Coliseum Street Elementary teacher named 2023 California Teacher of the Year
Cari Spencer | April 18, 2023
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Since being named a 2023 California Teacher of the Year, Bridgette Donald-Blue said kindergarteners she has never taught have eagerly approached her in the hallways at Coliseum Street Elementary School.
They will say, “Hey Ms. Blue, you’re a teacher leader, I have you as a screensaver on my iPad, we watched your video at home,” she said. “For them to know my name, to walk up to me and give me that information … that’s been amazing.”
Donald-Blue’s teaching career started over 30 years ago, when she graduated from Howard University and joined Teach for America. The job took her to Compton, California, where she expected to stay for two years before attending law school.
After her two years were up, Donald-Blue decided to stay. Since then, she’s taught first through fifth graders, served as an adjunct professor at UCLA and California State University and is now helping students at Coliseum recover math learning loss.
“If you would ask my students about Ms. Blue, I think they would say that I’m tough. They would say that I believe in them wholeheartedly,” Donald-Blue said. “But more than anything, I expect them to rise to the occasion because I know that they can, and I know that whatever it is that has to be done, that is challenging, that there’s a standard that has to be reached, they can absolutely reach it. Absolutely.”
In an interview with LA School Report, Donald-Blue recounted the triumphs and philosophies of her teaching, as well as what this award means to her and her school.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you initially enter Teach for America? And what is it that made you stay?
In the fall of senior year [at Howard University], I had a professor who said “I know that you all are going to do great work. You guys are going to be amazing. So what I want for you all to do is not just simply write a check, but get involved in your community, get involved in changing the world. And so I thought about that and when [Teach for America] had a group of people who came to campus one spring day, I thought “Oh I could do this for two years and then I’ll go off to law school.”
Having the opportunity to work with students, it was just rewarding to jump in and be a part of a community … after a third year, I just decided I would stick with this.
What are some of the greatest highlights of your teaching career?
The greatest work is done when you have a partnership with the parents. My great successes have always come when the parents and I are true partners. I remember there was a gentleman who got custody of his son and he did not know for the first five years that his son existed. And when his son was eight years old, he ended up in my second grade classroom. And his child was at a kindergarten level when he got him. And so I just said “You know what, let’s work together.”
I was sending home index cards and other flash cards and things for him to work on … And I just told him “You know, we’ll do this in the classroom, and then you’ll do this at home and we’ll just work that way.” And when he left me … I was able to hand him off to a colleague … And she was like, “No problem, I got it.”
And so when he graduated from our school in sixth grade, he was on grade level. And that was a huge success … Yes, we put in the work. Yes, we were in partnership with him. But we could have never reached that level of success without communication, without collaboration and definitely without having the parent on board.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve encountered throughout your teaching career?
The things that always are challenging are the things that children have absolutely no control over. When children are homeless, or when there’s poverty that’s so impactful to their day to day. During COVID, we saw that for some kids the ability to connect to school just wasn’t there. That was really painful, but we saw where we had to step out and do more.
I was on the sidewalk of the school with art baggies because I was trying to teach art on Zoom and people didn’t have pencils or tables or desks to put things on … I came to campus and put together gift bags that I could send out on the street. We were six feet apart and we would air hug … and not just my fourth graders. They would come by and bring siblings, so I always had extra packs.
When it’s just the kids and us without all of those extenuating circumstances, there’s amazing things that happen. Truly amazing things.
What’s one lesson you want your students to take away from your classroom?
One takeaway would be that this is an incredible, remarkable journey – just show up and participate. Don’t sit on the sidelines … I want my students to be active learners, to understand that you are just as amazing and intelligent as anybody around [them].
I want my students to know to be present, to engage, to show up for themselves, for their family, for their community, because they are the next leaders. I know in my heart that the next leaders of our world are sitting in our classrooms right now. Sitting in the Coliseum right now. We just have to make sure that they move forward and do their best so that they can represent where they came from in such an amazing way.
What values are most important in your classroom?
Integrity. Integrity is huge for me because if you present yourself with integrity, other people will respond to you with integrity … And I tell kindergarteners when they go “Integrity?” and I’m like “Yes, you follow the rules, you do what you’re supposed to do, even when nobody is looking.” And that’s the biggest one, when no one is looking.
What’s something you would tell your younger self during that first year of teaching?
My very first year of teaching I taught first grade. I had somewhere between 32-36 kids the entire year. I was supposed to have an aid — I did not. And I was the only person in my class who did not speak Spanish. That year, I caught chicken pox … I had strep throat twice, I had the flu more times than I needed. I felt like I was sick the entire year. So definitely what I would tell my younger self is that this is going to be an amazing journey. You’re going to learn so much.
And that students come in with amazing gifts and they have gifts waiting, ready to give to you — just be ready for them. They’re funny. They’re more resilient than I could have ever been at their age. And they’re inspirational. Because even when they have traumatic situations at home, things that would sideline some adults, including myself, they still come every day and they still try their best.
What does this award mean to you?
It’s really special — more than for me, but what it means for my school. We’re not a high profile school. We’re not a school that you always hear about in the news. And so you know, when I go places, people go “Oh, you’re from the Coliseum, where’s that?” In the words of one parent, when it first happened, she said, “Coliseum has a California Teacher of the Year? Look, we’re doing big things here now.”
So for me, it means that for the last 30 plus years, I’ve been working hard on a craft, sharpening a saw, and someone peeked in and took a look and said, “Hey, there’s great things going on.” So that’s been amazing.
I have two daughters. Just to do something that hopefully makes them proud of their mom, because they’re the number one people in my life, that’s important. It demonstrates a value on the teaching profession, and that’s important. For me, it would be amazing for every teacher to feel what I have felt.
This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.
Cari Spencer is a senior at the University of Southern California, originally from the suburbs of Minneapolis. She is studying journalism and sociology.