By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
To Melissa Martin, the school where she just finished her first year as principal is a “modern-day hogan,” a traditional Navajo home.
Chinle Junior High School in Chinle, Arizona, sits at the center of the Navajo Nation, where Martin’s extended family members live without running water or roads.
She lives in housing provided by the district, though some students travel as far as 60 miles for instruction.
In those school halls, they meet a principal and Grand Canyon University graduate who not only recently won one of the nation’s top honors as an educator, the Milken Educator Award, but one who makes them feel at home.
“I get to see the beauty of our students,” she said of the students’ post-pandemic return this year. “I get to see their smiling faces and build a relationship with them.”
She is the principal at the very school she attended and a principal for the school district where she taught for 17 years.
“We are a central hub and do the best to see students’ needs are met, not only academically but the whole child,” Martin said. “It’s all because we want our kids to have the best.”
Students are provided breakfast and lunch – and sometimes dinner for those who stay late – and can use the school's showers and washing machines.
Martin was central to the successful return of in-person learning this year with 300 students coming back from remote instruction while 100 still learn online.
She didn’t miss a beat and credits her GCU education – a master’s degree in elementary education in 2010 – for helping her through it.
“I didn’t know it then, but it helped me prepare for the switch to online school; the model that GCU set up helped me go virtual,” she said.
Navigating through the system, setting up courses and maintaining a sense of community eased online learning and the transition back to school.
“Melissa's experience as a strong, instructional leader – combined with her care and compassion for the community she so proudly serves – are inspiring and worthy of today's national recognition." Dr. Joshua Barnett, Co-President of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, said during a surprise assembly at the school to announce the award on April 25.
Milken Educator Awards, an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation, aims to inspire excellence by honoring the nation’s top educators with a prize of $25,000. They like to call it the “Oscars of Teaching.”
And that day, Martin was as surprised as any Hollywood star.
“You see Publisher’s Clearing House videos and wonder, is that real?” Martin said. “It was genuine. I was that shocked.”
Not shocked was Dr. Meredith Critchfield, Dean of GCU’s College of Education. She said the honor given to the “best of the best educators” was a well-deserved honor for Martin.
She joins a talented group of COE alumni: More than 100 have been awarded teacher, principal or superintendent of the year.
Martin said she sharpened her teaching skills at GCU but developed her passion for teaching long before as a student and athlete in the Navajo Nation.
“I figured out who I was in terms of the Navajo culture and beliefs that ground me,” she said. “It’s always been there, but it just got highlighted by living the teaching and beliefs.
“The ceremonies and prayers all prepared me for this. I know there is a lot of love and support behind me.”
After teaching for 17 years, she believed the school needed homegrown leadership, and she became its principal.
“I see the beauty of our community, and someone in that position can impact the future of the community,” Martin said.
It was tough. Parents, teachers and staff all had fears coming off the pandemic, but she said detailed plans and procedures eased them, and “following my heart” led to a team effort.
The former athlete and coach who calls running her “happy place” can jog through the town and see familiar faces she has known since her youth at the gas station and grocery store – and the school hallways, where three former runners on her track team are now teachers.
“You see the reward come back to you when you see them follow their passions,” Martin said.
Martin not only was a key leader in online learning efforts and the transition back to school, but the Milken foundation also cited her work in helping implement the district’s early childhood program and as a key member of the team leading steady academic achievement growth at Chinle. The school went from a D rating to a B, “a contributing factor to the district now being the highest-performing reservation district in the state.”
But Martin said she won the award for having “pure intentions on the job.”
“This is something that makes me happy. It makes my heart, it breaks my heart, but every day there is something to learn,” she said. “There is some child that needs you. And I want to see students succeed and see them grow.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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