When a guest walks into Melissa Poff’s classroom in the late afternoon, the first thing they may notice is that there are at least two or three students there to buy a yearbook or just to laugh with her and “chill” awhile, sometimes long after the dismissal bell has rung.
Poff, 33, recently received the distinguished “Teacher of the Year Award” from William Fleming High School after teaching for Roanoke City Public Schools (RCPS) since October of 2003.
“I took a few odd jobs after graduating from Roanoke College and then began teaching art at Breckenridge, but by 2004 I was called upon to take over an English position at Fleming,” Poff said, smiling her famous dimpled smile. “I had to work quickly to get my English licensure. I did, and I’ve been here ever since.”
A plaque written by an anonymous author and given to Poff by her beloved mother, is displayed on her wall above her desk. It reads: “Be Thankful When You’re Tired and Weary, Because It’s Made a Difference.”
The young teacher’s life these days is summed up, at least in part, by those wise words.
“I have a little girl at home, Mykala, who will be four years old in June,” she said. “That does make it challenging at times when you have to get her ready in the mornings to be dropped her off at pre-school and get to Fleming by about 8:30 am; then I often leave around 8 pm or maybe later, but so do many other teachers.”
Poff teaches five different classes with five different “promps;” educator’s lingo meaning – five totally separate sets of lesson plans are required. In one ELL class of foreign students, there are thirteen countries represented. And it’s one of her favorite classes.
Her room brims with a colorful array of student art, student awards and photographs of students who once graced one of her sturdy desks; not necessarily in the new $57 million dollar building that just opened in September.
“I’m a project oriented teacher,” Poff said. “I love the kinesthetic stuff, teaching to all of the modalities/learning styles, and I particularly love to incorporate art when I can. If I’m not excited about the lesson, my students certainly won’t be.”
When asked if the new $52 million dollar building has inspired students, she replies that it seems to have given them great pride, and that never hurts performance. According to Poff, the entire community should be especially proud of the new, Olympic-size sports complex. In fact, she emphasized that she was amazed recently by watching kids from eight different sports competing out there at the same time.
“We’ve also acquired a lot of state-of-the-art equipment since we moved to the new building,” Poff said, “such as the active board that allows students and teachers to manipulate video clips, links, concept maps and notes in vivid colors, and to combine all of this sensory stimulating stuff with researched information.”
Today’s special on the active/smart board was a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the life of Tupak, the deceased rapper – with the life of Van Gogh. The net visuals are often accompanied by sound. Impressive, as a way to scaffold up the long ladder from state mandated expectations to the real world that teens live in and can identify with, but still not enough to win the hearts and minds of all of the students.
“I try to spend time with students after school, working on various projects, including the school yearbook – The Colonel,” Poff said. “I think that helps to build rapport and to establish bonded relationships. But I also call a lot of parents and grandparents because I want to keep the lines of communication wide open.”
Poff admits that student discipline has been one of her major challenges.
“I really was naïve when I started teaching eight years ago,” she said, “but that kind of worked to my advantage because I just thought ‘this must be how it is,’ when students sometimes did not meet my behavior expectations, which made accepting difficult situations a little easier to handle.” She’s found the new principal, Gene Jones, to be an incredibly innovative and supportive leader. And when asked how she rated the extreme, national emphasis on SOL scores, Poff’s answer was somewhat surprising: “The SOLs can’t cramp your style unless you let them,” she said, adding, “but we now have come to realize that the SOLs are not content based; they’re skill-set based, so we have to approach things differently than we did in the past.”
For example, according to Poff, a typical Standards of Learning test (SOL) will check for basic comprehension, vocabulary in context, inferences, and real-world reading such as the reading that is necessary to fill out employment applications, but the literature of the 20th century is noticeably absent from these assessments.
Thus, it’s up to well-qualified teachers like Poff, to fill in the gaps. Another gap that she must account for lies in the fact that some of her brightest students do not have a loving, nurturing role model at home.
“A very intelligent student may well become de-sensitized the SOLS, or other standardized tests,” Poff said, “and then they may make a fun pattern when filling out the bubbles, instead of answering the questions appropriately, but those with a good role model at home aren’t so tempted to sabotage their own success. I try to be that role model by explaining the difference that these tests can make in terms of their futures; sometimes I get lucky and win them over.”
Maya Angelou is one of the literary greats that Poff points to when her students act as though the world is overrun with millionaire movie stars and successful corporate giants who don’t have a care. She reads to them from I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, and then discusses ways to overcome life’s obstacles. She tells them how much she believes in them, always with that winning smile, before she instructs them to pick up their pencils again – and begin writing.
“I feel no different from any other teacher,” Poff asserts with her signature humility. “We all face so many of the same challenges and concerns, and we spend many hours working hard to do whatever we can to help motivate students to achieve their highest goals. Once in a while, we inspire them.”
She was invited by RCPS to come for an afternoon of pampering before the gala event at the Jefferson Center this week-end, celebrating her prestigious award, but she declined the hand massage and nail make-over.
“I’ve got a student coming in after school for tutoring,” she said, “I really appreciate all of that, but I don’t have time. Tutoring is far more important.”