At the virtual staff meeting prior to the start of school on Monday, April 26, Parkway West High technology and engineering teacher Chris Donaldson got the surprise of a lifetime when Dr. Jeremy Mitchell, West High’s principal, recognized him as West Newsmagazine’s Teacher of the Year.
“I am so surprised and honored to receive the West Newsmagazine Teacher of the Year Award. What a way to start this week and celebrate efforts throughout this school year!” he exclaimed in a later interview.
The celebration continued on Wednesday when he received a prize basket that included an iPad, gift certificates to local businesses, an award certificate and copies of his nomination letters. The pandemic restricted West Newsmagazine staff and Excellence in Education sponsors Schrader Funeral Home, Dream Play Recreation, Peoples National Bank, West County Lutheran Church/North American Lutheran Church and West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce from personally attending. However, Donaldson said he is grateful to the West Newsmagazine sponsors. He added that he also is grateful for the many congratulatory phone calls, texts and emails he has received from his colleagues.
“Chris Donaldson is an excellent teacher who meets students where they are to ensure they benefit from his class. His individualization for and desire to help kiddos (both academically and social-emotionally) is top notch. We are lucky to call him a colleague at West High,” Mitchell said.
A classroom teacher for 14 years, Donaldson has spent the last four years at West teaching technology and engineering. In the classroom, he draws on about 10 years of industry experience in developing training, managing information systems and facilitating custom solutions.
With a master’s degree in science education from Northeastern State University and a bachelor’s degree in education from Murray State University, Donaldson said it was always part of the plan to bring his hands-on experience into the classroom. In the first part of his teaching career, he taught business and marketing classes, but there was a need for a robotics team facilitator. With his software industry-related experience, he was not afraid to take that on for his school.
“Robotics,” he said, “has proven to be amazingly interdisciplinary with a super-rich collection of students, who typically bring a diverse level of abilities and interests to the table.”
After five years of teaching business, Donaldson acquired his NASA Endeavor Teaching certification in technology and engineering for middle and high school. Once he moved into the technology teaching position, he knew there was no going back. His passion for STEM and robotics success has never waned.
When he took over the robotics team at West, there were only three students returning from the previous year. He built that up to 24 students and increased each year as the program garnered state, national and worldwide success. At its peak, the robotics team consisted of 50 students. Currently, it is comprised of 32 students with four competitive teams, including an all-female team.
Even COVID-19 did little to stop the enthusiasm of the robotics program. As nominating parent, Kelly Britt, explained, “Mr. Donaldson organized to get equipment and robotics supplies to students’ homes so they could continue and adapt despite virtual school.”
“It is rare to have a teacher with such passion and you can see how this is translating to love of school and the STEM fields in the group program at West,” Britt said. “His tenacity and ability to adapt to keep these kids going not only have resulted in great results but have given them hope this year.”
Britt’s son Joseph is one of Donaldson’s students and robotics team members.
“They have killed (the competition this year) on multiple fronts,” Donaldson said, acknowledging the effect of COVID-19. But that did not stop the VEX team from experiencing success.
“Although the VEX Robotics team did not win state, they were awarded ‘Excellence,’ which is the highest award you can win except for the tournament. Now they qualify for VEX World Competition, which will be held virtually this year,” Donaldson explained.
Parent Jamie Meisigner, whose son David is on the robotics team, also praised Donaldson’s leadership during the pandemic.
“He does so much for the students at West High and for future teachers,” Meisigner wrote. “I am so impressed with Chris Donaldson and his ability to lead multiple successful VEX teams to state and world competitions. I appreciate how he treats all students with dignity, inclusion and respect.
“His motto is ‘fail fast’ as he wants (his students) to test their hypothesis and learn from those mistakes. Failure is a valuable tool in his classroom. It is impressive to witness the trust that has been built in the classroom.”
Early into the pandemic, Donaldson mobilized robotics students across several schools to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) that was delivered to medical professionals and nursing homes. In all, 20 students and five teachers used 3D printers to produce 298 face shields and 802 tension release bands, which were distributed to five different medical facilities and a number of Parkway departments and buildings.
While it is clear that the award sponsors chose wisely in selecting Donaldson, he was humbled.
“I feel very honored,” Donaldson said. “I recognize your readership spans strong schools and districts and there are a lot of deserving teachers. I feel like I am teaching among giants.
“This award comes at such a palpable time where we invest and give in support of our students in their academic efforts. It’s very validating for the level of efforts and time we are putting in.”