Teacher 'makes a difference'

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Mike Heine
Sunday, January 20, 2008
— Her title says “Principal,” but Donna Sorensen is an educator, first and foremost.

Always has been, always will be.

She first practiced with her sisters.

“From when I was a kid, we used to play school in the basement all the time,” said Sorensen, the 53-year-old leader of Delavan’s Wileman Elementary School.

When she found out her freshman year of high school that she could combine her passion, sewing, with teaching, a home economics teacher was a logical choice.

It took until college, though, to fully realize what educating was all about.

As a student teacher visiting homes in the poorest neighborhoods of Wichita, Kan., Sorensen learned how important an educator could be.

The image of a family with a pinball machine as its form of entertainment, a restaurant booth as a kitchen table and a single bed for several children set up on a dirt floor is forever etched in her memory.

School is what points children toward success and keeps them from a life of struggle, she said.

“I really do believe education for many of our children is the way out of that existence,” she said. “I firmly believe that what I’ve chosen to do makes a difference.”

That image has guided her since becoming a teacher in 1976 and an administrator in 1989. The 2003 Wisconsin Principal of the Year gets it done with toughness, equality and empowerment.

At Wileman, failure is not an option. Fighting is not allowed. Not doing homework isn’t tolerated. There are consequences for each.

“That’s the way it is in the real world,” she said. “They make choices. They need to make better choices.

“We’re coaching them when they’re very, very young with what I think are life skills.”

Her staff shares her philosophy and her course.

“Schools can’t accept failure,” said District Administrator Wendy Overturf. “She goes to great lengths to make sure the school does what it needs to do to make sure it doesn’t fail, not only putting it on the students, but by putting it on herself and her staff to make sure there is no failure.”

“She’s tough,” said Angela Hougas, a parent of two Wileman students and a member of the school’s Parent Advisory Council. “I wouldn’t say she’s lovey-dovey, but she cares. That comes across, and they know it. She’s invested in each one.”

Yet at the same time, Sorensen said she believes no student is more important than any other and everyone takes the role of leader in his or her school.

Sorensen is the leader by title, but she only tries to steer the ship in the right direction.

“If I need to get regrounded or refocused, I take six steps out my office door,” she said. “I look at those faces. Each one of them deserves the best we can give them every day.

“I got grounded very quickly as to why I do this and how important it is. I tell (students) every time, the most important bodies are (you) the children. The second most important group is the teachers.

“My job is to empower the teachers to be the best they can be because every one of those children deserve it.”

Age: 53
Community: Delavan
Occupation: Principal at Wileman Elementary School
Family: Sons, Tad, 27, and Nick, 23
Favorite hobbies: Traveling, sewing, riding motorcycles
Favorite music: Anything from Blue Man Group to jazz. Anything but rap
Favorite movie: No horror flicks. “I still have nightmares, and I’m 53 years old. I don’t need entertainment to scare the bejeebers out of me.”
Role model: Former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala
Three words that best describe you: Passionate, organized, caring.

Last updated: 1:20 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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