A “Wonderful Educator”

Marion County’s 2022 Golden Apple Rookie Teacher of the Year didn’t set out on a career in the classroom.

Melinda Kimball with her students at Horizon Academy.

A red apple sits on Melinda Kim-ball’s desk at Horizon Academy at Marion Oaks, a symbol of her title as Marion County’s 2022 Golden Apple Rookie Teacher of the Year. But the middle school agricultural teacher insists the accolade came as a complete surprise.

“I was pretty shocked that I made it this far,” modestly shares Kimball. “It’s an amazing feeling. You don’t do what you do for the recognition, but it feels really good when someone does appreciate the effort you’re putting in.”

Teachers with up to three years of experience are eligible for Rookie Teacher of the Year. Though a golden apple is presented when the selection committee enters the classroom, the one Kimball gets to keep is bright red and is engraved with her name and the year she received it.

“Red is actually more sought after than the gold one,” insists Kimball. “There’s only one red every year. If you don’t get red in the first few years of teaching, you don’t get one, so I feel so honored to have received it. The kids come by my desk and want to touch it and hold it.”

Students gather around Kimball, who is giving a treat to Tater, the class mascot.

Meghan Magamoll, executive director of the Public Education Foundation of Marion County, which helps organize the Golden Apple teacher recognition program, describes the day of presentation as a total surprise for the recipients.

“It is an exciting day,” Magamoll relates. “One of the best days in the year is when that surprise caravan enters the room and announces to that teacher and students and fellow peers that they have been selected as a Golden Apple recipient.”

As a member of the selection committee, Chris-tine Fernandez, a teacher at Shady Hill Elementary School and Marion County’s 2021 Golden Apple Teacher of the Year, got a first-hand look at Kimball’s classroom activities.

“As soon as I walked through her classroom door I was struck by her students’ high level of engagement and their excitement for the collaborative real-world learning she provided,” Fernandez declares. “Her rapport and positive relationships with her students shone through as she facilitated their learning. She is a true inspiration, full of passion and joy for her profession.”

Formerly a stay-at-home mom, Kimball and her husband, Christopher, have three children. She began teaching in 2015 as a substitute, but she soon realized she had found her true calling.

“That first year, I subbed every single day at Marion Oaks Elementary School,” Kimball recalls. “By the second week I had fallen in love with teaching. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, so I went back to school to get my bachelor’s degree.”

After earning a degree in agriculture business, Kimball acquired the necessary certification to teach the agriculture classes to middle school students at Horizon Academy. She also volunteers in the Future Farmers of America program.

But Kimball admits she never expected her teaching job would turn into a 24/7 commitment.

“I didn’t realize how life-consuming it is,” declares Kimball, who was even busier in February when her students were pre-paring for the Southeastern Youth Fair.

“I spent my days here at the school washing chickens,” Kimball says with a laugh. “We had 18 chickens in the show, plus three pigs and four rabbits. I’m here at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’m here on my birthday. I’m here by myself when all the other teachers are gone. The animals still have to eat, and the kids really like the animals and learn from them, and that’s why I do it. It’s a lot of work but it’s also very rewarding.”

Kimball was publicly recognized as Rookie Teacher of the Year during the Public Education Foundation of Marion County’s Golden Apple Gala on Saturday, January 15th, at the Reilly Arts Center. The event featured videos of students who touted their teachers’ accomplishments.

Among them was Xavier Thomas, a senior at Dunnellon High School and previously a student in Kimball’s class. In his presentation, Thomas labeled Kimball “a wonderful educator.”

“Nothing about her screams orthodoxy, from the way she rescued a possum from the student parking lot, to her pig Tater, who constantly chased me around trying to bite my ankles for fun,” said Thomas in the video. “She always finds a way to shape these situations into information that I will carry with me for a lifetime.”

In her own speech at the gala, Kimball listed 10 tips she gives students for striving for excellence. Number 10 was “Never stop learning.”

“I count it a joy to have had the opportunity to work and build relationships with students like Xavier every day,” Kimball said at the event. “As for my students, I just want them to be the best that they can be…. I try to expose them to different kinds of careers. I want my students to become the best version of themselves and to be happy as they are as people.”   OS

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