Middle school teacher gave up food industry career to pursue love of education

January 21, 2019

BULLHEAD CITY — Donna Heronen has been employed by the Bullhead City Elementary School District for about seven years. She has been a teacher a bit longer.

“My sister is a year younger than me,” she said. “I would come home from school and teach her all the math I learned. She was so far advanced, she ended up skipping a grade.”

In a sense, young Elizabeth Heronen was her sister’s first student.

Donna Heronen, now teaching math and science to fifth-graders at Bullhead City Middle School, said she always had wanted to be an educator, but that her life took a detour for a while.

While in college, Heronen worked in fast food. She became a manager and began climbing in that industry, eventually landing as food and beverage manager at a Laughlin casino.

Her return to her dream began when her son broke his arm. While driving him to Lake Havasu City, she noticed a sign for a local Northern Arizona University program.

She then signed up for classes and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Heronen has spent her entire teaching career at the campus, which until this school year was the sixth- through eighth-grade Bullhead City Junior High.

Heronen said that she has made some adjustments to adapt to teaching younger children.

“Eighth-graders can handle more work at a time,” she noted. “They’re a little bit more self-directing.”

The younger students?

“Fifth-graders get much more wiggly,” Heronen said. “They need more movement. I noticed that my fifth-graders need more redirecting.”

Her life experience also includes four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve as an aerographer’s mate. She said she talks about that and other parts of her life as a way of relating to the students how their lessons will apply later.

“They don’t understand why fractions are important,” she said. “Or why they need to be able to estimate.”

Heronen said she likes to use examples from everyday life in her teaching, because it helps keep the students engaged. She discusses sports when talking about physics, and “I like to relate a lot of stuff in math to cooking.”

Baking, Heronen said, is a good lead-in to teaching about measurements.

Upcoming activities for her students include the school science fair in mid-March. She said students will engage in consumer product testing and measure differences among various brands of fertilizer, paper towels and other products.

Along with converting to a 5-6 campus this year, BCMS has adopted a new class format under which students take science and math with the same teacher.

Heronen previously taught science exclusively, but she said math and science were her two favorite subjects, and she has been tutoring students in math, so she didn’t need much preparation.

Students Lamberto Cruz and Heidi Arias-Gonzalez said Heronen makes both subjects interesting, and that they’re learning a lot in her classes.

Heronen’s students can earn prize tickets by demonstrating exemplary behavior in class. Ten tickets gets a student a pencil, eraser, notebook, activity book or other prize.

Heronen said she’d rather reward students for what they should be doing than punish their poor choices.

She said the things she likes about being an educator include the challenge posed by the work.

“I love ... a job that makes your mind work,” Heronen said. “I don’t want to go through the motions. (In teaching), every day, something new happens. Your mind’s not being stagnant.”

AT BCMS, she said, her colleagues and administrators maintain a positive atmosphere, and are quick to help one another.

And there also are the students.

“I love the kids we have here,” Heronen said. “Yes, some are challenges, but without challenges, life wouldn’t be interesting.”

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