English alumna Christina Andrade Melly named 2023 Missouri Teacher of the Year
Christina Andrade Melly was initially suspicious when an administrator at Ritenour High School told her there was an impromptu meeting that she and her class needed to attend.
Supposedly, it was for seniors, but Melly was teaching sophomores that period. Things weren’t quite adding up, but Melly headed to the school’s auditorium anyway. Upon her arrival, the subterfuge came to an end.
Students, teachers, district administrators and her family had gathered to celebrate Melly – the 2023 Missouri Teacher of the Year. Margie Vandeven, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, made the surprise announcement on Sept. 19.
“It is still sinking in,” she said. “At least I’ve gotten past the point where I’m waking up at night and shaking myself wondering, ‘Did this actually happen?’ It still feels unreal.”
UMSL alumni have been well represented amongst Missouri Teacher of the Year winners recently. Melly is the third Triton in a row to win the top honor.
James Young, a sixth-grade musical theater teacher at Johnson-Wabash Sixth Grade Center, was the most recent winner, while Darrion Cockrell, a physical education teacher at Crestwood Elementary School, took home the honor during the 2020-21 school year.
The award is particularly meaningful for Melly, who attended the Ritenour School District from kindergarten through high school. Even as a young student, she was interested in teaching and leading others.
“I would boss my two younger brothers around, and we would play school – I would be in charge, of course,” Melly said. “But any chance that I had to work with younger kids – to babysit, to tutor, to work at summer camps – I loved it, and I just gravitated toward it.”
Aside from a fondness for working with children, Melly was also drawn to writing from a young age. She enjoyed hearing people’s stories and felt there was an innate power in words. It inspired her to pursue journalism at the University of Missouri–Columbia after graduating from Ritenour.
However, her foray into journalism was short-lived.
“I called my mom in tears after my first semester,” Melly recalled. “She was very concerned about why I was calling crying, and through the sobbing I told her, ‘I have to change to education. I have to be a teacher. That’s what I’m going to be.’ I was very upset with her at the time because she said, ‘Well, that was it? That’s all?’”
Melly left the journalism program and went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in education and English at MU. She completed her student teaching at Ritenour while earning her certification and returned to St. Louis after graduating in December 2010. Her connection to Ritenour continued as she searched for a full-time job.
She taught GED courses and subbed at the high school during the spring semester, and the district hired her as a full-time teacher for the 2011-12 school year.
For Melly, it was important to work at a school like Ritenour and give back to the public school system that molded her. At MU, she met people with different educational backgrounds who had attended less diverse schools. In many cases, they had much narrower interpersonal experiences than her.
“I wanted to teach in public schools in St. Louis because I had come out of that system, and had so many valuable experiences,” Melly said. “I felt a lot richer for having them.”
She began her career teaching freshman English and, at first, put much of her focus on the literature components of the curriculum. But after two years, it became clear that there was something missing in the classroom when it came to writing.
Melly struggled to explain some aspects of the writing process and what she wanted her students to get out of classroom exercises. After the school year concluded in 2013, she began searching for professional development opportunities as well as graduate programs.
A summer program run by the Gateway Writing Project at UMSL caught her eye. The GWP promotes exemplary writing instruction by providing professional development, supporting teachers’ own writing and promoting teacher leadership. Its mission is based on the premise that teachers of writing must write and see themselves as writers.
Melly enrolled in the GWP’s Writing Institute, where she joined teachers from all grade levels to compose, revise and prepare their own writing for publication and discuss best practices for the classroom.
“I was able to go in and focus on teaching my students to write by learning about myself as a writer,” she said.
In addition to strengthening her own writing, Melly earned six graduate credits for completing the program. The positive experience motivated her to pursue a Graduate Certificate in the Teaching of Writing and a master’s in English composition and rhetoric at UMSL.
In the master’s program, faculty members such as Associate Professor Suellynn Duffey provided a foundation in the theoretical concepts behind writing and writing pedagogy. Melly was able to immediately apply those lessons with her students.
“That was probably the best part: being able to use the classes to peel back that layer,” she said. “I know that this works or that this doesn’t work, but now I can explain why. That has made me a better teacher in so many ways.”
Graduate school also brought Melly closer to her students, empathizing with them as a student herself. Katie O’Daniels, co-director of the GWP and assistant teaching professor, lauded Melly’s devotion to her students and development as an educator.
“She is inquisitive, passionate and dedicated to improving engagement and learning for her students,” O’Daniels said. “She is a true professional, and we are thrilled to have her as a teacher leader in our Gateway Writing Project network.”
After several years at Ritenour, Melly transitioned to teaching sophomores and seniors and also coached the school’s debate team for a stint. No matter who she’s teaching or coaching, she reminds her students to remain open to the world and the people around them.
That was often difficult during the 2020-21 school year when the Ritenour School District shifted to virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Melly’s students made it through the difficult year with her support, and the seniors were able to graduate in person. The emotional ceremony was a testament to her impact as an educator.
“We got through that year together, and we had an outdoor graduation,” Melly said. “I was able to be there in person with them, read their names, hug them, see some of them for the first time in years. The joy, the relief and the ability to connect with them again, makes my throat close up. I can’t explain how important it was to be with them at this moment of their journey.”
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