How an internationally-awarded educator engages Memphis children

Growing up in the South Memphis neighborhood of Whitehaven, Dr. Melissa Collins always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Her father was an educator at Whitehaven High School. Her first-grade teacher, Opal Jackson, also made an impression. 

“I loved my first-grade teacher. So, a teacher also inspired me. So, two educators — my father and Opal Jackson — inspired me to become a teacher.”

She's returned to her roots as a second-grade teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven. Now in her eighteenth year, she has become an inspiration in her own right and is recognized as an advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum in early education. She’s also ticked off an impressive list of formal accomplishments.

For instance, she shook hands with President Obama while receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching – one of many awards she’s won. She has traveled to India and Brazil to confer with other globally-recognized educators. 

This year, she was named one of six finalists from the United States — and 50 worldwide — up for the 2018 Global Teacher Prize. The initiative of the non-profit Varkey Foundation carries a $1 million award. The winner will be announced March 18.

“To be a teacher leader, you need to have a passion for students achieving at the highest level and you have to involve all stakeholders in the process. So, you have to think about how you can bring the community in to do it,” said Collins.

A Teacher Leader

For years, Collins has valued community involvement. In 2007, she started “Muffins with Moms.” Mothers or female role models of students would read to the class while the kids enjoy a snack and sip juice. This was followed by “Date for Dads,” which encouraged fathers to have lunch with their children.

Dr. Collins gives instructions to her class at John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“We would give them a handout telling them how they are important to their child’s education because most of the time you don’t see male role models in the school building.”

Collins also held plays like the “Wiz”, “Annie” and Martin Luther King’s “The Dream” starring the elementary school students.

“I even wrote and put on a play with one of the teachers here. It was about students working hard and understanding the direction they needed to go in order to be college bound. I implemented singing and dancing into it, and of course I can’t really sing or dance. But I have a girl who’s been working with me throughout the years that did Alvin Ailey training. She trains the kids and the gym is always packed. I’ve worked with about 100 kids for their productions in K-8.”

Naturally, her track record of success has drawn the attention of administrators, politicians and other leaders. She has led initiatives on the district, state and national level.

“This summer I had the opportunity to work with NNSTOY, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, an organization I am a part of and we talked to Senator Lamar Alexander, Steve Cohen and Bob Corker about the importance of Title II funding," she said. 

"And it worked. We still have the funding and it helps teachers receive high-quality professional development,” said Collins. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year is a network of State Teachers of the Year and Finalists. 

Most districts that use Title II funds are devoted to professional development. They are used to train teachers in academic subjects and strategies to help students meet high academic standards. The funding was under consideration to be axed last year.

A collection of stamps which Dr. Collins keeps on her desk to motivate students. (Brandon Dahlberg)

She has also had a hand in developing curriculum, as well as standards for high school students who plan to become teachers.

“In the beginning, I would seek opportunities. Now, those opportunities seek me. I was chasing my dreams and now my dreams chase me,” said Collins.


A Passion for her “Babies”

While a still-arcing career and ancillary honors are points of pride, Collins finds the most satisfaction in the day-to-day duties of molding young minds.

“I love the children. I am passionate about my babies. I tell them every morning ‘I love them’. I give them a hug and let them know their education is important. And we, the school, the community and the district support them.”

Many of the children come from under-served areas. In South Memphis, incomes lag in comparison to more affluent parts of town.

“There are some problems in the classroom. There are social and emotional needs. Poverty is an issue. But I don’t see those things as an issue, I just see them as a frame of reference and what I need to do to accommodate each and every child in my classroom,” said Collins.

To build confidence, kids in Collins’s class can throw on their best threads for “Dress up Friday.” Held once or twice a month, the kids will even put on a fashion show in another classroom from time to time to “show off.”

To give the children perspective, she integrates global learning in her lesson plan and recently had a friend from India come in and address the class. 

“I have them doing global learning opportunities. One day I had them talk to my friend who I met in India. He talked to the kids about schools in India — what resources they have and do not have. How some kids have to sit on the floor because they don’t have desks,” said Collins.

Johnathan Bush, 7, examines a rock during a science lession as Dr. Collins looks on. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Later, she asked students to sit on the floor for a short time to experience how their peers across the globe learn. Her class then wrote an opinion paper on why it’s important for kids to have desks.

Students also write in journals. Often, she will ask them to describe how the feel in one word.

“This gives me time to learn about what their night or morning has been like,” said Collins.

They also love music. It’s incorporated throughout the day. Singing often starts while attendance is taken. Collins makes up fun songs or allows the kids to make up their own. They start out singing “Today is going to be a great day” and then they skip count.

When it’s time for the science lesson, they put on their lab coats. The children enjoy the dress-up aspect and lab work is a welcome break from their daily routine.

“I love STEM education. So, you see each child has a science lab coat. They also have jobs or roles because most of the time, when I talk to different businesses and organizations, they talk about how kids lack social skills when they enter the workforce. So, I begin to work them in at an early age,” said Collins.

Collins is also working with Shell’s Urban Science Educator Development Award and Voya Financial to mentor a fellow teacher at the school. Together, they are working on a plan to implement STEM in the classroom.

“The kids have their lab coats and their roles and they collaborate in groups to facilitate their learning. If they need me, I’m there. I may ask a question or two to make sure they understand the concept of what they are learning and lead them through the process,” said Collins.

In March, Collins will travel to Dubai as a teacher ambassador where the winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize will be presented on March 18.

Global leaders such as Prince Harry, Prince William, Bill and Melinda Gates, Pope Francis and Bill Clinton are supporters and have attended in the past.

“It’s just amazing that I am in that elite group — just a girl from the South and Shelby County Schools. We must be doing some things.”

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.

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