The business of empowering students
Danna Nelson had always dreamed of teaching. It just took her a while to get there.
“Life happened, kids,” she explained.
Nelson was 18, married, and had just moved to Gresham. For the first part of her life, she worked at a machine shop, getting hands-on experience in all facets of a small business. Then, with two young kids, she accepted a job as the bookkeeper at Gresham High, a role she would hold for nearly 14 years.
However, the whole time the idea of being a teacher was percolating in the back of her mind. So in her late 20s, she started taking weekend and night classes, first online, then through an Easter Oregon University program at Mt. Hood Community College.
“It was brutal,” Nelson said. “But my kids never complained about having to do their homework because I would be typing my papers until 4 in the morning some days.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree and then continued to get a Masters in 2013. There was never any doubt about going back to Gresham High.
“After working with all the people here, I had an attachment to the Gophers,” she said. “This is my community, where I live. Everyone is supportive and encouraging.”
“This is my place,” Nelson added with a smile.
Now she helms an Intro to Business, Entrepreneurship 1 and 2, and eight levels of Marketing classes.
In her life, Nelson only had one teacher who really pushed her to succeed. So in her classroom, making those connections with the kids and encouraging them is tantamount. She is always by the door to her room, saying “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” and asking students about their families and hobbies.
“I know that sometimes I may be the only person to do that for them during the day,” she said.
It is a casual atmosphere during class, focusing on real-world experience and hands-on projects rather than memorization or quizzes. And it has resonated with students, as Nelson was nominated as one of Pamplin Media Group’s 2023 Amazing Educators.
“I would have preferred my kids to be interviewed. I almost said no to all of this,” she said. “I like my kids to have the spotlight. They are pretty amazing.”
In Nelson’s class, they learn the ins and outs of business, from setting prices, marketing, production, selling, managing finances, and employees. In addition, the students practice making resumes, filling out job applications, and conducting mock interviews.
“It’s all about the students showing me what they can do,” Nelson said. “This is a place where they can make mistakes and not feel bad about it.”
One of the iconic annual projects is the Root Beer Float competition.
“It started when I was running concessions, and I asked the kids how we were going to get rid of all this extra root beer,” Nelson said. “So we came up with a competition.”
That evolved into her regular curriculum as a final project. The teams of students set up tables, decorate, create advertisements, prices, and cost breakdowns for supplies. Then that afternoon, they all set up shop in the cafeteria and sell the products to their peers. They earn real money, and the winning team from all four classes gets a cash bonus.
“It’s about the experience, not the grade,” Nelson said.
Perhaps that is best seen at the famed student store, The Gopher Hole, which is run by Nelson’s students and leads to dozens and dozens of classmates queuing for a smoothie or espresso drink. While their teacher is just a phone call away, the kids can handle the shop all on their own after a few weeks of training. They even design and market many items sold at the store, like coasters and other fun Gopher knickknacks.
“They could run this classroom if they needed,” Nelson said.
For Nelson being a teacher is more than a job. Her students brighten her days and make Gresham High a place she is excited to return to time and time again.
“My students are all amazing. They bring their own personality,” she said. “The kids make my world go around.”
“I’ll retire here. I can’t see myself leaving,” Nelson added.