November 29, 2020

Alumna Kristen Merrell wins Missouri Teacher of the Year

KRISTEN MERRELL

Kristen Merrell waited and waited for the phone to ring. At 7 p.m., Merrell gave up and went to bed. Merrell knew she would have to tell her Lee’s Summit third graders she hadn’t won Missouri Teacher of the Year.

Before Merrell could let her class down that morning on August 23, they led her to the school gymnasium. There the rest of the school waited anxiously. When Merrell entered the gymnasium, the whole school yelled, “Congratulations!”

Merrell wouldn’t have to break any bad news. The 2007 Webster University alumna from the Kansas City campus had won Missouri Teacher of the Year.

The recognition comes at a bittersweet time for Merrell. Her father, a high school teacher and Merrell’s teaching inspiration, died approximately a year ago.

“I know he’s proud,” Merrell said. “I know he’s smiling.”

She went to work with her dad almost every morning as a high schooler. As he prepared for his class, Merrell sat in her father’s classroom. She saw his passion on these mornings. The same passion was then instilled in her.

The love for teaching was a common interest Merrell and her husband, Tom Merrell, had early on in their relationship. Tom Merrell has taught history at Pleasant Lea Middle School in the Lee’s Summit district for 26 of his 27 years of teaching.

Tom Merrell was also up for the Missouri Teacher of the Year award. Both of his parents were also teachers.

Eric Flack, director of professional development at Lee’s Summit and one of Merrell’s Webster professors, said that for the Merrells, teaching is a way of life.

After Merrell’s students graduate from Lee’s Summit elementary, many go to Pleasant Lea Middle and end up in Tom Merrell’s class.  The couple often chats about students they’ve both had and how they can help those students.

“Their conversations inside the house make them better teachers outside the house,” Flack said.

The three Merrell children now witness their parents as teachers, much like Kristen and Tom Merrell did with their parents. All the Merrell children are students in the Lee’s Summit school district.

In the days before school begins, the Merrell children help Kristen Merrell set up and prepare her classroom.

The Merrell’s oldest child is a senior at Lee’s Summit High School. She wants to study education at Benedictine University to become a secondary English teacher. Their second child, a sophomore at LSHS, is interested in becoming an art teacher. And their youngest, a fifth grade boy, has told his parents he wants to be a teacher just like his dad.

“All of us have a wanting to be in tune to other people’s needs and put ourselves in other people’s shoes,” Kristen Merrell said. “We have a desire to watch people grow and be the best they can be.”

In her time at Lee’s Summit, she once moved from teaching fourth grade to kindergarten. The age jump was a challenge, but Flack said Kristen Merrell was excited about it.

“She did it without asking questions,” Flack said. “She’s just a total natural, but I know she works really hard at it.”

Flack also said he believes Kristen Merrell received the award because of her enthusiastic teaching style.

“She does whatever it takes to make the kids learn,” Flack said. “She makes a connection with them that makes them want to learn more.”

As Missouri’s Teacher of the Year, Merrell will make speeches at speaking engagements and represent Missouri in a trip to Washington, D.C. There, she will meet Barack Obama. It’s an event Merrell said she can’t wait to tell her grandchildren someday.

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