PARK VALLEY - By Ellen Cook, Headliner Media Specialist, June 16, 2022
Melissa Morris of Park Valley has a sign on her desk that simply states: Melissa Morris – Super Woman!
That statement is truer than most people realize. Melissa is currently serving as the principal of three schools in rural Box Elder County: Snowville, with 33 students, grades kindergarten through fifth; Grouse Creek, with ten students, grades kindergarten through tenth; and her own town’s school, Park Valley, with 34 students, grades kindergarten through tenth. All are on four-day school weeks.
While those numbers may seem small, the miles between those schools are anything but.
“I think I average about 600 miles a week,” she said of her drive time. “I try to do one school a day, depending on the need. When I head to Grouse Creek, it is a least a 12-hour day. I have to leave here about 5:30 to get there before the kids do, and by the time we leave, I usually get home about 5:30 or 6 o’clock. But it’s all for the kids!”
Melissa’s dedication to her students and to their education recently earned her the Utah Association of Elementary School Principals “Rural Principal of the Year” award. The award was presented at their recent summer conference, held June 14-15, in Midway. It was a follow-up to the local district’s award, that of “Box Elder Rural Principal of the Year,” presented to her last October.
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Although this is Melissa’s first year as a full-time principal, it certainly is not her first round in the education arena. She grew up in Mount Pleasant, the daughter of two educators and the granddaughter of even more.
“Teaching kind of runs in my blood,” she said. “It is what I am used to.”
Melissa attended Snow College and finished her degree at Utah State University. She taught sixth grade in Nephi for two years before marriage took her to a place she never knew existed - Park Valley. She jumped into her new hometown with both feet and has called it home for 19 years. She began teaching at that small school, taking on three grades (4th-6th) and did so for 11 years. When the principal left for other employment and a new one was not appointed, she was approached by the Box Elder School District superintendent to see if she would be willing to serve as head teacher. She accepted.
So, while teaching a full day of now kindergarten through sixth grade (all her students in one classroom) she would also be the go-to person when it came to administrative duties, including discipline, data review, dealing with parents, updating the website, and more. She kept up that pace for four years.
“In those four years I realized that I was not prepared,” Melissa said. “There was a lot to do with being a principal that is legal, and I felt I was not ready to lead a school.” Despite her already hectic schedule, she decided it was a good time to go back and further her own education.
“So not only was I now teaching and being head teacher, but I also went to school full-time,” she said. “I was able to get my Instructional Leader (certificate) in a year and a half and push through that program so I could be better prepared.”
When she finished, the district asked if she would double up on hats.
“They approached me to see if I would be willing to teach half a day and then be the principal over all three schools the other half.” Again, she accepted but soon found it was just not doable.
“It was hard,” she admitted. “There was never enough time with doing three schools, grading, making lesson plans, parent-teacher conferences, etc.” She finally told the superintendent it was too much.
He agreed and told her she needed to pick whether she was going to teach full-time or be a full-time principal.
“I hated to leave the classroom because that is my happy place,” she said. “But I just felt I could do more good being an administrator because I live here, and I understand the rural lifestyle. So, I accepted being a full-time administrator.”
Melissa feels it was the right move. “I have been able to focus on the needs of the staff, the needs of kids and the needs of the community a lot more than being pulled in so many directions.”
Being a teacher, or even a principal in such a rural setting has its unique responsibilities, she said. “There are a lot of things we have to do differently. Teachers teach more than one grade level, most teach three. Some of our classes are 6th through 10th. That can be hard because the kids have different abilities, so you really have to differentiate to meet those individual student needs.”
Using paraprofessionals in each classroom has helped tremendously with that, Melissa noted. “They become an extra teacher. This year I have really tried to help them with training, also going and evaluating them, then giving them feedback.” Some of those wear multiple hats, too, acting as janitors or lunch ladies or secretaries.
Having a wide age-range of students within one room, even with the help of paraprofessionals, requires its own bit of juggling. Melissa said even with teaching a core subject to them all, it must be adjusted to suit each learning level. As technology advances more, teachers have been able to find help outside the four walls of their small classroom. This year Zoom conferences with other teachers of the same grade level has been a big boost.
“It has allowed teachers to help each other,” she said. “They can all talk about the content, the strategy used to teach the kids.”
That technology also allows the secondary level students to get the needed requirements for graduation.
“We are looking now into the future to help individualize that teaching,” she added. “We are working with Box Elder High School and Bear River Middle School to see what other things are out there. Other rural schools are doing this. If we have a teacher in Rich County who is offering Spanish or we’ve got one in Davis teaching French, can our students get on and use that technology and have that individualized education to meet their needs?”
Technology at its best, however, will never replace the face-to-face learning that goes on in all classrooms, even those in a rural setting, according to Melissa. She believes that to get “depth learning” and just not basic information there must be interaction between students and teachers, adding that if Covid taught her anything it is that students need a “live teacher in front of them.”
Since many of the students in those outlying communities did not have access to internet at home during that “shutdown,” some teachers, especially those in Park Valley, met with members of their class distanced on front lawns to give them the teaching instruction they needed.
Even though ways of learning for her rural bunch may continue to change as things move forward, Melissa hopes her role does not.
“I hope to still be an administrator helping these schools and helping the kids; just being and advocate for them; supporting teachers. I love this work, the uniqueness of a rural lifestyle. I would do anything to help these kids have the best education - because they are mine,” she said.
Fellow principal David Lee, who is also the Utah State Representative to the National Association of Elementary School K-8 Principals, said of Melissa, "She has worked hard to bring the training and support that her staff at each of these schools need. She is a principal who meets the needs of her schools. In fact, I happen to know that this summer she will be completing her CDL certification so that she can drive the bus when needed. I believe her greatest accomplishment comes in how, that no matter what, she does what is best for students."
Remember that sign on her desk? Super Woman!