Reaching skyward. A teacher's 50-year journey into the stratosphere
“Touch the ceiling, D.A.! Touch the ceiling!” Students in Don Anderson’s math classes at Belle Plaine High School will occasionally break into that resounding chant, and for good reason. Known only as D.A., his impressive, six-foot, four-inch height literally makes that feat possible. Couple that with his understanding of the power of positive reinforcement, plus his curiosity, skills, and talents as an educator, and you get D.A., a teacher who has been inspiring students to stretch, and reach not just for the ceiling, but for the sky and beyond. And he has done so for an astounding half century.
Yes, this is math class, so let’s do the math. We’re talking 50 years, so that means 18,250 calendar days of connections and relationships with staff, students, families, and community. In present day vernacular, that’s an impressive 9,000 school days of face time, with nearly as many students. Here’s the clincher… he hasn’t missed a single day in 34 years.
“Exceptional teachers listen to the kids,” D.A. said. “It’s about teaching them how to learn, and to love to learn. I find out what they are interested in, and then I try to make their learning personal. I want students to experience that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment where they truly understand. My greatest successes are the ones when you realize that a student understands.”
Following graduation from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) with an education major, physical education minor and a coaching endorsement, D.A. began teaching at Belle Plaine in 1970, where to this day, he still teaches in the very same classroom. In addition to utilizing a Promethean board, most of the time he teaches using chalk on expansive chalkboards which cover half of the walls in his classroom.
A well-known figure in the region and an athlete himself (he played baseball for UNI), he has officiated high school sports for 39 years, including volleyball, basketball, softball, and state competitions. He also continues to announce football and basketball games.
Currently, there are 23 district staff members who had D.A. as a teacher, about a half dozen are teachers in the district. He has even taught grandchildren of his previous students. Some of his former students have become teachers and since retired. At 71 years young, he’s not sure when he’ll retire.
So how does D.A. stay so engaged and excited about his work over time?
“I always need a challenge from where I first started teaching,” he said. “Every kid is so different. I find something that challenges me to make things better, and make the kids learn better.”
Ever the innovator, D.A. wrote a computer program to help run the track meets. And when the district went to using 1 to 1 Chromebooks for students, D.A. was one of the first to create his own website to make information available to students.
D.A. spent one summer learning how to create videos of math lessons for students to access online. Some former students, now in college, still refer to these videos as a resource. The past few summers he has taken brain theory classes and been learning about brain function and how students learn.
“I ask for good professional development and for administrators to let me do my job,” D.A. said. “I have been blessed with great administrators.”
Principal Todd Werner said D.A. is the perfect example of a life-long learner who will do anything and everything for his students.
“He sees the potential in every student and he knows what every student needs to be successful,” Werner said. “The students and staff at Belle Plaine are his families and he has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to them."
In the classroom D.A. says he doesn’t strictly lecture very often. Instead, he prefers to present problems to students and then help provide a scaffold with which to figure out solutions. D.A.’s mother, who was the second oldest of 15 children, began school in the third grade and left school at age 16 to help support the family, receives credit for the way in which this self-described, fundamentalist coach teaches.
D.A. has concerns, however, about the ramifications of moving away from brick and mortar school settings, and he hopes the technology being implemented will ultimately help students. He’s a big believer in the benefits of teamwork, peers teaching peers, developing social skills and learning how to listen. He wonders, and worries about the negative impact of losing immediate connections indicative of in-person teacher and student communities.
“I’m sorry that due to the pandemic, the graduating class of 2020 did not get the full experience of their senior year,” D.A. said. “For an educator, this feels like the biggest bummer moment in my career. But this too shall pass, so let’s teach.”
If reminders are needed as to D.A.’s living and learning philosophy, one only need look as far as the class creed posted prominently in his classroom for all to internalize: Attitude determines altitude. Do what is right, because it is right. Excellence takes time.
D.A. says of parents, “You are the number one teacher, and most important people in students’ lives. Have interest in everything about your children, even if you don’t understand what they are doing.”
As for inspiring beginning teachers, D.A. suggests, “Prepare to be bad. We all have bad days. Master teachers have difficulty. Learn from your mistakes and you will get better. If something doesn’t work, try something different. Have patience.”
And what of retrospect looking back over his shoulder at his enduring career in education? What would he have done differently or told his younger self?
“I would tell my younger self to have more patience, and be willing to change, but I wouldn’t do anything differently because I would not be who I am now.”
Words of wisdom for living and teaching from a man who has touched the ceiling and beyond.
A one-of-a-kind, timeless individual, and one very special teacher
“D.A. is timeless,” said Lisa Koch, a Belle Plaine High School alumna and former member of D.A.’s class, who now works as a guidance counselor in the school. “After 50 years of teaching he still knows how to build relationships with students. He has evolved with the kids. He focuses on the core of the individual person.
“Math is not an easy thing to teach, and as a guidance counselor, I see a lot of dread and fear in students about learning math,” Koch said. “But D.A. has this ability to teach students in a way that just clicks. I then hear students saying, ‘I never knew math was so easy!’, not because D.A.’s courses are easy, but because he knows how to explain things and teach the students.”
Koch, the youngest of 11 children, said by the time she had D.A. for a teacher he knew all about her and her family. She recalls that early in her career during a faculty meeting, D.A. exclaimed, “I remember the day you were born!”.
“Usually, when you hear someone say that, it’s just an expression,” Koch said. “But he started spooling off literal details about the day I was born, like it was around Halloween, and all about my siblings. I remember thinking, ‘I will never be able to put anything past this man!”
So, she kept that in mind when she and her 6-year-old son recently made a surprise delivery of homemade cookies to his mailbox.
“D.A. never leaves a kid behind,” said Leah Mast, a Family and Consumer Science teacher at Belle Plaine High School, and also one of few who had D.A. for all four years of math instruction during high school. “Now, if my freshman advisees are having any trouble with math, I send them to D.A. He has a way of explaining things differently, and suddenly the lightbulb just goes off in their heads.”
Mast said D.A. is very involved in the school outside of the classroom, officiating at volleyball games and announcing at football and basketball games.
“And he has a mind like a steel trap!,” she said. “He literally remembers every game, each student, and when they graduated.”
Mast still responds when D.A. calls her by her high school nickname (LAW, her initials at that time), and, when she visits D.A. in his classroom, she chooses to sit in the same desk she occupied in high school. Naturally, he remembers both.
D.A. and Sally Coleman share a unique bond. Coleman, herself a 30-year veteran science teacher at Belle Plaine Junior/Senior High School, has been D.A’s classroom neighbor the entire time.
“So many things make D.A. an exceptional teacher,” Coleman said. “He is a math genius, but he doesn’t just want to know about math. He’s interested in all kinds of things, and still takes classes just so he can learn something new and share things with the kids.
“He has taken classes about how the brain works. He loves the idea of healing yourself. He is interested in things like massage therapy and acupuncture,” she said. “During professional development, we always know that when the presenter asks if there are any questions, D.A.’s hand will go up.”
Coleman adds that D.A. is involved with kids outside of his math classroom as well, such as announcing at sporting events, and attending music concerts and plays.
“They all know he will be there supporting them,” Coleman said. “He takes on the whole role as teacher. It’s easy for him to make connections with the kids. They know he has been here for a long time and they respect him.
“He is a wealth of trivia, and remembers everyone,” she said. “When I first began teaching D.A. would talk about having had students’ parents in his class. He remembered their names, what classes they took, and when they graduated! I wondered if someday I would still be here and be able to do the same. Now he talks about knowing students’ grandparents.”