Julian Award winner Melissa Wilson: Commitment and empathy in the classroom

Melissa Wilson with a student. Photo by Emma Grace Moon

At 19, Melissa Wilson was a single mother, working at McDonald’s and living below the poverty line. She decided to enroll in a class at A-B Tech that was part of the college’s jobs placement program. With it came free child care. Unfortunately, the class itself didn’t speak to Wilson. “I was training for an office job, but it didn’t click for me,” she says.

On a whim, she asked the director of her daughter’s child care program if they were hiring. As it happened, they were. The next day the phone rang. Someone from the child care program was calling. Could she come in to help?

“I wasn’t really sure this was what I wanted to do,” Wilson says. “But as time went on, I began to really feel invested with the children … and 21 years later, here I am [working in child care].” Her commitment stands out in a field that experienced a 19 percent turnover rate last year for full-time teachers, according to the 2015 Workforce Study, “Working in Early Care and Education in North Carolina.”

Wilson has worked for eight years as a lead teacher at Verner Center for Early Learning, with children ages 2 and 3. The organization assists families struggling with poverty, as well as those who might have additional challenges, such as a child with a learning disability.

“Melissa has a compassion for children in this region, more than any other teacher I’ve worked with,” says John Williams, assistant center manager at Verner. Williams adds that the children Wilson teaches “haven’t been dealt the best hand, and she sees that and has compassion and empathy for them, but also respect. She uses the year that she has with them to really equip them with the academic and social tools that they need to succeed in preschool and in primary school and in life. I’m really proud that she’s on my team and that she’s one of my teachers.”

Recognition isn’t a high priority for Wilson. She understands her impact may not be clearly remembered by any given student or family, but she knows that her work can play a crucial role in a child’s development. “Those first three years are so critical in the bonding process,” Wilson says, noting it’s a time when children develop trust, both in themselves and in others.

Wilson is well aware that many of the families she’s serving are struggling — which helps her establish bonds with the parents. “For example,” she says, “a family might have their power turned off and they don’t really feel comfortable talking about it.” But because of this bond, Wilson says, they will open up to her, and she can offer “appropriate help in a nonjudgmental way.”

“Melissa is an incredibly humble person,” says Heather Ward-Minger, Wilson’s former co-teacher. “She advises and supports all of her coworkers in a fair and respectful way.” Ward-Minger goes on to recall her time sharing a classroom with Wilson, describing it as an honor. “It was pure magic to watch her get excited with her students when she was teaching them.”

“I guess I’m just young at heart,” Wilson says, when asked about her ability to connect with students. “I’m able to speak to children and respect them and they respect me back. Even 2-year-olds. They’re learning boundaries and figuring out where they are and how they work in the world, and I see the impact that I make on them when I say, ‘Look, you did that,’ and this big smile comes across their face. … For me, I get the satisfaction that I meant something to them.”

BOTTOM LINE: Wilson’s sustained commitment and empathetic approach stand out in a field characterized by high turnover rate.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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