Spotlight: Melody Coryell (IN '15)February 4, 2016
English teacher Melody Coryell's first job was detasseling corn in the fields of central Indiana — hard labor that gave her callouses, sunburns, resilience and empathy. She received her Milken Educator Award at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis on November 23, 2015.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Melody Coryell: During undergrad, I thought I would work toward a Ph.D. to write and teach at the college level, so I didn't pursue an education degree. After college, I sought a job at IUPUI [Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis], where I could take college classes for free as an employee and work in the university setting. I started as an administrative assistant in the Office for Professional Development and soon advanced to become a coordinator and researcher for Dr. Nancy Chism, associate vice chancellor for professional development. Nancy was inspired about teaching and about supporting college-level teaching, and through my work with faculty and staff, I became passionate about teaching.
MFF: What was your first job ever?
Mel: In central Indiana, the first paying job available to young people is often farm work, so my first job was detasseling corn. Teenagers would wake up before dawn on July mornings and board a school bus to a field, where we would walk rows of corn or ride detasseling machines, pulling the tassel off each corn stalk so the corn could hybridize. From that experience, I learned what hard labor was like and what it was like to come home dog-tired and dirty at the end of the day, with corn cuts and callouses and sunburn. I think that work made me more resilient and empathetic.
MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?
Mel: The teachers I remember most are the ones who saw me — who sometimes, even, saw in me things I could not see in myself. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Mayes, asked that I be tested for the district's gifted and talented program. I was bussed across town in 2nd through 7th grade to attend the Project KEY program with 20 other students from around our city. My AP Economics teacher, Mrs. Ellison, saw that I was a first-generation college student, that I wasn't quite as savvy as many of my classmates when it came to the college application process. She took an interest in my future and encouraged me to apply for the full academic scholarship she had received 20 years before. I received that scholarship, and that led to connections to a supportive academic community at Ball State.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Mel: My first daughter, Amelia, was two months old when I finished the Indiana Wesleyan Transition to Teaching program. It was December, and I wasn’t expecting to apply for a teaching job mid-year. When an opportunity became available at my top-choice school (for its diversity and programming), I applied and got the job. I started teaching the day after Martin Luther King Day, and the students I taught had spent much of the first half of the school year cycling through substitute teachers. Their last teacher had resigned out of frustration. That semester, I learned the importance of building trust. The students needed to know I wasn't going to give up, and so they tested me by acting out. They needed me to show up day after day and authentically express through words and actions how much I wanted them to learn and how much I cared about their progress.
MFF: A student tells you he/she is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?
Mel: I don’t think it's a good idea to try to convince a student to choose a career. Instead, I think it's important to help students understand and experience as much of the job as possible, from as many perspectives as possible. To that end, I tell students pretty regularly what I love about teaching, why I chose teaching over university administration and why I keep choosing teaching over high school administration. I tell them about the challenges, too, because I want them to be committed to the paths they choose.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Mel: The students were inspired by the award. They were excited and proud, and I think some of them are viewing teaching as a possible career path as a result of the experience.
MFF: What’s your favorite time of the school day?
Mel: The morning. I love to watch the teachers and students greet each other, bright-eyed (or sleepy-eyed) and ready to learn.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Mel: I'd pay IB [International Baccalaureate] exam fees for everyone, fund one-to-one laptops for the next decade, and fund more teacher salary lines. I'd also provide uniforms, textbooks, and three hot, healthy, culturally-diverse meals a day for our school community. I'd also open the school to as many outside speakers as possible — poets and scientists and world-changers — and I'd send the students out into the world through international travel opportunities. The million wouldn't last very long, clearly.
MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
Mel: I'm not sure, but I hope there is a lot of laughter.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Mel: I'd be a creative nonfiction writer and teach creative writing classes and workshops around the country.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…"
Mel: "...my students grow."
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