By Adam Bexten
Growing up, Melissa “Misty” Grandel always knew that she wanted to be an educator. The daughter and granddaughter of teachers, she even remembers lining up her stuffed animals and teaching to them as a child.
“Both my mother and my grandmother taught me the value of education; they taught me the importance of helping all children reach their potential, and that any day spent in the classroom was a fortunate one,” she said. “I certainly witnessed their heartbreak over student difficulties, but I also was able to see the satisfaction and joy that they received from helping those same students succeed.”
Last September, the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education named Grandel the 2019-2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year. She becomes the 51st Missouri Teacher of the Year since the program began in 1957 and will represent the state this spring on the national level.
“I absolutely adore my job because I feel like I’m making a difference to my students; that kids know that I care about them, that I want what is best for them and that I work hard every single day to make sure that their dreams are realized,” she said.
Fordland, located in southern Webster County less than 30 miles east of Springfield, might be a small community, but local residents have long been familiar with Grandel’s dedication to her rural community. She is the first Missouri Teacher of the Year from the Fordland R-3 district.
An alum of Fordland High School, Grandel has spent the past 21 years teaching English language arts at her alma mater. Over the years, she’s taught English II, Advanced Placement Language and Composition, English IV, Dual Credit Speech and Leadership, Yearbook/Journalism, and Spanish. “I think that we are so trained to think that small schools can’t offer the same things that big schools offer,” Grandel said. “But what we have to recognize is that while it may not be the same, that doesn’t make it any worse. It is different, but rural teachers are doing amazing things and they have an opportunity to get to know their students on such a deep level that they’re able to recognize and then offer what maybe you wouldn’t get to offer to a student that a teacher only gets to see once.”
As Missouri Teacher of the Year, Grandel will hold a unique opportunity to use the honor to spotlight and advocate on behalf of all Missouri educators. A rural teacher herself, Grandel hopes to encourage equitable opportunities for all students.
“The area of education right now that has me most concerned is equitable access,” she said. “Because we have so many students who come from different situations from what we consider to be the norm, these kids often aren’t getting the tools they need.”
As Grandel highlights, nearly 50 percent of Missouri students attend a rural school. In fact, 70 percent of Missouri school districts are considered rural, but yet only 17 percent of rural high school students take Advanced Placement classes, and only 45 percent take the ACT or SAT. Grandel recognizes these serious concerns stem from a lack of supplies, technology, curriculum and quality in many rural districts.
In fact, numerous studies have highlighted a higher turnover rate for teachers in rural areas which has been linked to lower test scores. Teacher turnover is inherently disruptive for students.
“Students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income situations, English as a second language students, rural students: these children are not receiving the educational support that they need,” she said. “I would like to see these students have the same or at least equitable opportunities as other all other students. We know that the smallest things can make a huge difference.”
Grandel anticipates using her platform as Missouri Teacher of the Year to help highlight these issues of equitable access in the classroom; it’s an extension of the same dream her grandmother and mother inspired in her as a child.
“Seeing the impact that they had on their students’ lives – the fact that they would graduate, would stay out of prison, would become productive members of society – instilled within me a desire to truly make a difference to kids who believed they had no one on their side,” she said. “It’s the reason why I believe so strongly in equitable access: every student deserves someone who believes in them, and who can provide them with the education and support that they need.”
Role of Teacher of the Year:
As Missouri Teacher of the Year, Grandel’s voice will be amplified across the state as she meets with leaders, serves on committees and speaks to and for other educators.
The process to being named Missouri Teacher of the Year began last spring after Grandel was nominated and contacted to apply. After being named a Regional Teacher of the Year in July and completing new applications for the state level, she was named a finalist in late August, interviewed with DESE and was surprised with the official announcement during a school assembly in September.
After traveling to Google’s campus in California in late January, Grandel will travel to Washington, D.C. in the spring to represent Missouri as she competes for the national honor.