While Conway teacher Melissa Spence didn’t initially start out on the educator career path, six years later, the 36-year-old couldn’t be happier with her choices.

The daughter of a teacher, Spence said education was never a journey she truly considered, desiring to forge her own way, so after going to school for marketing she worked for six years in that field.

“Then, I just felt like something was missing,” she said, adding while marketing could meaningful work, she wanted to head in a different direction to truly impact the lives of others.

Spence graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in December 2012 after going back to school to become a teacher.

“Should’ve gone with my gut,” she laughed. “It’s the best decision I could have ever made.”

On top of that, the teacher has been able to mix her marketing background with her new academic side, working alongside her husband, Jeff, to create a character-based system for students, Clue Buddy Crew – fun, silly yet informative posters – to give her first graders a more tangible, visual application when learning their sounds and phonics, aiding in the reading growth process.

“That’s been a lot of fun as well to be able to put the teaching with the creativity side,” Spence said.

After years of hard work and determination, the Theodore Jones Elementary first-grade teacher was recently recognized for her selection as the 2020 Conway School District Teacher of the Year.

“It’s been amazing,” Spence told the Log Cabin Democrat on Tuesday. “Theodore Jones Elementary has a special place in my heart.”

Spence said the school is more than just a “team atmosphere,” everyone pulling together to do what’s best for the kids, learning what needs to be learned to better serve the students; it’s about thinking outside the box to do that.

“I consider them my family,” she said. “It’s really important, just that we strive to do what’s best for our kids.”

Spence found out she had received the teacher of the year at the school level on her birthday, which was quite interesting since it was April Fools Day. Despite the holiday, the surprise she received that day was anything but a joke.

“That was actually a really fun day,” she said.

Spence recalled the moment Tammy Woosley, the school principal, and the 2019 Teacher of the Year Anna Schichtl came into her classroom with the good news, her students all in there.

“It was just really nice and fun and exciting day for sure,” she said. “I liked that they got to be in on the celebration too. That meant a lot.”

Being nominated by her peers and then chosen to represent Theodore Jones was a “really big feeling of honor,” Spence said and because of that, she feels proud that they thought enough of her to take their time during a busy year to write something meaningful about her.

“It was a really fun day,” she said. “Just really celebratory. That’s just the atmosphere. We always lift each other up at Theodore Jones and what’s one’s person’s success is everyone’s success.”

Flash forward to the end of the school year and Spence said she received an additional surprise.

She said the first-grade team was at their annual picnic with their students. All of a sudden, Spence said something caught her eye ... balloons, followed by Conway Superintendent Greg Murry, Heather Kendrick, Woosley and several others.

Then, she said, she saw the cookies in Murry’s hands, which is something he does for the teachers who win.

“I was like, ‘no way,’” Spence said. “It was such a special moment. Pure, humbled and proud and every emotion you could possibly think of, just excited and happy. It was really the best ... just a great moment.”

Spence’s husband was also there to surprise her.

“He was a real good secret keeper,” she said, laughing.

Woosley told the LCD she was thrilled for Spence, the school and the district overall.

“She is one of the most genuine, caring, and passionate people I know,” the Theodore Jones principal said. “She honestly comes in every day with a smile and an attitude to make a difference for those around her. Her positive attitude and creative abilities helps her reach all students in her classroom. We are so proud of her and for her.”

This isn’t the first district teacher from the elementary school either.

Kindergarten teacher Randi House went on to receive regional finalist and ultimately the state recognition and has spent the last year traveling across the U.S. talking about education in Arkansas and meeting all kinds of different people.

“Honestly, it’s such an honor to be selected as building teacher of the year that district teacher of the year is mind-blowing ... especially in a district as large as Conway that is filled with such highly effective teachers,” House said.

She said she imagines that Spence is feeling both the honor of the selection but also the uncertainty that comes with completing her application for the state position.

“She is such an awesome teacher who goes above and beyond so it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she progresses to the next phase of the selection process,” House said. “I’m not quite sure what’s in the water at Theodore Jones with [three] out of the past [six] district teachers coming from there [b]ut I can say that the students of Theodore Jones are blessed to have some of the most dedicated, creative, and passionate teachers I’ve ever seen.”

District communication specialist Heather Kendrick said Conway is proud to have Spence, “an outstanding and innovative teacher,” representing them.

“[Spence] impacts her students in so many ways,” she said. “Besides her daily classroom lessons, she has implemented many programs for the kids and their parents to extend and maximize learning beyond the classroom walls.”

The Log Cabin Democrat has had the opportunity to see one of those programs implemented.

Theodore Jones Elementary Schoolin’ Summer, visiting neighborhoods, students and families with a summer resource they can work on at home, a treat that correlates and free book, plus just the overall fun of students getting to visit with their TJES teachers when in an environment they usually wouldn’t be able to.

This year’s summer reading program begins at 10 a.m. July 3. Volunteers will meet, pile into cars and set out to greet their students.

• July 3 – Science and S’mores – Fendley Drive and Willow Street areas.

• July 10 – Phonics and Fun Dip – Acklin Gap, Treasure Hills and Creekside areas.

• July 17 – Math and Marshmallows – Beaverfork area, Rolling Hills, North Hills and Grandview Heights.

• July 24 – Tales from the Jolly Ranch - Nichole’s Place, Rich Smith Lane and East German Lane areas.

“Text the message @schoolsinsu to 81010 to make sure that we don’t miss your house,” the flier reads.

In addition to the summer reading, Spence also helped to establish Sunday Snuggle Stories, an idea pulled from a teacher in Texas who would do Facebook live book readings for her students.

Several within Theodore Jones felt it was a good idea and Spence made out a schedule. She said teachers prerecorded themselves reading and throughout, would stop and initiate discussion questions. At home, parents could stop the video and interact with their children.

She said the point of those discussion questions was to get kids and their family at home interacting, modeling good discussion questions and creating feedback conversations with helpful guidance, which some families need.

“We want to empower our parents to get in their with the kid,” Spence said. “Not just read the book but talk to them about experience they’ve had.”

With all her ideas, she said, Woosley and the administration as well as her peers, coworkers, families and students have been the most supportive, which she said, “in itself, is something that every teacher wants for sure.”

“The biggest thing I can say is I am truly grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to learn so far in my short career and I’m thankful for the opportunities that have been given to me,” Spence said. “Not just Conway Public Schools, that’s huge, but just by my school and my principal, Dr. Woosley ... just the support and encouragement and team approach that we have, it’s just truly amazing. I’m thankful and grateful everyday for that.”

Kendrick said it was “also worth mentioning” that in addition to the impact Spence has made on her students, her fellow staff members at Theodore Jones Elementary have also felt her “positive spirit and commitment to teamwork.”

“Melissa is a tremendous blessing to our Conway Schools family,” she said.