumped into by a current student, Kallie Eades.
Eades hugs her and says, “Her class is amazing. It’s not like any other classroom. She respects us. It’s like you are home with your family. It’s not a competitive atmosphere. It’s just comfortable.”
“My class is a community style classroom. We encourage each other and make each student feel special. I approach my students’ education in a way that is true to their profile. I read Nine Types of Intelligence by Howard Gardner and administer the profile test the first day of school. It enables them to learn about themselves and classmates. It helps us all understand the way others in the class relate,” Porter said.
“I believe that everyone is intelligent, and although a traditional school setting is geared for students who are either geared toward verbal linguistic learners, there are many ways to learn. Kallie’s strengths are that she is empathetic and compassionate. She is also high in linguistic intelligence.”
On the day she now considers a divine appointment with D.J. Batiste, Porter called on all of her skills in classroom management to handle the student who walked in late, threw his book bag on the floor and basically propositioned her.
“He did it on purpose. He thought I would send him to the office and he would get kicked out of school on the first day. He came in loaded with ammunition for a fear based response but had no ammunition for a love based response. He was completely ready for the power struggle and my first thought was ‘He is fearless.’ I mean, the first day is the honeymoon period where students try to act appropriate and feel you out for the rest of the year” she said.
“If he was starting the first day like this, how would it go for the rest of the year,” she asked.
“Everyone was looking at me and if I mishandled that, it would be a disaster for the entire year. I was not afraid of D.J.; I was afraid that I would fail myself and not use the skills that I had — then I just knew what I was going to do. I used it as a teachable moment.
“I told him, ‘D.J. you have just walked into an oral communications class. You are going to learn the difference between appropriate and inappropriate communications. Your last communication was very inappropriate but this is the first day and in this class you will learn the difference. I have a lot to teach you.’”
Porter says she recognized that he was a strong intra-personal learner and she immediately gave him a job.
“I told him, ‘You are charismatic. I would like you to be the first person that students see when they come in my door. Furthermore, I would like you to open the class with any appropriate dialog you would like. It can be about any appropriate subject matter you would like. There is one catch though.’ With that his whole body language changed as he waited for the catch. Then I said, ‘The catch is you have to be here on time.’ He lit up and did a great job as the class greeter.”
She believes her highest-risk student has returned her the greatest dividends.
“Trophies tarnish and awards fade, but when you invest in people like D.J., the reward is infinite and priceless. This ripple will continue and I want this to be the message to mentors of at-risk youth. The students need us. D.J. has been my teacher as much as I have been his. I have learned so much from him.”