You Can’t Teach High School English Without Hope
Nick Ripatrazone Talks to Melissa Grandel, the 2020 Missouri
Teacher of the Year
For high school teachers, hope isn’t an abstraction—it is a daily necessity. It doesn’t take long for engaged teachers to realize that while their classroom subjects are important, they are tasked with a greater purpose: giving kids a sense of hope.
One way to give students hope is to cultivate a sense of community in public schools. Of all subjects, English might be the best to make this abstraction a lived reality. The study of language and stories—of lives—is the stuff of community.
Melissa “Misty” Grandel, the 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year, knows the importance of community. She’s been teaching at Fordland High School in southwest Missouri for 22 years. She was born and raised in Fordland, a rural town 25 miles from Springfield.
Grandel first taught Spanish to middle school students in nearby Mountain Grove, where she developed her “belief that all students can learn, that all students deserve the opportunity to succeed, and that each student needs someone to care about them, to offer them hope.” After a few years there, a position opened at Fordland, and since she lived in the town with her husband and children, Grandel felt like she belonged there.
Fordland is a small town, and that means a small high school: 149 students enrolled this year. The school’s free and reduced lunch population is around 56 percent. Fordland faces many of the challenges particular to rural schools: a tight budget, low enrollment, and the strain of an isolated economy. Superintendent Chris Ford told the Springfield News-Leader last year that the “heartbeat of any town is its school.” In rural areas like Fordland, if the schools did not exist, the “town would not exist.” The opposite is also true: rural schools like Fordland survive through community support. Located at the foot of the Ozark mountains, Fordland residents don’t have a large grocery store in town. As the Springfield News-Leader reported, local residents raise money to meet “students’ emergency health, hygiene and hunger needs. They provide clothing, help pay utility bills and provide Walmart vouchers to needy families.” Food is sent home with kids on the weekend.
These circumstances don’t change the need to create success and support in the classroom. Grandel has six preps: English II, English IV, Dual Credit Public Speaking, Dual Credit Leadership, Yearbook, and AP Language and Composition. What other teachers might find a burden, Grandel views as a blessing: her varied schedule puts her in contact with “students of all levels and capabilities.” She will teach students several times during their high school years, from their early years as nervous underclassmen to their final, anxious months as seniors.
Public school teachers need to be a little bit of everything during each school day, but rural teachers need to be especially attuned toward their essential role as community builders. Grandel takes her role seriously, as she views the school community as not a place to work and then leave, but a place that has given so much to her. Fordland is a town of generational families—both sides of her family have homesteaded land in the town—and teaching runs in her family.
“Both of the women I have most admired in life, my mother and my grandmother, were teachers,” Grandel tells me. They taught Grandel that learning and growing were inseparable; that the daily work of reading, writing, and thinking can affect and inspire kids that we can’t always measure. Grandel says reading and writing “offer a world to students that can be away from the stress, pressure, and trauma of their everyday lives. Conversely, reading and writing can offer them an outlet for those very same struggles.” The social perception of communication as a “soft skill” is mistaken; the English classroom can enable success in other disciplines, as students gain more confidence and skill in expressing themselves.
Once English students are hooked, she says, “they begin to love the personal connection that reading and writing offer: any person can be anything in a story; students can suddenly become whomever they choose for the hour that they are immersed. It can make an otherwise difficult situation take on a whole new perspective, and give that situation hope.” She is especially drawn to classic works like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and Night, as well as contemporary works like The Adoration of Jenna Fox, in which the “protagonist or hero in each one is a very real, imperfect person who perseveres,” the types of books “that bring hope to young readers.”
You need hope to survive in the classroom—as a student, as well as a teacher. “It can be a tough career, especially at first,” Grandel says, “but it’s, without a doubt, worth every bit of that struggle.” She advises new teachers in schools big and small, rural and urban, to “find a good mentor, surround yourself with positive people, ask lots of questions, and always put kids first.” After all, those kids are our greatest hope.
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