2019 OUTSTANDING TEACHER OF AMERICA
AP Psychology/US History Teacher
South Lake Tahoe High School
South Lake Tahoe, California
Melissa grew up and attended High School at South Lake Tahoe High School. Following her high school graduation, she attended Sacramento State University where she earned her Bachelors Degree in Communication and Broadcast News. Melissa pursued and earned her Masters Degree in Psychology at Chapman University and while working on her Masters Degree, Melissa began her professional career responsible for the risk management in a hospital setting for three years, before taking a position as a family therapist at the Tahoe Youth and Family Services where she worked for four years. At the Youth and Family Services center, Melissa worked with troubled, at risk students and their families where came to understand clearly many of the issues that color and negatively affect the lives of young people. When she finally decided to become a teacher, she made this understanding her primary guiding principle of her teaching. She came to the understand that in order to be effective in the classroom, Melissa needed to address the social and emotional needs of her students and must make every effort to develop trusting relationships with her students before she could began to really teach them. She determined it was critical to know and understand what, if any, “baggage” her students might bring to school every day. Her psychological training allowed her to tune into student body language and any subtle changes she saw in her students attitudes or behaviors. Consequently, with each new group of students she meets each fall, she spends the first week learning about the interests of her students and building a relationship of trust and safety in her classroom. Melissa attempts to demonstrate clearly that she is someone who can be trusted, will be consistent and dependable and one who will treat all students equally. She firmly believes that when she is able to do this with each new group of students, she will not have behavior issues in her classes and she will have students who are willing to do the necessary work to do well in her classes.
Once Melissa received her teaching credential from Sierra Nevada College, she returned to South Lake Tahoe High School where she has been teaching AP World History, Dual Enrollment Psychology and Sports Psychology since 2000. Melissa is also the Key Club Advisor where she leads the club to do extraordinary community service projects in conjunction with the local Kiwanis Club.
Melissa is passionate about ensuring all of her students develop critical thinking skills, self and world understanding and self-efficacy. She is characterized by her students as someone who teaches with enthusiasm, compassion and who demonstrates a desire to ensure all of her students reach their full potential. Melissa strongly believes that every student has the capability to learn. Consequently, she holds her students to very high standards and offers the necessary encouragement and appropriate support she believes will assist them to go a bit further than they think they are capable of going. Melissa wants her students to enjoy learning and to become life-long learners. She makes a point to address difficult and uncomfortable topics that will help develop compassionate learners who value education, one another and who will take the time to understand and listen closely to others, and to accept other cultures and those who might be different from them.
Another important component of Melissa’s effectiveness in the classroom is her insistence that what she teaches relates and is relevant to the lives of her students. Because every new group of students is different, Melissa makes a point to review her curriculum and changes her curriculum accordingly by developing new activities each year and makes necessary adjustments throughout the school year as she gets to know the interests and needs of her students. Key to these adjustments are her daily reflections about each class period and what worked or did not work and why. Melissa constantly asks her students for feedback about what they enjoyed doing and what did not work for them. Much of her teaching is projects based. With a block schedule of two hour class periods, she spends a maximum of 20 minutes lecturing and the remainder of the time she places students in interactive groups with guided questions that first relate to the lecture or reading material followed by a second set off questions that address their personal response and feelings about topics. Each group must reach consensus on the answers to the questions, summarize their discussion, including various points of view and then report back to the entire class, often leading to very interesting and insightful discussions. This model requires engagement of every student in the class because all students must actively contribute to the process.
Melissa’s goal is always to make her student’s time at school interesting and exciting and as interactive as possible. She wants them to know she is interested in their activities and encourages them to invite her to their events and performances. She attends most of the athletic contests on campus and attends their club soccer and baseball games on weekends and she makes a point to attend local cultural events.
For a time, Melissa was asked to serve as the Director of Student Activities at a time when attendance at Campus activities was on the decline. Over time, events had been discontinued and school was becoming a place kids avoided. Her assessment led to her understanding that a primary cause was that the campus activities were not addressing the cultural interests of the student body. She was determined to have the students become more culturally sensitive. In her attempt to address the issues. Melissa began holding dances that related to various cultures. Since a large portion of the student body is hispanic, she scheduled dances with Spanish hip hop music and almost immediately attendance at campus activities were again on the rise. She create several projects designed for students to help the community. She stressed the importance of community services by raising funds for the Tahoe Heritage Foundation for the up-keep of historical sites. She began the Hunger Games to provide food for the Food Kitchens for the homeless and her students do blood drives two times a year on campus. Her students also provide volunteers for all the Tahoe races and marathons and offer programs for young children at Christmas with hot chocolate during bingo nights. She also started video game tournaments, which has become a real hit among students. She created a match maker quiz to match friends on Valentine’s Day so everyone has someone to eat with at lunch.
Building on Melissa’s philosophy related to the importance of building strong, positive relationships with students, South Lake Tahoe High School has become a place for much more than simply going to classes from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM. It is now a place where students can safely hang out and do things that are both fun and contribute to the community.
Melissa says, “This job does not seem like a job to me. I cannot wait to get to school to see what joy I can experience each day. Being around my students keeps me young and vibrant. I love how creative and brilliant my students are. After all these years of teaching I am still learning about how to be a better teacher and I learn this mostly from the students I teach. I cannot imagine doing anything else.”