Melissa Marshall has spent the past nine years in education. She moved to Jacksonville from Georgia in 2014 and began teaching third grade math and science with Duval County Public Schools. In 2016, she took a position at KIPP Public Schools, where she was promoted to vice principal earlier this year. Between teaching, participating in roller derby, spending time with her family and more, Marshall keeps busy, but she said watching her students succeed makes all the effort worth it.
We chatted with her about her journey to education, what she learned in the past year, and the profound impact an invested educator can have on a student.
Q: How did you get into education?
MM: I have a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old, and when they were very young—almost 2 and 3—I had started a graduate program in education and taken a job as a pre-K teacher. Partially so my kids could go with me and go to their classes, but also while I was getting my graduate degree and working through my thesis, I had a classroom and could put into practice all of the things that I was learning. Pay wasn’t super great, but I was taking every opportunity to become the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
I had a student [whose] family wasn’t able to afford tuition. She was also the only one who couldn’t recognize the first letter of her name. She didn’t have any concepts of print, things we expect a 4-year-old should have. By the end of the school year, she was on the same level as her classmates, so they could all read before they went to kindergarten. They were all able to write sentences, and they could count and add. They were well prepared to enter kindergarten, and it really changed the way I looked at the power of education.
Q: Last school year was a tough one. Was there anything the unconventional circumstances taught you?
A: For sure. It caused us all to think outside the box in a way we really never had before. What resources are available to us? What can we do to help bridge all of the various gaps—we’re supposed to stay apart, they’re not supposed to share things—and meet all of the socially distanced measures we had to work within on top of the needs of teaching all of the standards and all of the knowledge they need to have for the year. We found a lot of really neat ways to make the most out of what we had. Probably more than ever, I saw success in my classes. Last year I taught reading in the content area, so I got to help kids develop an actual love and engagement with reading by blending what they were learning in their English/language arts classes, their science classes and their math classes by assigning texts that aligned to that. We did project-based learning even with protocols. We were learning about how energy travels in waves, the project you do with the cups and the string and you talk into them. Even with masks and stuff, we were able to do that. The kids would sit on either side of their barriers, they would have their masks on, and we practiced.
To have those opportunities for them to still think through a problem, find a way to solve it, and connect it to science and math that they need to learn anyway, it brought a measure of joy in a year that felt so clinical and barren in the beginning. To give them those moments was everything. It brought a lot of joy to my day, just to watch them learn. It’s what you want at any time but especially last year, it was really great.
Q: In your view, what kind of impact can a teacher have on a student?
A: [As a teacher] you get the gift of time with kids, and it can be incredibly impactful in whatever way you make it. If you’re willing to take the time to get to know your kids, to find out what engages them and what they connect with, you can change everything for them. They can find out the limits of their own ability, and, in general, they find out there aren’t as many as they thought they had when they met you.
I have three teachers I always think of from my own education that changed me in one way or another: One that was there for me when my parents got divorced, one that was there for me when I started acting like a butthead when my parents got divorced, and one that helped me to settle in that it was OK that I was smart. The three of them pushed me in completely different ways at completely different times in my life, and without them, I probably wouldn’t be somebody’s teacher. We have a very unique opportunity, and it’s a privilege to get to spend a year with kids.