by Mary Bort, Endowment Assistant/Staff Writer, Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation
When Melissa Stern was a little girl, she enjoyed going to school and admired her teachers. “I liked to play ‘school’ and create my own worksheets,” she recalled. “My third grade teacher, in particular, made such an impression on me. She had such a love of teaching and treated us like kings and queens. I knew I wanted to do what she was doing.”
Stern accomplished her goal. She has been teaching Language Arts for 22 years at Lewis and Clark Middle School for Omaha Public Schools (OPS). For the past five years, she has been teaching Honor’s Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders, and is the school’s Gifted Facilitator.
Stern has been selected to receive the 9th annual Phil and Ruth Sokolof Outstanding Jewish Teacher Award. The late Phil Sokolof created this $10,000 award to recognize an Omaha metro area educator, preferably K-12, who has made an outstanding contribution as a teacher and mentor to his or her students.
Steven Kinkead, a former educator, noted that his son was taught by Stern and his daughter is currently in Stern’s class. “Ms. Stern goes out of her way to make sure every student in her class succeeds,” said Kinkead. “She meets them at their level and designs an educational program that fosters a positive learning environment. Ms. Stern cares deeply about her students and is an excellent role model.”
Stern was born and raised in Omaha and graduated from Burke High School. She earned her B.S. in Education, majoring in Secondary Language Arts, and an M.S. from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in Reading Education.
“I chose to go into Language Arts because I loved to write,” explained Stern. “During my senior year in high school, my English teacher really sparked my love to write. I work with my kids to do the same. I want to help my students become good writers.”
Stern enjoys teaching middle school students. “I feel like I can make a difference with them. A key ingredient is to build relationships. If you can build a relationship with a student, then the student will be more willing to do what you ask.”
“You have to keep them motivated,” she continued. “I have to be excited about what we’re doing and show my passion for language arts. Students need to see that.”
During the eight-period school day, Stern teaches six Honors Language Arts classes. Three classes are 7th grade and three are 8th grade. Her other two periods are used for her Gifted Facilitator responsibilities, as well as for grading and planning for her classes.
“My students are reading and writing above average. They already know the basics, so I try to take them above the norm. We read novels and delve deeper, and we explore ‘what would you do?’ The students analyze and apply what they are reading about.”
Her role as Gifted Facilitator requires Stern to coordinate several gifted student activities for the district and make sure that high-achieving students are being challenged by curriculum that is more rigorous than the standard curriculum.
All of Stern’s students are required to prepare a project for History Day. This is a competition that occurs at the local, state and national levels. “My students have the option to compete, but all of them must pick a topic associated with the designated theme,” she explained. “Over a number of months, they do research, obtain sources, analyze information and then they create their final project which can be a website, drama, documentary or an exhibit. All students share their projects at an open house, and then some choose to participate in the competition. In the past five years, we’ve had at least one student make it to national competition.”
Described by colleagues and parents as an energetic, enthusiastic and dedicated educator, Stern is known for going “above and beyond” for her students. According to one of her colleagues, “Melissa touches the lives of students, staff, and families, and we are blessed to have her in the profession. She ‘walks the walk’ in terms of her character and the type of individual she is. As a leader within her building, she dedicates time not only to her students, but to other staff as well. She collaborates with other educators to truly make a difference for OPS students.”
For over 15 years, Stern has been the teacher representative for the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization.
Since Stern is the only Honors Language Arts teacher at her school, she works with the same students for two years. “You get to know them through their writing and you build a relationship,” stated Stern. “Students stay in touch. For example, I have a former student who graduated from college, and she still sends me notes telling me how she continues to use the writing techniques that I taught her in middle school. It’s rewarding to know I’m able to make a difference.”
Stern also makes a point to attend students’ school events and, occasionally, outside events. “If one of my students asks me to go to one of their events, I really try to go,” she said.
Stern’s devotion to supporting her students is noticed by students, parents, and colleagues. According to a colleague, “While all teachers are required to volunteer at school activities, Ms. Stern will attend an away football game or cross-country meet. You’ll also find her at a school play, concert or sporting event. She loves her students and wants to show them her support by cheering loudly.”
Stern has coached a variety of sports at Lewis and Clark Middle School, including basketball, gymnastics, swimming, and track. Now that she is the school’s Gifted Coordinator, she doesn’t have time to coach. However, Stern serves as an athletic supervisor, overseeing students who attend school sporting events.
Helen Epstein, a retired Early Childhood and ESL Teacher, taught Stern when she was a preschool student at the Jewish Community Center. “Melissa shares her love of Judaism freely with her students to keep them aware of differences and diversity of people,” said Epstein.
“Letting my students know that I’m Jewish helps them get to know me,” explained Stern. “In 7th grade Humanities, they learn about Judaism, and in 8th grade, they read the Diary of Ann Frank. When it lends itself, you bring it up. And it’s important to explain why I’m gone, when it’s for Jewish holidays.”
In her letter of recommendation, Jen Goodman wrote, “It’s nice to have a Jewish teacher as a role model for my Jewish girls… Just knowing there was a teacher there who was also going to be absent during Yom Kippur, or someone who would wish them a Happy Hanukkah, made them feel good.”
“I’m honored to receive the Sokolof Teacher Award, particularly when you see the people who previously were selected,” said Stern. “I’m appreciative to the Sokolof family for recognizing teachers and what we do.”
Stern is engaged to Michael Shrago and their wedding will be held later this month at Beth El Synagogue. When she isn’t preparing for her wedding, she enjoys reading, finding good deals when she shops, and spending time with family and friends. Her parents are Shelley and Skip Stern.
Stern will be honored along with the winners of the Sokolof Honor Roll Merit Scholarships and the Sokolof Javitch Merit Music Scholarships at a reception on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 p.m. in the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home Auditorium. The community is invited to attend.