Fresh from being named Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year for 2022-23, Memphis second-grade educator Melissa Collins credits her family and 21 years in the classroom for preparing her to represent a profession that badly needs recharging.
Her father, she recalls, taught her how to compete as a young athlete, while her mother’s dying words in February were to “keep it moving.”
And as a national leader in STEAM education, Collins has inspired both students and colleagues while also serving on numerous panels to develop curriculum and training that integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math.
“I feel like I was just built for this,” she said about the opportunity to serve as Tennessee’s chief education ambassador across the state and nation. Next spring, she’ll compete in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
Collins is a teacher and classroom innovator at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis-Shelby County Schools.
“I’m ready to share our stories,” Collins told reporters Friday, after receiving her honor the night before at a banquet in Nashville hosted by the Tennessee Department of Education and the state superintendents organization.
Collins is already a highly decorated educator. In 2020, she was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame. Her list of honors includes Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year, a National University Award, and a 2018 Global Teacher Prize Finalist.
And on Friday, she received her second major statewide accolade in two days: Tennessee’s 2022 History Teacher of the Year. That award is presented annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to K-12 U.S. history education.
In her second-grade classroom, Collins integrates multiple subjects and uses the STEAM approach to guide student inquiry, discussion, and problem-solving.
In a 2016 interview with Chalkbeat, she described how she loves “thinking outside of the box” to bring her lessons alive — whether by using music as a learning tool or providing her students with lab coats during science lessons so they view themselves as real-life scientists.
“I want my students to form a curiosity about the world — to think beyond their neighborhoods,” she said. “That’s success to me, when a student is asking questions for the sake of their own understanding.”
That summer, Collins joined 36 educators from around the world at a global summit in India. Three years earlier, she went to Brazil as a Global Learning Fellow through the NEA Foundation — an experience she blogged about and used to develop lessons for other teachers. Those experiences, she said, helped her expose her students at John P. Freeman Optional School to other cultures.
Now she will also seek to energize other teachers and represent a profession that has suffered from burnout and endured extra scrutiny while navigating a public health emergency, mask mandates, book bans, and a political backlash on how to teach America’s history of racism.
“For the last two years, the pandemic has brought so many challenges,” Collins said. “But as teachers, we continue to dream big for our students.”
She added: “You can only achieve success if you refuse to give up.”
Collins was chosen for the state’s top teaching honor out of nine finalists from across Tennessee, all of whom will serve this school year on Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s teacher advisory council to provide feedback and inform her department’s work.
She follows Morgan Rankin, a second-grade educator at South Side School in Johnson City, who was named Tennessee’s top teacher last year.
The award has been given annually since 1960 to recognize outstanding teachers, promote effective teaching practices, and celebrate the teaching profession. You can view past recipients here.
Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at email@example.com.