Public Education Matters

Third grade language arts teacher Melissa Kmetz will spend the next year shining the spotlight on Ohio's exceptional educators and our public schools as the 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year. She shares her thoughts on mandatory retention under the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the importance of truly seeing students and empowering them to be leaders, and the one big thing she would do if she could wave a magic wand over her classroom.

Show Notes

Ohio Teacher of the Year Melissa Kmetz - Season 3, Episode 12
Third grade language arts teacher Melissa Kmetz will spend the next year shining the spotlight on Ohio's exceptional educators and our public schools as the 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year. She shares her thoughts on mandatory retention under the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the importance of truly seeing students and empowering them to be leaders, and the one big thing she would do if she could wave a magic wand over her classroom.
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Featured Education Matters guest: 
  • Melissa Kmetz, 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year
    • Melissa Kmetz is a third grade language arts teacher and Grade Level Chairperson at Lakeview Elementary School in Cortland, Ohio. She was raised in Campbell, Ohio, graduating from Campbell Memorial High School in 1999. Miss Kmetz obtained a full academic scholarship to Youngstown State University and, in 2003, graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Education (Early Childhood P-3). She began her career teaching kindergarten and then first grade in Salem, Ohio. There, she secured a Martha Holden Jennings Grant to Educators, which she used to open a literacy lending library. In 2006, she moved to Lakeview Local Schools, where she has been teaching third grade ever since! She obtained a Master’s Degree as a Reading Specialist from Youngstown State University in 2007, graduating with a 4.0 GPA and ranking in the top 1% of her graduating class. That same year, she was awarded the ETS Recognition of Excellence for scoring within the top 15% in the history of her licensure exam, the PLT K-6 Assessment. Miss Kmetz is a fierce advocate for culturally diverse curriculum, global education, and student leadership/activism. She furthered her knowledge in these areas through professional development at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Boston, taking the courses Advancing Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction and Educating Global Citizens. In 2010, she developed a Change the World Project in her school district, where for the past twelve years, Lakeview students have been activists, spearheading charity projects to benefit those in need near and abroad.
      • Source - Ohio Department of Education
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About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May, 2020, after a ten-year career as a television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded November 2, 2022.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters, brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Thanks for joining us for another edition of Education Matters. I'm your host Katie Olmsted. And I'm part of the communications team for the Ohio Education Association and its 120,000 members. OEA counts some truly extraordinary educators among its ranks. And this year, another one of those members is in the spotlight, helping lead the way for the profession. Melissa Kmetz has been named the 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year. She's a third grade language arts teacher at Lakeview Elementary School in Cortland, Ohio. And so as the Ohio Senate considers whether to end mandatory retention under the so-called "Third Grade Reading Guarantee" during Lame Duck, Melissa has some thoughts to share. She also has some big messages for other educators in the state. So we asked her to share her perspectives for this podcast.

Katie Olmsted 1:14
Melissa Kmetz, 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year, first of all, congratulations! This is such an exciting honor and so well deserved.

Melissa Kmetz 1:26
Thank you so much. It really is. I was blown away by the news. And I'm just so humbled. It's been a wonderful experience.

Katie Olmsted 1:34
So what has the process been like to get to this point?

Melissa Kmetz 1:38
Oh, my goodness. So in the very beginning, you know, I was nominated by the parent of one of my students last year, a total sweetheart, I was so taken aback. When I read her nomination, I was really touched. And we had to write five essays. And after we submitted those, they narrowed it down to the 11 district teachers of the year. And then they narrowed it down again to four. And I was completely blown away when I was one of the four and I was so excited. And then they made the announcement at the end of September that I was Ohio's Teacher of the Year. So quite a surprise, but so very excited.

Katie Olmsted 2:16
What did you think when you got that news?

Melissa Kmetz 2:19
Oh, my goodness, I honestly I was at a loss for words. I I was completely floored. I mean, so humbled. But I really just didn't think that it would be me. I was still so surprised that I was even nominated and overwhelmed, you know, briefly, but just so excited to share the amazing stories of so many of our educators and the wonderful things we have going on in schools, and just really shine a positive spotlight on education. So I'm so excited.

Katie Olmsted 2:50
And this is really an opportunity to share your messages with educators across Ohio and and with all Ohioans.

Melissa Kmetz 2:59

Katie Olmsted 3:00
What is the big thing you want them to understan, given this platform?

Melissa Kmetz 3:04
You know, I think there is so much focus on you know, the content standards and testing anymore. And yes, all of those are so very important because we want all of our students to be successful. However, as teachers, we really need to truly see our students. So many of them come to us every day with so many things weighing on them. And we need to be able to truly see them and understand where they are and what their needs are to educate them the right way to be the successful leaders they're able to be. So just making sure that we truly take the time to see and know our students well. This way we can better support them with the things they need.

Katie Olmsted 3:48
I mean, that's the difference between having a robot lead the class and an actual human lead the class. How important is it to you, especially right now when there are some talk in the statehouse, about lowering some of the standards for educators entering the profession? How important is that to you that that educators have the proper training to address a student's individual need as a human, rather than just those content standards.

Melissa Kmetz 4:14
It's so disheartening to hear that they want to change, you know, the educator qualifications. So much goes into teaching, other than just knowing the content. There's, you know, the social-emotional aspect with children, it's being able to appropriately modify lessons, you know, to either challenge or, you know, to reach the learners who are struggling at the time. You know, just ways to appropriately modify behavior in the classroom. So, I just think it's so detrimental to change the qualifications for teaching, and especially right now, you know, coming out of COVID. There has been some learning loss with all of that. And then also the literacy rates right now in the country. There are so many adults that aren't reading at grade level. So to put teachers in the classroom who aren't completely qualified, I think would just be devastating for our students across the board.

Katie Olmsted 5:09
And you bring up literacy. As a third grade teacher, you are very well acquainted with the so called Third Grade Reading Guarantee. State law in Ohio requires that students who do not meet a cut score on the third grade English Language Arts assessment, are not allowed to go on to the fourth grade. It's mandatory retention. I'm talking to you on November 2. Our hope is that in Lame Duck this year, the Ohio Senate will pass a bill called House Bill 497, which will continue to focus on those literacy skills and the importance of that literacy, but take away the mandatory retention element of that.

Melissa Kmetz 5:51

Katie Olmsted 5:51
What do you think what has the Third Grade Reading Guarantee done to your students?

Melissa Kmetz 5:52
You know, I couldn't be more supportive of taking away the mandatory retention. I truly don't believe that retention is ever beneficial unless a student has missed huge chunks of schooling within that year to where you know, there's a giant knowledge gap. This has put so much stress on our students. They enter third grade, kind of like with this black cloud looming overhead that no matter how well they do throughout the year, or how much they learn, everything is based on one test score. And one test score can't give you an accurate reading on how well a student is doing that year, or what they know or don't know. You know, it's something that in our district, our administration talks to parents on opening night, you know, open house, the night that they meet us, they tell them how serious it is, and how much of a focus, you know, will be on testing that year. And if their child can't pass the test, then they cannot go on to fourth grade. And the students feel it. You know, we just gave the first round of testing a few weeks ago. And I had students that day who are crying during the test, they would hit a word they didn't know and completely panic. They reached the writing section and had a meltdown. They weren't positive what it was asking. And they are so afraid to not move on to a fourth grade with their peers, that the anxiety they're feeling is off the charts. And I understand the premise, you know, I would never want to pass students on who aren't at grade level reading. But I think it just would be so much better to put the focus on early intervention and better supports for the students. But to base everything on one test score just has been so detrimental to our kiddos, they are so beyond stressed and anxious over this. And it really does affect, you know, their test taking ability overall, because that is all they're able to focus on during the test.

Katie Olmsted 6:31
Which is such a vicious cycle, because that anxiety, I'm sure, detrimentally affects their performance on that test.

Melissa Kmetz 7:55
Right. Students who would normally do so well completely shut down. I mean, and the crying begins and they are not able to think and perform their best because that is all they're focused on.

Katie Olmsted 8:06
And your entire platform, I guess, as Ohio Teacher of the Year is that we need to meet a student's individual needs. Third Grade Reading Guarantee's mandatory retention feels a lot like a one-size-fits-all policy.

Melissa Kmetz 8:18
It really does. And you know, it doesn't take into account often times, you know, a child could make incredible progress in their third grade year. But if they're not hitting that mark, then it's almost like, I don't know, the progress isn't celebrated. L ike we'll have students come in, and they'll make over a year's worth of growth. But sometimes hitting that score is almost impossible for them because of where they came in. So I just -- I don't know, the focus, if it was just on more intervention and meeting those kids where they are, it would be so much better for the kiddos.

Katie Olmsted 8:57
And that's what House Bill 497 would do it. It would maintain a focus on the interventions, and on making sure that students have the support they need to succeed without that mandatory retention piece. If you had to say one thing to lawmakers to help them understand the importance of passing that bill, what would you say?

Melissa Kmetz 9:17
You know, there isn't a one size fits all approach. And it depends on the individual student, I have phenomenal students who are high achieving, and they bombed standardized tests because of the pressure. So we can look at growth over the course of a year. We can look at, you know giving smaller, more detailed assessments, but we really need to focus on where the kids are lacking academically and plan for each individual child instead of just focusing on one test score for all of the students in Ohio.

Katie Olmsted 9:51
But of course, all of this is coming at a time when there's a almost like a network of puppet masters in the background who are trying to erode confidence in the professionalism of educators, who are trying to erode the confidence in them as the trained professionals they are. What have you seen? And what's your reaction to that very vocal minority trying to create these problems?

Melissa Kmetz 10:21
You know, it's so unfortunate because, you know, the educators in my building, and so many across all of Ohio, they're not only phenomenal individuals, they're brilliant at what they do. They've spent, you know, their entire lives doing this in their sole goal is to see students succeed, and to determine what level they're at and how to help them grow. And so educators are among the most hard working, dedicated, capable professionals. And so to try to take that away from them to kind of bend the narrative is just completely disheartening. And it's really harmful to education, and the students who, you know, we're trying to protect and grow ourselves.

Katie Olmsted 11:02
So what can we do about it?

Melissa Kmetz 11:05
You know, it's, I feel like, it would just be so much more beneficial to listen to the teachers who are in the classroom. Like, please come talk to us, visit our rooms, see our kids, and just listen to us and what we feel the kids need, and what would better help us to educate them. You know, like, how -- just talk to us about how we can meet their needs, and help us facilitate that. But one test isn't the option. It's not, you know, it's not a good alternative.

Katie Olmsted 11:35
If you had a magic wand that you could wave, and instantly get the things you need to help your students, what sort of things would appear when you wave that wand?

Melissa Kmetz 11:45
Oh, my goodness. So you know, curriculum. We have phenomenal, like Title I supports, and just any sort of extra, it could be a pullout program, it could be more aides in the classroom to help us; tools for more individualized instruction. So often, you know, we are looking to modify curriculum on our own, because we don't have higher level curriculum, or curriculum for struggling learners. So just you know, better adapted curriculum. Any support, just truly any support in the classroom, be it curriculum, be it extra professionals, and just more time for individualized assessments. And I don't mean like state assessments, I mean, just being able to read with a child, see what their fluency is, see what their phonemic awareness is like, or even if we had, you know, professionals that could come in and do that with our students. So, I don't know, if and if lawmakers could just come in and spend some time with the kiddos, who, you know, their laws are affecting, I think it would be worth the weight in gold.

Katie Olmsted 13:00
What would you want them to see about your kiddos, specifically? What do you love about teaching third grade?

Melissa Kmetz 13:06
Oh, my goodness, the kids are so excited when you take away the worry about the Guarantee. At this age, there is a love for learning. They're excited about stories and to learn about animals and their place in the world. And there's just such a natural curiosity. And you know, I feel anymore like a lot of times science and social studies are kind of hit the hardest, because we take time away from those to focus more and spend more time in reading because of the Guarantee, and just letting them experiment and learn and you know, do some project based assignments that they're interested in. So if they could come in and see the natural wonder and the curiosity and the excitement of learning, it would just be magical for them.

Katie Olmsted 13:54
Did you always want to teach third grade?

Melissa Kmetz 13:57
You know, in the very beginning, I started in kindergarten, and I loved it. And then I was moved to first grade when I was RIFed, you know, and I thought first grade was the perfect year. And then when I came to Lakeview, there was a third grade opening. And I fell in love with third grade. They still have all of the wonder and the curiosity and the excitement about the holidays and all of the little kid things that they could do so much on their own too. And at this age, they're really passionate about finding their Why. And just understanding that all of the things we're doing are for a reason. It's not for a grade on paper, you know, it's not for the A. It's now that you have this knowledge, what do you care about? And what problems do you want to solve? How can we use what we know as the vehicle for making the world a better place? And that element, you can really bring into third grade and it's one of my favorite things.

Katie Olmsted 14:52
What made you want to be a teacher in the first place?

Melissa Kmetz 14:54
You know, so when I was a kid, I spent some time in a hospital and the people there were wonderful. The doctors and the nurses. And you know, I really missed my dog at home, so someone brought in a hospital dog. And then one day somebody, one of the nurses brought in finger paint for me to paint on the window. And I realized how such small things could be huge to someone who needs them. And I saw a lot of kids there who were suffering. And I thought, you know, I really wanted to help kids in some way. So for a while, I thought that would be in the medical field, or, you know, through law, but then as I progressed through my education, I had the absolute best teachers, and they made me love school. School was so exciting, and it was fun. And I realized that they really went out of their way to make sure that some kids didn't slip through the cracks. And if it weren't for them, a lot of kids may have. And what I saw with them, I thought, wow, you know, I could really make the biggest difference in a child's life by being their teacher. You know, ensuring that everybody has a seat at the table, ensuring that everybody has the best education regardless of where they're from, or you know, what their family status is. And then also helping to inspire kids to be leaders, you know, what is it that they're excited about? And what is it that they feel they can contribute or change in the world? And so I truly, I can't see myself doing anything else. And I really, I couldn't see me being more fulfilled by doing anything, any other profession than this.

Katie Olmsted 16:33
For the next year, you will be sharing that love of teaching as Ohio Teacher of the Year. What is the next year going to look like for you?

Melissa Kmetz 16:42
Oh, my goodness. So this year, a lot of it is you know, traveling and speaking with other educational professionals. I really want to gain a sense of what their concerns are, how I can best help, what's going on in their school district. I really want to reach out a lot more to the parents in our district. You know, I guess just giving everyone a voice and making sure their concerns are heard, and then also shining a spotlight on the amazing things we do in public schools every day. So many times I kind of think that we hear the negatives, but the teachers are working so hard. The entire school staff is working hard. We have the best counselors, the best educational, you know, support staff. The parents are phenomenal partners. So just shining a light on the wonderful things that we're able to do each day because we have each other and we're working together. Because sometimes I think that gets lost in the shuffle. And I really want to bring that to the forefront.

Katie Olmsted 17:41
And I cannot wait to see you do that. 2023 Ohio Teacher of the Year Melissa Kmetz, thank you.

Melissa Kmetz 17:50
Thank you so much.

Katie Olmsted 17:55
As Melissa Kmetz continues to shine the light on what Ohio's educators are doing each day, we'll continue to shine a light on our members and the important topics impacting Ohio schools. Make sure you subscribe to Education Matters wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a thing. Next week, we're digging into the ongoing saga around the NEXUS pipeline property tax valuations and what that means for the school districts in more than a dozen Ohio counties that are missing out on millions of dollars while they wait for answers. And of course, we're looking at how all of that ties in with the Fair School Funding Plan that will be back under consideration in the statehouse in the spring. It's kind of a lot to wrap your head around, but I promise we're breaking it down in a way that makes sense. And it's such an important conversation to have. I can't wait to share it with you. Until next time, stay well

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