End of an Era: Donegan Retires from Chamblee Middle School

Sirianna Blanck, Staff Writer

As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, Chamblee Middle School will be saying goodbye to its beloved seventh grade magnet social studies teacher, John Donegan. After 40 years of teaching, Donegan will be retiring. With so many memories of odd movies only he would know, like Lagaan, and leading the quiz bowl team to national tournaments year after year, he is sure to be missed by students, teachers, and alumni alike. 

For many students, Donegan reflects the best of middle school teachers because he understands his students are in middle school. For most, it’s a time of confusion, puberty, and a rise in schoolwork. 

“Middle school’s a strange place. And, you know, nobody has middle school class reunions now do they? There’s a reason for that,” said Donegan.

Middle school is not for every teacher. Donegan describes both the challenges and rewards of working with middle schoolers, especially when he teaches the class as he would a high school one.

“I never thought I’d want to teach middle school because you know, they’re still squirrelly. They’re running around chasing each other hitting each other in the head with a pencil and that kind of stuff, but the benefit for me has been the Chamblee magnet program and the students that I’ve been able to work with all these years because while they still run around the tables and still show all the maturity of a, you know, an ill-mannered three-year-old,” admitted Donegan. “They’re also pretty smart kids and so you can have some pretty good meaningful discussions. I teach the class like I’m teaching tenth grade world history in high school and surprisingly, it’s worked. So I got fortunate in that respect. I didn’t seek out junior high. I think it sort of sought me out.”

One of the ways Donegan found success was through his ultimate philosophy of respecting the students’ ages, even describing himself as his student’s grandfather to some degree.

“I like to think that I respect children. […] We’ve got people around here, who refer to the students as ‘they’re my babies’. […] I would never, couldn’t say that. I respect them as adolescents as people moving into adulthood. […] You know, they’re not babies anymore,” said Donegan. “But at the same time, they’re not adults. I can’t treat them as peers. I guess I treat them like I’m their grandfather. So, there’s my brilliantly developed philosophy of education, which I’ve likely never actually expressed before.”

Beyond his attitude or students’, Donegan believes that ultimately the most important part of his job is the history itself.

“I really do believe in content. And it disturbs me sometimes to see people putting method ahead of content. And I think particularly when you’re working with a high achiever population, they want to believe that you know your stuff whether you do or not. And the better you have mastered your content, the better you’re going to reach this kind of student. Some other students that may not be as true, but for the high achiever population, I think it’s always been kind of a subject content driven courses,” said Donegan. 

“I mentioned something the other day about Operation Paperclip,” he continued. “Ever heard of Operation Paperclip? It was an attempt by the Allies to get Nazi scientists over to the Allied side before the Soviet Union. Picked them up and then those scientists became the core of the American space program. So I’m just mentioning it, some random little piece of nonsense and some kid- hand in the air. ‘I know all about Operation Paperclip’ and he’s off for about an hour and a half telling me about Operation Paperclip. You got to know your stuff.”

Despite Donegan’s iconic lessons and wise teachings, he didn’t even know he would become a teacher at the start of his young adult life, instead going to college to become a TV broadcaster.

“I discourage anyone other than an elementary school teacher from getting an education degree, I was going to become a broadcaster. I was going to be the next, well you wouldn’t know who Howard Cosell is, but you get the picture. You know doing play-by-play for the Braves that kind of thing but that didn’t work out,” said Donegan. “So, I was majoring in history and […] found myself at the end of three years with a college degree, which I did not want to leave school, because school was very cool and so I added on the education courses and to get the certification to teach history and so that was how that kind of happened sort of.”

Even when he began teaching, he imagined it would be a temporary job.

“I think it was something to do until I found what I really wanted to do. It was probably always in the back of my mind, I don’t think it was ever consciously expressed like, oh I’m so passionate about education. I mean those words never have passed my lips until just then, but I always liked history. I’ve often told people I was probably the only kid on my block who subscribed to American History Illustrated in the fourth grade and the teaching works out. It lets you do something you like while doing something you find that you kind of like and so it was going to be a temporary thing and just sort of worked well with my lifestyle and my interests, my skills or lack thereof,” Donegan joked.

While many new teachers find their first years almost impossible, Donegan was gifted with what he described as a year of student teaching in a full time job.

“You hear that some horrible percentage of teachers don’t last five years and I was really lucky in my first jobs. I started out in a high school and the way the high school was structured, […] there were five of us all teaching American history and we would meet during the day and plan out a unit […] so I was able to kind of ease into it that that first year and a half before really being out of my own. […] I taught in the school in Florida for a year and a half but it was  like a year and a half of student teaching, but a full-time job working with great peers in a situation where you weren’t just thrown to the wolves. You weren’t just told, here’s the book, have a nice day. I had this core of people around me that were terrifically helpful and it was a good experience,” said Donegan. “So, when I moved to Atlanta and applied for a job in DeKalb, and was told if three people died today, we wouldn’t hire you, I started subbing in DeKalb and then the person they hired instead of me ran screaming from the building and the principal kind of shook his head and said, well you’re here, do you want the job and I’ve been in DeKalb pretty much ever since.”

He began his career in DeKalb at Columbia High School, where he would first learn about the gifted program he would one day become a core part of for Chamblee.

“I was at Columbia High from – I’m trying to keep all these dates straight just for my own benefit – Columbia High from ’81 to 1991 and mostly teaching juniors and seniors along the way though,” said Donegan. “I had heard about this thing called gifted education and I saw that that might be something I would be interested in working with gifted students. And so I got gifted certified and as karma would have it the guy who was teaching the gifted class moved to another school and I was the only guy in the building with gifted certification. So my advice to teachers is get certified in everything.”

After Columbia High, he moved to Mississippi to teach, a job he got partially due to his passion for quiz bowl. There he began teaching middle schoolers for the first time, and found it spoke to him. He would then return to Atlanta only to end up in middle school education at last.

“In ’98, [I] ended up at Chamblee Middle because it was geographically closer to home. And even though it was seventh grade, I figured if I hate seventh graders well, I’ll transfer someplace else but 23 years later seems to have worked out because I found that, this is kind of a concern, that the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old is more or less in keeping with my sense of humor, which is mildly disturbing, but also very useful,” Donegan admitted.

Few teachers today can say they taught on chalkboards, but Donegan can recount the transition from days of holding up magazines to projecting on Promethean boards.

“A course I took in college was how to use educational media, I mean, literally, how do you use a filmstrip projector? How do you load a 16 millimeter projector? What resources can you find in your local library? So yeah, I did transit from chalkboards and ditto machines to whatever the heck we’re in today. […] I think we’ve lost sight of the machines as tools and to some degree, they’ve become the objective. You know, you’ve got to do an assignment on the computer, it’s required. Well, what’s required is doing an assignment that helps the student develop a skill and gain a body of knowledge at the same time and the computer’s the tool. It should not be the be-all and end-all of the activity and, unfortunately, I think too often it’s become the activity,” said Donegan. “For years, I would cut out pictures from magazines and hold them up when I was trying to get examples, “look, this is what Mao Zedong looked like.” And so now to be able to put all the stuff on the big screen and Promethean board, that I really liked and for a social studies teacher, that’s gold. So there’s definitely been some things that have been beneficial.”

There’s no way to discuss Donegan’s career without the ever present quiz bowl. He grew up on episodes of Jeopardy and played on his high school’s quiz team, not knowing it would become a lifelong passion.

“I watched game shows. Especially, yes, Jeopardy. And so that was always a thing and in high school, I was on the school’s quiz team. Merely a good middle school team would have beaten my high school team because, you know, it was a very casual thing. It was based on, what did you learn in class, show up at the tournament’s, see how you do. There was the beginning of people starting to really try and study stuff, but it was by today’s standards, kind of primitive,” said Donegan. 

“Then in college, we would do a dormitory activity, a dorm college bowl thing, just for something to do and I would write the questions for that, so it became kind of a natural follow through,” he continued. “When I got my first job, I formed a team at Columbia, and we went to a tournament. I think we scored 10 points, we not only lost every game we didn’t score. I had no idea how good people had gotten at this activity, and they just kind of snowballed from there and it’s been my thing. So, been around with that a long time and will continue to do quiz bowl reading at tournaments on Saturday mornings, provided I’m not lounging on a beach or something.”

By bringing quiz team to Chamblee Middle, Donegan felt he had brought a peer group for more of his gifted students. 

“For some kids, [quiz bowl is] their little outlet […] where they fit in exquisitely well, where they can sit, just like the boys who played baseball will sit and argue about the last game, these guys can sit and they find a peer group where they can say,’ man, I powered the question about Aaron Copland, can you believe it?’” said Donegan.

Quiz bowl does more than just train students’ memory, it also grows their mind and interests.

“It gives kids familiarity with a wide range of subject areas and materials. And I always figured if you’ve heard of something, it makes you believe that it’s somehow more important and more willing to learn about it further. So let’s suppose in seventh grade quiz bowl, you hear that there’s a composer named Aaron Copland and you memorize Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring. And then a few years later, you come upon it in another context and you’re thinking, ‘oh, I’ve heard of them.’ […] It is not as much as people like to condemn it as rote memory and if you’re going to be any good at quiz bowl, you’re doing way more than memory,” said Donegan. “I think it helps develop just a sharper, more insightful mind. And it’s not just quick recall on a buzzer and a chance to ‘booyah!’ some guy who didn’t know stuff that you knew.”

While there are trends throughout his career, moments of pride will always stand out. One of Donegan’s proudest moments in his career was when he applied to travel abroad in Saudi Arabia.

“The best [experience] was when I applied to go to Saudi Arabia on a teacher grant. It was a national sponsor and contest thing, and I filled out my little application, and my application got selected and off I went to Saudi Arabia on Saudi Aramco’s money for a three-week teachers study tour. That was a pretty proud moment. […] I danced in my kitchen when I got that call, not a pretty sight,” said Donegan with a chuckle.

More serious moments are bound to happen as well, and Donegan found that regardless of who a student is, they may need teachers more than anyone realizes.

“The story that will always stay, was there was this kid who was extraordinarily introverted, this when I was at Columbia High School. Brilliant. When they talk about gifted, this guy, this guy was beyond that. Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant kid- kept all of his notes in jacket pockets. So, if you would ask him, where’s your homework? He would be digging into his jacket pockets. […] The first time I met him he was sitting in a chair talking to me smiling and nodding his head and during the course of the conversation, he pivoted 180, turned his back to me, he was so painfully uncomfortable around other people. […] He’s the only kid I’ve ever gone and picked up at a street corner because he called me and was desperate. That just doesn’t happen,” said Donegan. “And at any rate, long story short, I lost touch with him. He went off to college, dropped out of that school, moved to Detroit and I think years ago, he called me out of the blue and I said ‘I was always wondering what happened to you’, and he said ‘I didn’t want to talk to him until I’d finally made something of myself’. Oh my goodness. I’d have talked to him any time but he had succeeded, he can come through it all and that one really stuck, he lives out of state and he’s got a family and he’s a prominent figure in a computer firm and all that kind of cool stuff, doing what he should have always done. But man, did he have a long and winding path and it reminds every teacher, that you don’t know.”

It became a lesson he carried with him for the rest of his career.

“You don’t know which kids you are going to impact and which ones you’re not. You don’t know whether that kid never spoke in fifth period hung on your every word or that kid never spoke in fifth period was so stunningly bored they don’t know your name, you don’t know that and I always have to think about this kid and think well, I got to that guy,” said Donegan. “That was a big deal for me and it’s a lesson to every teacher. I think just you don’t know, you never know and you have to treat every kid like they’re that kid who’s the most important person in the world to them. Even though for 99% of them, they won’t remember your name in five years.”

While some teachers find themselves being forced out of their jobs, Donegan feels proud to be walking out in good shape.

“It’s nice to be able to walk out in good shape, you know what I mean? And not feel forced out. I’ve seen too many people who stayed a year too long or two years too long, some terrific teachers, […] where they weren’t physically, or mentally able to do it anymore. I’m not that guy. This is not a forced move, I could easily do decades longer but probably shouldn’t. And you know if the right situation came along where I could teach a couple periods a day, gosh that would be tempting to do but a hundred forty students, five periods a day – not as much,” said Donegan.

He described his biggest fear as becoming the grumpy old man in a classroom.

“There have been some introspective moments for me of late wondering what it would be like because while I’ve always tried to take a relatively casual approach to all of this, I have done it for 40 years and you know that that opening day lecturer and those lame puns that I’ve been using some of the same lines for multiple decades knowing exactly what moment to shoot that line in, I will miss some of that. And it’s going to be an interesting adjustment. I don’t take it casually. It is not a decision easily reached,” said Donegan. “Covid or not Covid, I was due. […] I’m afraid I’m going to become Clint Eastwood in that movie, where he says, get off my lawn and I don’t want to be that teacher sitting out in the hallway, ‘get out of my classroom.’ I don’t want to be a grumpy old man so maybe it’s time to go while I still have the good memories and haven’t been turned into the grouch.”

At the end of the day, he hopes he did more than no harm, but made middle school better for every student who passed through his room.

“There’s a medical school thing with the doctors. First order is, ‘do no harm’ and I remember when I first started teaching that was my philosophy or at least, I will do no harm… that’s not a good philosophy,” he laughed. “It is, but I think you have to be better than that. […] What else do you do? Legacy? I don’t know. I hope that some of the things I established with regard to whether it’s the quiz team or the geography bee, the history bee, the National History Day competition, some of these things are able to continue. I think some things are very person driven. […] But I think… you know, one door closes, another door opens, kind of thing. Somebody else is going to come in here, and they’re going to put their own mark on it. […] First, I hope I did no harm. And secondly, I hope that they will look back at middle school and not sob because middle school can be a tough time for people and that’s always been my goal to make it, ‘It’s just middle school, kid. Let’s move on.’”