Melissa “Misty” Grandel has deep roots in the town where she grew up and is now a teacher.
Her ancestors homesteaded the rural Webster County community, and she has raised her children on 160 acres that has been in her family for generations.
The 1990 Fordland High graduate studied English at Drury University. Three years into a teaching career, she received a call — while giving birth to her second son — to work in her hometown. That was 21 years ago, and she has not looked back.
“Rural kids need good teachers and just because I could make more money somewhere else — or whatever reason they go to bigger schools — that’s not where I belong,” she said. “I belong here with these kids, helping them get to their dreams.
“I love kids and kids know every single day that I am here for them and I’m not going to let them fail.”
Grandel was named 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during an event Wednesday. Only a few Ozarks teachers have won the honor since 1970.
“She grew up here, so she has a passion to see our kids succeed, not only today in the classroom, but in the future,” said Fordland Superintendent Chris Ford. “She connects on a personal level with kids — understands them, knows what is going on with their lives, and she just relates to them.”
Earlier this year, U.S. News released its 2019 high school rankings and listed Fordland as No. 3 in the Springfield area, behind Central and Ozark. Ford said Grandel’s rigorous courses and personalized approach were a big part of the win.
She teaches English, Advanced Placement Language and Composition, yearbook and journalism, Spanish, and dual credit speech and leadership, courses that can be taken for high school and college credit.
“She knows her content and knows how to pull achievement out of kids that they don’t know themselves is there,” said former student Toni Owens, who now works alongside Grandel as a biology teacher. “She works hard with them to do that. She sees what they don’t see in themselves.”
During her tenure, Grandel successfully advocated to bring the Advanced Placement program to the high school, in an effort to give students an edge in college admissions and scholarships.
“I thought to myself, ‘Fordland can do this,’ even though we are small, even though we are rural,” she said. “I felt it could help us prepare our kids more fully, make them more viable.”
The Fordland district has 550 students, including preschool, and 55 percent qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, a national measure of poverty. In 2018, 97 percent graduate on time and 61 percent go to college.
“It’s her passion to see kids be successful at all levels,” said Ford, the superintendent. “We are a poor farming community, but it doesn’t matter what your status is, her passion is to see kids go to what I call Grade 13 — beyond high school — if that’s the military, a two-year or four-year college.”
Grandel, who later earned a master’s degree from Drury, is a third-generation teacher, following in the footsteps of her mother and her grandmother.
“They taught me to appreciate education and to love kids, and so I’ve just always known I was going to be a teacher,” she said. “Also, God laid it on my heart that this is what I was going to do. I was meant to be a teacher.”
She said her mother, who worked in Marshfield, possessed an uncanny ability to relate to teens and sense what they were going through in high school. She peppered lessons with life skills.
As a student, Grandel admired history teacher Joe Woodring’s “natural ability” to make any subject interesting and wanted to emulate his style. Though retired, he returns to the high school to substitute or bring Starbucks coffee to the teachers.
“He cared about kids. He knew little things about us. He gave us Reese’s each year for our birthday — every single kid,” she said. “You just knew he loved you.”
Grandel said she was surrounded by a supportive “network of teachers” during her first three years in Mountain Grove and the past 21 in Fordland. “Small schools kind of get a bad rap sometimes, but what I have is amazing. We have a great team.”
Still, there are challenges, including limited staffing and resources. Grandel, who teaches six courses, stays after school to plan lessons.
She has served as the sponsor for a range of extracurricular activities including the Beta Club, a service-focused honor society that she belonged to as a student. Fordland has qualified for a national competition each year during her tenure.
“The kids put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of community service,” Grandel said. “They learn to appreciate their community more and they figure out that things aren’t always equal and it’s their job to try and make them more so.”
Grandel said she is grateful for the ability to teach in the community where she grew up and has raised a family. She and husband Doug, a train engineer, have three sons and one daughter.
Their son Cole recently graduated from Stanford University and is pursuing a doctorate at Rice University; sons Ethan and Skyler are enrolled at Vanderbilt University; and their daughter, Grace, is a freshman at Fordland High.
This fall, following a nomination by principal Tamitha Ritter, Grandel was named one of the seven finalists for Missouri Teacher of the Year.
“I know we say it is a team effort to make district achievements, but every team needs a catalyst,” said Ritter, in a news release. “I believe [Melissa] is this district’s catalyst. Her vision for what rural education could and should be is not based on just being equitable to big school offerings, but using the unique characteristics of a small town to cater to the needs of each student.”
Grandel said: “That they were able to look at what I do and appreciate it is something that gives me such a deep feeling of appreciation.”
As the winner, she will be honored Oct. 21 during a banquet in Jefferson City and will represent Missouri in the National Teacher of the Year program.
She hopes to teach at least five more years and, perhaps, triple that amount. She said the motivation walks into her classroom each day.
“If I’m having a bad day … all I have to do is step back and have a real conversation with kids — not be worried about English right now — but just talk to them and let them be kids and me be me,” she said. “Then, I remember why I love what I do.”
AREA WINNERS, FINALISTS
A Missouri Teacher of the Year list maintained by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that since 1970, only a few winners have hailed from the Ozarks, including:
•2020 — Melissa “Misty” Grandel, English and speech, Fordland High.
•1988 — Robin Dale Montz, social studies, Neosho High.
•1977 — Donald Heaton, vocational agriculture, Jasper High.
Grandel was one of seven finalists for the 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year. The other finalists included:
•Zachary “Zak” Hamby, English and mythology, Ava High.
•Dan Brinkmann, automotive technology, Four Rivers Career Center, Washington.
•Denise Henggeler, fourth grade, Northeast Nodaway Elementary.
•Kevin Lay, physics and physical science, Owensville High in Gasconade County.
•Rachael Wilcox, first grade, Independence Elementary, Francis Howell.
•Sandra Wood, Spanish, Maryville High School.
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