Sen. Barbara Bollier still remembers the urge to linger in Donna Knoell’s Prairie Elementary classroom before the bell rang each morning.
She wasn’t in love with her homeroom fifth grade teacher, but she couldn’t get enough of the hour she got to spend each day in science class with Knoell.
“She was a fabulous teacher — brand new, full of excitement,” Bollier recalls. “I used to hang out in her room every morning, and then have to drag myself to my room when the day began. I think the highest compliment you can ever pay to a teacher is when you accidentally call them mom. And that happened a lot with Donna Knoell.”
Bollier, who became an anesthesiologist before moving on to state politics, was not the only former student Knoell left an impression on. One of her former students, who ultimately went on to receive academic scholarships to Brigham Young University before embarking on a very successful career in finance, pointed to his year in fifth grade with Knoell as a turning point, when he went from being an unruly student to one who loved the challenge of learning.
On Tuesday, hundreds of current Prairie Elementary students as well as a number of Knoell’s former students gathered in the school gymnasium to watch Knoell receive the BYU Alumni Kansas City Chapter’s first ever Golden Apple Award. BYU alumni chapters across the country select educators in their area who have had an outsized impact on their students to receive the awards.
Knoell began her career in education at Prairie Elementary in the fall of 1968, months after graduating from Kansas State University. She stayed at Prairie until 1979, when she left to enter the PhD program at Duke University. She came back to Shawnee Mission in 1981, and started a new role as an instructional specialist, working with classroom teachers on teaching skills.
She said she always thought the best thing she could do for her students was to show them how much potential they really had.
“I was tough. I required them to produce,” Knoell said. “But I think they knew that I really cared about them and tried to be consistently expectant of high performance. And they never disappointed me.”
Bollier said that intention came through in Knoell’s class.
“She helped kids reached their highest potential,” Bollier said. “I realized even then that her expectations of me were higher than other people’s.”