Each week, the #SpanningtheNeed podcast will present an “Inspirational Person of the Week’ and have a “Q & A” with one of its many gifted individuals and/or groups who are willing to go out of their own way to help others. This week’s featured is Melissa Kmetz from Lakeview Local Schools.
Name: Melissa Kmetz
Position: Third Grade Teacher
School District: Lakeview Local Schools
What made you want to go into the education field?
When I was 12, I underwent a routine tonsillectomy and complications followed. I hemorrhaged multiple times and was life-flighted to Pittsburgh Childrens’ Hospital, where I was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks.
In the months I was in the hospital, I saw so much suffering and also witnessed so many incredible and heartwarming acts of kindness. I was the recipient of many of those acts of kindness as well. It truly touched my heart, and I will never forget how it made me feel. It also made me very aware of how we all need to be here for one another, especially on our worst of days.
I was fortunate enough to be able to leave the hospital, but other children I’d been in the intensive care unit with had either passed away or returned home never to be the same again. I knew how fortunate I was, and I looked at being able to go home as a gift many others didn’t receive. So, I knew I had to use it wisely. I also knew when I was older, I wanted to do something that would help others in the same way that others had done for me. At the time, I thought it would be through being a doctor when I was older. Then, I thought about going into child welfare law (I really wanted to be the voice for those who couldn’t speak for themselves) or child psychology. In my later years of high school, that all changed.
I had many incredible teachers who went above and beyond to make sure their students didn’t slip through the cracks. They believed in them, inspired them, and let them know just how important they were. If those students wanted to play sports but weren’t able to afford it, the teachers bought their equipment with their own money. If a student couldn’t get to practice, teachers picked them up and drove them to it. Seeing how those teachers changed the students’ lives made me realize I wanted to do that, too.
Also, my senior year, I was on our school’s Continuous Improvement Committee. I worked with teachers, administrators, and community members to set goals and create an action plan for the district, and I saw the profound influence a dedicated group of caring individuals could have. That sealed the deal, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher, because I felt like I would be able to have the biggest positive impact in students’ lives that way.
What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful in education?
I’d have to say the biggest factor that’s helped me to be successful is my ability to form authentic relationships with my students and their families. It’s really important to me that my students and their families know how much I truly care, they feel “seen”, and that they know their opinions are respected and valued. Only then can I truly and effectively educate students, ensure equity, form a partnership with the community, create a love of learning, and inspire students to use their voice to speak up and speak out about important issues.
What is the biggest professional mistake you made along the way?
Early on, I was really afraid I wouldn’t cover all of the content standards in the amount of time I had. I was so nervous I would plan everything out to the minute and felt I couldn’t deviate from my lesson plans or the timetable I’d set at all. Over the years, I’ve learned that the students will let me know when they’ve mastered material and when they’re ready to move on. If I try to stick to plans instead of focusing on the students, they’re not going to fully understand the material or be able to apply it to the best of their abilities.
What is the best advice you can give future educators or the public?
Oh goodness, I have so much to say to future educators! Of all the things I could say, I’d want them to know being an educator is the single most important, rewarding privilege any human can have, but it can also be one of the most grueling as well. We work an incredible amount of overtime, more than I could have ever imagined. In addition, we’re oftentimes dragged into politics, required to do more with less, keep insurmountable amounts of data, and raise test scores. We even have to worry about school shootings. However, being there for a child on their worst day, having the ability to make sure someone doesn’t slip through the cracks, getting someone to believe in themselves for the first time, or helping someone to find their voice, there’s no better feeling and there’s nothing more rewarding.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently regarding your profession?
If I could start all over again, I really wouldn’t change anything. I love teaching elementary school, so that’s the exact age group I’d want again. I also love literacy, because it has the ability to act as “windows and mirrors”. It can open students’ eyes to new and exciting places and concepts (windows), and students can also see themselves reflected in text (mirrors). So, I wouldn’t change anything about my Master’s Degree either (it’s in literacy).
What song best describes you or is the soundtrack to your life?
Wow, another good question! I would have to say Michael Jackson’s, Man in the Mirror. The song talks about seeing all of the injustice in the world, wanting to make the world a better place, and starting with oneself. I find that song incredibly inspirational, and I’ve listened to it and discussed its lyrics with my students over the years as well. I want them to know they possess an incredible power to change the world for the better, and it has to start with them and whatever vision they have. Anyone can “get” an education, but to truly use it for good, to make the world a better place, that’s the ultimate goal.
Each year, we do “Change the World” projects where we work to fix something or help someone within the community. This helps students to see that change truly begins with them, and that through working with others, there is nothing they can’t accomplish!
I must say, Michael Jackson’s We are the World is another favorite. Oftentimes children don’t realize the power of their voice or the power of the pen, and it’s up to us to help bring that power to light!
What is your best accomplishment/experience in life?
I’d have to say one of my best experiences was when the students in my first kindergarten class graduated from high school. When I first had them, it was my first year of teaching and I was just 22 years old. They were only 5 at the time, and it was their first year of school as well. We were all starting out together.
I wrote each student in that class a letter that would be opened by them on their graduation day. It seemed so far off at the time, and I even said in the letter I couldn’t imagine what they or I would be like on the day they opened it. It truly seemed a lifetime away. I put one copy of the letters in their permanent file, and I kept a backup copy just in case anything happened to the originals. When I lost my job there and was hired in Lakeview, I’d often stumble upon the letters in my basement and wonder how the students were doing.
When the year of their graduation came, I was SO excited. I hadn’t seen them since I left Salem, and I couldn’t wait to surprise them with the letters. I went to commencement, and placed the letters on their chairs. After the ceremony, I stayed talking to them and we took pictures together. I compared them with the pictures of our first year, and it was just surreal seeing my kids so grown-up. I went to a lot of their graduation parties as well.
I still keep in touch with many, and they’ve now gone on to graduate college and have families of their own. They’ve become such lovely, caring adults, and I’m just so proud of them all!
Who is your role model and Why?
Growing up, I would have to stay my biggest role models were my parents. They both worked so hard, they put my sister and I first in everything they did, they loved and supported unconditionally, taught us the importance of getting a good education, and they always made sure we sought out ways to help others.
My dad passed away years ago, but my mom is still one of my biggest role models. My little sister (who isn’t really so little anymore) is a school counselor now. She’s now one of my role models as well, for there’s no one better at finding out what students need and coming up with ways to support them.
Lastly, I had many wonderful teachers along the way. They, too were role models, and I took all the best parts of what they did in class with me and I try to do the same with my students.
If there was one person that you would like to meet, past or present, who would it be and why?
Past: I would have to say it would be a three way tie-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Representative John Lewis. Together, they fought relentlessly for civil rights, brilliantly used their words to change the hearts of the nation, and were fearless in the face of extraordinary conflict. They possessed a certain bravery and determination, truly a “soul power” as Representative Lewis would call it, that most could only dream of having, and so much of what we all share today we owe to them.
Present: It would be former president Barack Obama and his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama. I have so much respect for them and I truly admire their integrity.
A favorite quote that you live by?
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world” – Malala Yousafzai.