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Tennessee's New Teacher of the Year on Leadership and Making a Difference in Education

Dr. Melissa Collins in her second grade classroom at John P. Freeman Optional
Dr. Melissa Collins in her second grade classroom at John P. Freeman Optional

Dr. Melissa Collins is no stranger to accolades, but winning Tennessee's Teacher of the Year is also a win for second graders at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis who get to have her as their instructor. (She was already inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame.) We spoke with her via Zoom from her classroom at the end of a recent school day.

Q: What made you decide to become a teacher?

COLLINS: My father. He's an educator and he still works. So that's why I say "is." I watched him and I could see that it was hard work, and that you had to give a lot to the students in the community that you work for. But I wanted to be just like him, and I'm doing the "heart" work — H-E-A-R-T work — right now. And I love it.

Q: Part of this honor comes with being an ambassador to education in the state. And I know that when this year started our school district was facing a huge shortage of teachers. There were more than 200 vacant teaching jobs. What are some of the reservations you're hearing from young people today who are thinking about going into teaching?

It's a shortage across this country; everyone is dealing with that issue. I really just hear a lot of teachers talk about trying to get adjusted to the daily task of being a teacher. It's a lot, but I also hear teachers say that they're ready to make a difference in the lives of children.

Q: You've also written a book about leadership in teaching. You seem to be interested in empowering teachers both inside and outside the classroom. Why is that important?

It's very important to share with others, and do extra work, additional work, for our students outside the classroom. And I truly believe that it's important for teachers to lead in this work. Teacher agency is very important. It's very important for teachers to have a voice. I've worked with some wonderful teachers across this country. They're doing great work for their students in their school communities. And so I think it's very important for us to be an asset to the educational system.

Q: You are now in the running for the national title of teacher of the year. And we will be rooting for you here in Memphis.

Thank you.

Q: What can communities do to be bigger supporters and cheerleaders of educators?

I want to tell you about a town, Emporia, Kansas, and I had an opportunity to go there when I was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame.

And what I loved about their community: I could tell they love teachers. They had signs about teachers when you enter into their town. They had banners flying all throughout the community and they also had banners in their stores. I think it is very important that the community start working together to show how much they care about teachers.

We are essential. And I see that now, and it's so important. I talked to my father the other day and I said, "Dad, I always teach like my life depends on it," and what I mean is: I am building the future generation and I have to teach hard everyday to ensure that they're ready to add to the workforce. Christopher, they're gonna be the the ones that come back and take care of us.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.