In Donna Shifflett’s classroom, students need to come prepared to work hard and have fun.
They’ll be challenged with logic puzzles and other activities that stretch their thinking muscles in Shifflett’s STEM class at Ruckersville Elementary in Greene County.
She started the class seven years ago after pitching the idea to school leadership, and she designed the curriculum.
“I can do that math and science they don’t have time to do in the classroom,” she said.
Shifflett believes in teaching every student as if they’ve been identified as gifted, to be independent and to think for themselves.
In her 26-year career, the last 21 spent at Ruckersville Elementary, Shifflett has worn a variety of hats, but this one — STEM teacher extraordinaire — is the most rewarding, she said.
“I absolutely love my job,” she said. “I may never retire.”
When Shifflett was undergoing treatment for cancer last year, she convinced her doctor — who in turn convinced her family — that it was in her best interest to work. Going to class with her students was good for her mental well-being.
That’s because she has fun with her students in class.
“I mean, when kids smile, you have to; it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Plus, I have a job where I could sit if I needed to. I’m really fast in this chair, really fast.”
Shelves stacked with an array of mazes and games fill one wall of her classroom, and a robotics field has taken over another corner. She doesn’t have many chairs in her room. Rather, the children sit on the floor for a quick lesson before working on projects or other activities. Shifflett tells her students that the floor is a magic carpet, the design of which changes daily.
“We put our pretend hats on and screw them on real tight,” she said.
For Ruckersville’s principal, Donna Payne, it’s Shifflett’s love of learning new things and the energy she brings to the classroom that make the difference.
“She’s just as excited as the kids,” Payne said.
Ram Marri, a parent who has two children in Shifflett’s class, agrees.
“She’s very energetic when it comes to teaching kids things they do not know,” Marri said.
In visits to Shifflett’s class, Marri said the way she communicates and her creativity stood out along with her different methods to engage students, such as games.
“She makes kids feel like they aren’t in a serious classroom — like they’re at play,” he said.
In a sense, she and her daughter started fourth grade at the same time, but the family joke is that her daughter finished fourth grade first. Shifflett has since taught third and fifth grade and helped other teachers as a math coach.
She loves teaching students algebra and the critical-thinking skills required to work through problems.
In fact, she teaches middle-schoolers through the county’s homebound program to keep her algebra skills sharp and takes the SOL in her spare time — just because she can.
That love of learning spills into her STEM classes, where students learn coding, how math applies to the real world and more.
She created flashcards to help students learn the concept of algebra.
“I can make algebra cards seem like the best thing since chocolate,” she said. “It’s just in the way you approach it.”
She prefaces algebra lessons by telling the students, “I’m going to teach you something today that you are not going to learn until middle school.”
That makes it more fun, she said.
“I taught my fourth- and fifth-graders negative numbers,” she said. “You don’t teach negative numbers with negative numbers — you teach them with Eli the elephant and the magic peanuts.”
Shifflett’s school day doesn’t end when students typically go home.
This fall, she advised the school’s robotics club, which met after school for two hours twice a week. Next semester, geography club starts up again with meetings before school.
Ruckersville Elementary’s robotics team won the region, qualifying for the state championships in the First Lego League. Going to state was one of the coolest things Shifflett’s done as an educator, she said.
Even during the school day, she makes herself available to students.
“It’s not unusual for kids to be working in her classroom during her planning” period, Payne said.
Marri’s children were involved with the robotics and geography clubs. In fact, his older child won the state’s geography fair under Shifflett’s tutelage.
“Our older child loves geography partly because of what he learned in Donna’s class,” he said.
His fifth-grader also is planning to stay involved with STEM activities because of Shifflett.
Shifflett offers students a chance to see a different side of teaching that they might not get in other classrooms, he said.
“She takes time beyond school and spends it with kids,” Marri said. “It’s not common to have teachers who go out of their way and take time to give back to kids.”