What I Learned from Teaching with the Tennessee Teacher of the Year

by Mary Jo Armstrong, first grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School in the Franklin Special School District

Mary Jo Armstrong and Melissa Miller

This past semester I had the wonderful opportunity of co-teaching with the 2019 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, Melissa Miller! To capture this amazing journey, I decided to keep a journal of my experiences, and I condensed  my notes into these five important lessons learned from Melissa.


  • Build Relationships/Classroom Culture: I have discovered in my first few years of teaching that building relationships with students and creating a positive classroom environment are essential to learning. Nurturing positive student relationships creates a strong foundation that builds trust and allows the teacher to reach the student academically. In the first few days of working with Mrs. Miller, it was evident that her first priority was getting to know each of her students. She showed me a picture of each child as she told me of his/her likes and dislikes, the academic celebrations as well as the areas of need. She encouraged me to spend the first week just getting to know each student, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Always let your students know that you are their number one fan!
  • Spice Up the Curriculum with Author Studies: In our literacy curricular resources, each week includes an essential question, comprehension strategies, sight words, etc. In addition, the student books contain stories, many written by well-known authors, which give students the opportunity to practice these comprehension strategies. Melissa and her first grade team saw an opportunity to spice up their curriculum with author studies. She would check out a multitude of books from the school and local libraries to expose students to a variety of books written by those highlighted authors in the curriculum. I have witnessed how these author studies have fostered a true love for reading, and there is no better foundation for later success in school
  • Teach with High Expectations  Students who may be struggling with a concept will often meet, even exceed those expectations, if they are encouraged to believe in themselves and know that their teacher believes in them.   
  • Get Parents and the Community Involved: Before working with Melissa it was challenging for me to find creative ways to get and keep parents involved on a regular basis. However, I learned that Mrs. Miller invites parents to come in on a specific day of the week and meet with a small group of students. These small groups, called “clubs”, may have an adult work with students who need improvement on a specific objective, or they may challenge students who exceed given targets. She has also invited a student’s great-grandmother to read a story to the class and then share with the class her personal memories of her first grade year.  This engaged the students and led to a discussion of comparing and contrasting schools – then and now.
  • Give Academic Feedback to Every Student, Every Day: As teachers, we are constantly assessing our students and do so in a variety of ways.  Throughout the day, Mrs. Miller uses two different clipboards – one during reading and another during math. These clipboards include a class list with checkboxes beside each name, headings for each standard and objective, and are used to formatively assess each standard throughout the day and week. The student is given a check mark if they have mastered the target, a 2 if they are still progressing, or a 1 if they do not understand the objective. The data from the clipboards are used to create a small group for further instruction until mastery, and groups are adjusted weekly or daily based on student needs. Giving students immediate feedback helps develop confidence, encourages them to work harder, and helps to hold them accountable.

It has been a privilege working alongside a teacher as talented, creative, and passionate as Melissa. I’ve learned unique, creative strategies for teaching and continuing to improve my craft. I hope that you see these lessons as an opportunity to do the same for your students!

Mary Jo Armstrong teaches first grade at Franklin Elementary School. You can follow her on social media at Twitter: @Ms_Armstrong1st and Instagram: maryjoann_.