Originally published Jan. 8, 2018 in the Daily Herald
By Lee Filas
Donna Coia admits to being a bit hyperactive.
However, the physical education teacher at Thompson Elementary School in Lake Villa says this allows her to bring excitement to every student who walks into the gymnasium.
“Everybody in the whole school; I get to help guide all students,” she said. “So, that’s why having the opportunity to be a P.E. teacher means so much to me. I can touch all of these lives.”
One way she spreads her message is with a “positivity cart” she rolls around and parks near one of the gym entrances. The cart carries little wooden plaques bearing positive messages such as “Believe you can and you are halfway there,” “Don’t forget to be awesome,” and “Make it happen.”
“So many kids are quick to say, ‘I’m stupid, I stink at this,'” Coia said. “I’m really a huge believer that if you tell yourself you can’t do something, your brain will automatically say we can’t do this.”
Students who make a negative statement are sent to the cart to read the affirmations to themselves.
“With the cart, they can instantly read positive words, then run back out and be part of the activity after resetting themselves,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a couple of minutes, and some need more time. But most read it, get it, then go back out.”
The teacher of 20 years was honored in November with the annual Thompson Shining Star Award for 2017. Principal Sandra Keim said the peer-driven award honors Coia’s attitude toward teaching, her positive impact on teachers around her, and her commitment to the children of Lake Villa Elementary District 41.
“She’s very vested in her students, and, in turn, the children thrive to do well for her,” Keim said. “Across her years of teaching, whether it’s in the classroom or in the gym environment, the children love her.”
The 49-year-old Lake Villa resident graduated magna cum laude and holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Carthage College and a master’s degree in teaching and leadership in education from Saint Xavier University. She graduated from Antioch High School.
Keim said other teachers at the school love her attitude and her willingness to jump in and help out no matter the task.
“She’s a quiet leader who does a lot of motivation behind the scenes,” Keim said. “She calls to the office every day asking if we need any help. She never wants recognition for it. She’s very giving, works behind the scenes to help the staff out to create a wonderful environment for our students.”
Coia’s road to the gymnasium actually started in a fourth-grade classroom at the now-closed Pleviak Elementary School. She said she enjoyed teaching fourth grade from 1998 to 2003, then second grade from 2003 to 2010, but decided a change was needed.
“I was ready for a new challenge, and I didn’t want to teach the same curriculum again,” she said.
While teaching second grade, she said she found herself longing to be in the gym instead of the classroom.
“I loved being down in the gym with the kids, so when the physical education teacher retired, I went back to school and got the education I needed to teach P.E.,” she said.
She was in the gym from 2010 to 2012 before a juggling of teachers in the district sent her back into a third-grade classroom at Thompson Elementary for the next three years. When an opening arose to return to the gym in the summer of 2015 after a teacher retirement, she jumped at it.
“It’s challenging,” Coia said. “I love being a positive role model for my students. And I hope my students see that in me.”
The first change she made was to tweak how intramural sports were viewed and played by students. She has coached coed softball, volleyball and track, and boys and girls basketball.
An increase in students playing travel sports, such as soccer, baseball and basketball, has led to children becoming more athletic than in the past and forced a tweak in the program, she said.
“You have kids that travel in sports and know how to play at a different level, and they don’t necessarily have the patience or understanding for those kids that don’t know how to play as well,” Coia said.
She pushed to teach leadership qualities in kids with higher skill levels in specific sports to assist the kids playing at a lower level.
“It added another component to coaching,” she said. “We try to get everyone on the same page and realize this is a social thing and it’s fun. If you come in here with all the skill in the world, what’s expected of you is to be a leader. Step up and help those around you.”
Fifth-grade student Lucas Clark said he learns the benefits of physical education in Coia’s class. Clark said Coia is “very helpful” and she makes P.E. “fun.”
“I really like her class,” he said. “I think being active like that is a fun way to be in school.”