First Colonial High School educator named gifted association teacher of the year

Growing up, there was no way that Missy Sullivan would ever become a teacher.

Her parents were both educators and her childhood dream was to become a flight attendant.

But one day in college while walking by an elementary school the life of this now-First Colonial High School gifted teacher changed.

“I’m a big believer that all people—at certain times and in certain circumstances—are gifted,” Sullivan responded when asked what prompted her that day to choose the teaching profession. “If you put them in their specific circumstance, people will show their gifts.”

Fast forward 26 years, the Virginia Association for the Gifted named her the 2016 Outstanding Teacher of the Gifted for Region II.

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It’s easy to see why.

“She has demonstrated that she is knowledgeable when it comes to innovative implementation of curriculum,” Principal Dr. Nancy Farrell stated. “She observes teachers for the purpose of assisting them to respond to students’ needs through differentiation. She also supports our administration by providing training when necessary, giving resources that are needed and learning current, educational initiatives in order to share with staff members.”

That same sentiment was shared by one of the gifted field’s earliest and most influential researchers, Dr. Joseph Renzulli.

“Melissa (Missy) Sullivan completed a master’s degree in our graduate program in gifted education in 2003 and I have kept in touch with her over the years as she developed nothing short of an outstanding professional career,” said Renzulli, director of the Neag Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut. She has compiled a remarkable record of leadership and service in the profession that has made her one of our top graduates. Her work in our graduate program was nothing short of superlative. She will honor the status and importance of this award as much as the award honors her.”

Each summer, Sullivan works with the school’s master scheduler to tightly cluster the school’s more than 260 gifted students—one of the few schools that clusters in grades nine through 12 and something that has caught the eye of other school divisions, even generating site visits.

But to Sullivan it’s about working with teachers and planning units in a way that capture students’ interests, hobbies and imaginations.

One of those ways is to offer Think Tank for Super Thinkers and Student Perspective Research Knowledge Seminars (SPARKS) courses to provide gifted students the opportunity to question, explore, cooperate, solve problems and conduct discussions.

Such was the case for a student who was enrolled in Think Tank and into baseball, but not very interested math.

After designing a unit on how sabermetrics affects baseball, Sullivan arranged for him to present his authentic research before baseball coaches from Wesleyan College. His interest in math was renewed.

Two other students, enrolled in SPARKS and interested in nutritional choices, found a solution to a real-life problem by substituting artificial sugars with natural sweeteners in recipes. They compiled their healthy alternatives into a cookbook and coordinated a tasting party with a well-known New York restaurant that offered final suggestions. As a result of this project, their student assignment became an actual published cookbook.

When asked about how she generates innovative ideas, her response was simple, “I’m very into personalized learning, which in turn provides choice and creativity.”

Out of the classroom, Sullivan serves as a VBCPS Design Fellow, organizes projects for the First Colonial Lead2Feed program as well as serves on the organization’s board of directors. In addition, Sullivan completed her doctoral degree this past May.

Sullivan will be honored at the Aug. 16 school board meeting and at an upcoming seminar of the Virginia Association for the Gifted.

In addition to Sullivan, this year, the Virginia Association for the Gifted also honored Old Donation School student Andrew Strassberger with an Outstanding Student award. For more information on his award, see the article here.

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