Much has changed in education since Donna Bessant received her elementary ed degree from Illinois State Normal University in 1962.
Classrooms are more diverse, parental involvement is either nonexistent or overbearing, budgets have dwindled, violence has escalated, and government mandates drive the curriculum.
Having worked as a teacher, school librarian and district administrator in both the U.S. and internationally for nearly 40 years, Bessant has witnessed first-hand these monumental shifts. She is seriously aware of the education system’s issues, but she chooses to focus on the positive potential—specifically, the strengths and capabilities exhibited by the next generation of educators.
Bessant is confident teachers can survive the changing demands of the profession, if they begin with a solid foundation of practice supported by theory. She got that foundation in 1962 and is strongly convinced that Illinois State’s College of Education continues to provide the basics in preparing educators who will improve learning and teaching.
Her faith in the teacher-training program is so strong that Bessant is partnering with the College of Education by investing a significant portion of her life savings to support students who are participating in clinical experiences. She still vividly remembers her own student-teaching opportunity as the first true test of her skills
“I went through all of my coursework at ISNU, but the proof of the pudding came in student teaching,” Bessant said. “I went into my assigned third grade class, took over the education of those young learners, and really saw how everything fit together.”
She found her student-teaching experience very rewarding, but she also faced challenges in ways that had little to do with the classroom work. “I had money troubles, living off campus, renting a room, getting a car to drive, and more,” Bessant recalled.
Gratitude for her experiences as an undergraduate and memories of financial need motivated her to designate a gift of more than six figures and establish the Donna L. Bessant Endowed Fund within the College of Education. ISU recipients will receive financial assistance to help cover the costs of housing, travel, technology, and other expenses tied to
Bessant is especially hopeful the investment will allow more prospective teachers to experience the college’s Professional Development School, which creates a yearlong student-teaching experience. Many students who participate in the program are prepared to enter inner-city school districts that are struggling with major education issues.
“The endowment may not be a whole chunk of change for one young person, but it could make a difference at the beginning of their career,” Bessant said. “That’s the time we all need to be as positive as possible.”
She knows how even a little support can make a huge difference because she benefitted from sacrifices her parents made to ensure she went to college and obtained her teaching credentials. Bessant’s mother was city clerk in the small Illinois community of Geneseo, and her father drove a bulldozer at a local coal company.
“From my earliest years, my family anticipated that I would go to college. My parents said that they would save up and send me, even though that was back in the dark ages when not many folks went beyond high school,” she remembered.
“I vaguely remember that tuition, room and board, and fees totaled about $600 per semester. That was pretty expensive money in that day. I worked little jobs in high school to save as much as I could,” Bessant said. “My parents paid for first semesters, and I paid for the second.” Her parents also provided $20 per month to cover incidentals and Sunday evening meals, when campus cafeterias closed.
ISNU felt like home to Bessant. Enrollment in 1959 was approximately 3,500 students, which nearly matched the population of her hometown. She met peers from the big city of Chicago and other communities, took outstanding classes in multiple subjects—some taught in Old Main—and thrived in the environment. The University expanded significantly during her four years of attendance, yet the campus remained friendly under the leadership of President Robert Bone.
Beyond the fundamentals required for an elementary education degree, Bessant learned organizational and management skills while honing concepts of self-discipline. With her ISNU degree in hand, she began her career teaching third grade in Arlington Heights. She taught there two years before deciding to see the world.
“I applied for the Peace Corps and the Overseas Dependent Schools (Department of Defense),” she said. The latter offered a teaching position first. She had no qualms accepting the offer to teach in Okinawa and indeed, stayed with the program five years. She taught children of American military families in Japan and Germany, toured many exotic and wonderful places, and met her husband who served in the Army’s Special Forces.
Upon returning to the U.S., Bessant completed a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Illinois. That prepared her for a career with the Monterey Peninsula Schools in California, where she began work in a Title II elementary school. Later she moved to a junior high school, completed an administrative credential, and served as district librarian and curriculum coordinator. She created a nationally-recognized school library program for the entire district.
In 2000 she retired from the Monterey school district, but did not end working with students and teachers. She joined the Monterey County Office of Education as an educational coordinator and partnered with superintendents, curriculum coordinators, and teachers to meet federal requirements, develop in-service opportunities, and coordinate specific educational activities in a county that is larger than Delaware.
Bessant is also involved in literacy projects with the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute of Public Policy, where she trains reading volunteers to implement a Monterey County Reads project. She continues to participate in a Reading Is Fundamental outreach that provides reading-aloud times, books, and positive attitudes for 2,5000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade three times a school year.
Each activity highlights the increasing need for educators who have a solid foundation in subject matter and teaching skills, as well as inner confidence to work with a diverse student group. Young teachers are entering a career where they face budget inadequacies, legislative mandates, and other educational hurdles. The rewards, however, continue to come from students.
“I’ve had a wonderful career,” Bessant affirmed, explaining that she cherishes interactions with youngsters who are always energetic and curious. “I can walk into a school, spend hours with students and teachers, and come out feeling as fresh as a daisy! The energy that comes from kids is just phenomenal.”
She wants that same positive experience for those just preparing to enter the classroom, regardless of the challenges existing in the field. “Beginning teachers bring freshness and vitality to teaching and learning,” Bessant stated.
“I’m proud that my accumulated estate can help the next generation of educators, and I encourage all of us to work together in supporting new, creative teachers in our schools.”