From a young age, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher. When I was eight years old, I used to pretend to teach my neighborhood friends — I would imagine myself as a kind teacher who demanded excellence. My early love for teaching was inspired by my father who served in multiple roles in the field of education — he was a history teacher, high school football coach, assistant principal, principal, and consultant. And today, he still works at the age of 72, as a family specialist in the Memphis public school system. I remember his kiss on my forehead when he would come home late at night after a long day of teaching or coaching, and I remember how much time and effort it took for him to prepare his students and athletes for the ACT workshop. Despite witnessing the long hours and challenges he faced as an educator, I still wanted to follow in his footsteps and enter a classroom where I too would work relentlessly to help each and every student.

My goal was to be their champion, especially for Black children, and I was determined not to fail. I understood that a proper education could help young people thrive, and I believed that I could make a difference through teaching.

I was born and raised in Memphis, and I have family and friends here. This city is where my dreams continue to thrive. After college, I returned to Memphis to work in one of the largest urban school districts in the U.S. to follow in my father’s footsteps in serving our community. Every day, I entered Room Nine to make a difference; I carried my students in my heart wherever I went. I worked late and started several programs to reach my school community; I led school-wide dramatic plays; I put students in white coats where they could see themselves as scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, and mathematicians; I hosted parent meetings and events; and I even coached basketball and track for a few years like my dad.

Every day I clocked in, but rarely clocked out. Sometimes, I wonder how I made it because there was not enough time during the school day meaning I always worked overtime. However, I was motivated to remain steadfast in the profession, especially when I saw my dreams live on through my students who would often return and say that I made a difference in their lives. Some would tell me that they earned a white coat in their career and would want to give back to my current students. Recently, Dr. Pettis, my former student, led a White Coat Ceremony for my second-grade students in my classroom where he coated, pinned, and recited an oath with the students — dreams are created in the white coats. In moments like these, I knew that my dreams for my students had been fulfilled.

Currently, my city of Memphis is facing a state of emergency: high crime rates among youth, poverty affecting almost 33% of children, only 24% of third grade students can read proficiently, and teaching has become more challenging since the pandemic. I often worry about failing my students and not being able to help them catch up; however, my dad reminds me that I have done it before and can do it again. He goes on to say, “That’s why I turned you into an athlete, to help you know how to compete!” Therefore, as a former athlete, I strive to win for all children!

Despite the challenges of being an educator, I choose to continue teaching in Memphis because every child in this city deserves a high-quality education, opportunities to excel, and experiences outside the classroom. As a Black teacher, I refuse to give up on my students and I come to work every day to ensure that they can thrive and pursue their dreams.

My classroom serves as an inspiring place for all children who enter. The walls contain brilliant students of color who find joy in hands-on learning, drawing, dancing, singing, and playing. I believe in affirming my students’ strengths and abilities, and I encourage them to dream beyond the classroom walls by exposing them to learning experiences that allow them to explore their passions and interests. I invite experts who resemble them to inspire them to see themselves in a future career, and I take them on field trips to broaden their horizons and to see the world through a different lens. As an educator, I find it rewarding to provide my students with experiences and exposure that will help them succeed in life and enhance their social mobility.

When my former students return to Room Nine, they can reflect on the place where they felt valued, loved, heard, seen, and happy. I am proud to have provided them with a quality, rigorous education, and I know that they needed me just as much as I needed them.

Melissa Collins is a second-grade teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis, Tennessee. Melissa has received many accolades, including being named Tennessee Teacher of the Year for the 2022-2023 academic year, she was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame in 2020, and is the first and only teacher to serve on the National Science Foundation Education Human Resources Advisory Board committee.