Donnie Wilkerson believes that as a teacher, his purpose is much greater than just going through the educational curriculum with students.
He tells his students to, “Be kind, think freely and inquire often. If you think about it, that’s all you need to know.”
Those words are on a poster hanging inside Wilkerson’s elementary classroom at Jamestown Elementary School in Russell County. He hopes his students will remember them for the rest of their lives.
“I’ve always characterized my students as my grandkids,” he said. “They’re family and so many of them need that, more than anything else.”
Wilkerson’s care for his students earned him the title of 2024 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year. He received the award at a ceremony on Sept. 13 at the Kentucky state Capitol building in Frankfort.
He has been at Jamestown Elementary for the past 19 years, teaching 5th-grade social studies. He said he always knew his heart was meant for education, but it wasn’t until he came across a substitute teaching job that he fully dove into the profession in 2006.
He earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering technology from Western Kentucky University in 1977. Three decades later, he went back to school to earn his master’s in teaching from Eastern Kentucky University in 2007.
Through the years, Wilkerson has been a part of many initiatives in his community, including the nonprofit ArtWorks, where he helped create holiday programs and workshops at summer camps. In 2006, he created his own initiative called “Kentucky Adventures.”
His “Kentucky Adventures” take place on Saturdays and are not official school trips. At his own expense, Wilkerson and another adult chaperone take five students on an all-day adventure, providing them with experiences they might not otherwise have, exploring the diverse history and culture of Kentucky.
“We go to places around the state like museums, re-enactments, any kind of event that we can find,” Wilkerson said. “These kids are students who don’t always get an opportunity to go very far away from their homes.”
He said he typically takes about seven or eight trips each school year. Throughout the years, students have come back to visit and they have recalled their adventures together.
“It’s a little bit of a tax on my 67-year-old brain to remember. Sometimes I can remember where we went,” Wilkerson said. “Often I can still visualize that young man or that young woman standing on the bridge on the Ohio River or at a re-enactment.”
In addition to his Kentucky Adventures, he also serves as an advocate for students with policymakers on academic freedom while pushing for content-rich standards.
He also mentors new teachers and regularly conducts workshops on a variety of topics, including brain-based learning strategies and assessments in the classroom.
In 2011, Wilkerson was the Gilder Lehrman/Kentucky Historical Society Teacher of the Year, and in 2016, he received the Secretary of State Outstanding Civic Educator Award. In 2019, he received the Earle C. Clements Innovation in Education Award, and in 2021, he was a semifinalist for the Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Wilkerson said everything he does is part of his dedication to helping kids become freethinkers and empathic and compassionate citizens.
“If you’re kind, most everything else will fall into place, and then you’re able to think freely,” he said. “I want my students to, as part of thinking freely, allow themselves to be accepted and cared for.”