Melissa Spence wasn’t originally sure she wanted to be a teacher — but when she decided, she was all in.
Spence is the Conway School District’s Teacher of the Year for 2020.
“I just knew something was missing that I wanted to be able to give back, make an impact,” she said.
Spence teaches first grade at Theodore Jones Elementary School in Conway, where Randi House, last year’s district winner and the Arkansas Teacher of the Year, also teaches.
“I think she’s a perfect choice,” House said. “Melissa Spence is one of those teachers who is going to go above and beyond for all students. She’s not one of those teachers who turns off at 3 o’clock every day. She’s going to go cheer them on at the ballgames. … She does a summer reading program, and they go out in the neighborhood and provide books to keep them engaged. She just does the extra things that kids need.”
Spence is the Theodore Jones Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020.
An only child, she grew up in Stuttgart, where her mother, Gail Shrum, taught public school. One of Shrum’s seventh-grade career-orientation students was Tammy Woosley, now principal of Theodore Jones Elementary School.
“It kind of goes full circle,” Spence said.
Woosley said she’s not only thrilled to have another District Teacher of the Year from her school; she’s glad it’s Spence.
“Melissa is probably one of the most genuine, passionate teachers I have ever worked with,” Woosley said.
“She’s always looking for an opportunity to improve what she does, first and foremost, because she knows the success of students starts with her. When she finds something that works, she is so enthusiastic about implementing it, trying it with her kids, sharing it with her colleagues.
“When I think of core values of the Conway Public Schools, I think about Melissa — the first two things I think of are students first and a staff member committed to excellence,” Woosley said.
“We’ve moved away from the day and age that teachers go in and shut their doors and do their job. It’s still rare to find someone who’s willing to share — and not in a boastful way — but in a way to truly help kids, not just the 25 in their classroom, and that’s who she is.”
Spence, 36, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a major in marketing and management at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and worked for a printing service in Stuttgart for six years.
“I was unsure of following in my mom’s footsteps,” Spence said.
But she did, and her mother was even Teacher of the Year for the Stuttgart School District one year.
So Spence earned a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in 2012 from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
“With teaching, I’m able to mix the marketing aspect and the creativity side with the teaching,” she said.
Her first job was at Mayflower Elementary School, where she taught first grade, before getting the job in the Conway School District teaching third grade. This fall will start her fourth year to teach first grade at Theodore Jones.
Spence and her husband, Jeff, lived in Conway before moving to Vilonia to have more acreage. Spence said she often brings in nature to share with her first-graders.
“We live in a wooded area, and I like to bring nature into the classroom, or a video of us feeding horses across the street,” she said.
One of her favorite memories is a student’s reaction to a gall wasp that hatched.
“I found a gall wasp and put it in a jar and brought it to school,” she said. “The students were excited to see what was going to come out [of the larvae]. They would check it every day.
“One of my students — he didn’t have a lot of life experiences — when he saw the wasp come out, his eyes got so big, and he got so excited. He was the one who discovered it. We took it out, and he set it free out of the jar. It was just the look on his face.”
Spence said she loves first grade for many reasons.
“They’re at a pivotal age; they’re just like little sponges. They’re impressionable, and there are so many life lessons to teach. The growth in first grade is huge for them,” she said.
Theodore Jones is a high-poverty school, with 70-plus percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches. Spence said her 25 students are from different backgrounds and nationalities.
“In my classroom, we do a lot of promoting kindness and modeling. We’ve given notes to our bus driver, and we talk about what a big responsibility that is. … On National Kindness Day, we did notes of kindness to our friends and family. The kids even got gifts, apple cider, to take to a mail person, a garbage collector; one took it to the fire department. We talk about how they are a small part of a bigger picture.”
Spence coordinated and implemented programs last year that she thinks propelled her Teacher of the Year win.
She organized Sunday Snuggle Stories, based on a viral video of Belinda George, a Texas elementary school principal, who wears pajamas and does a live video once a week of herself reading students a bedtime story.
After several teachers shared the link and talked about how great the same project would be at Theodore Jones, Spence got the plan together.
The videos are prerecorded and played on the school’s Facebook page at 7:30 p.m. Sundays during the school year. It was advertised so the families would know when to watch, and there are comprehension questions afterward.
Spence also coordinates a four-week summer program in July in which teachers go to students’ homes once a week to do fun lessons and projects. Parents can choose to participate in the program, and those that do come from “all walks of life,” Spence said.
The teachers go on Wednesdays this summer. Last summer, Letters and Lemonade was one theme, where students were treated to lemonade and guided in writing a “friendly letter” to someone. Other themes were Science and Smarties, Suckers and Sight Words, Books and Bubblegum. Spence said books are given to the children on every visit.
About eight to 15 teachers volunteered for the program last summer, she said.
“Our parents and our kids really liked that. The kids were surprised, and it meant a lot to the parents that we came by in July. We miss our kids, and June and July is a long time to a kid.”
The program also serves as a team-building time for teachers, she said.
Spence believes in a team approach to help children learn, and she’s even enlisted her husband’s help. When she was trying to teach phonics, she had a rhyme that was “pretty abstract,” she said.
“We brainstormed and came up with a visual cartoon character,” she said. Spence’s husband is a freelance illustrator.
“We developed [characters] together, and he drew them. We have about 150 characters at this point. We have Thinking Theo,” a basketball player who has a “thought bubble” above his head and a thinking look on his face, for example. That character teaches the Th sound, Spence said.
She calls the visual-clue-based phonics cartoon characters Clue Buddy Crew.
“Kids love the characters and get excited to meet a new character,” she said.
The children collect the characters printed on 4-by-5-inch cards, which they place on a silver binder ring.
“They have their own cards to practice the sound and reading words … when they have independent time at their desk,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Spence is getting her application ready to be considered for the next step toward Arkansas Teacher of the Year. She has five questions that require 500 to 750 words, as well as a three- to five-minute video.
The applicants are anonymous to the selection committee, she said.
Regional finalists will be announced in mid-July, Spence said. Then the applicants will be narrowed to four, and the Arkansas Teacher of the Year will be selected before Christmas.
Woosley said the Conway School District and Theodore Jones very well could have another state winner.
“It very well could happen, and how exciting would it be if that did happen?” Woosley said.
“It’s fantastic,” Spence said of teaching, “but I’ve been around it my whole life. Doing it in a nontraditional route gives me a good awareness, an appreciation, understanding. I remember experiences with my mom that she used to take kids under her wing. I always wondered why she was tired or needed a nap. Now I know,” Spence said, laughing. “She’s definitely been a great role model.”
And right now, Spence wouldn’t trade teaching for any other career.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.