Empowering minds, nourishing souls: Delaware’s Melissa Tracy is among Global Teacher Prize finalists

Wilmington teacher Melissa Tracy earns international recognition as the only American finalist in the Global Teacher Prize.

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Melissa Tracey in her lab.

Delaware educator, Melissa Tracy teaching her class in the hydroponic lab at Odessey Charter school. (Courtesy of Melissa Tracy)

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Through her innovative teaching, a Delaware educator has impacted many students, earning her recognition as the only American among the top 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize. The potential prize of $1 million underscores the global acknowledgment of her contributions.

Melissa Tracy, a food studies teacher at Odyssey Charter School in Wilmington, was chosen from a pool of 7,000 nominations and applicants representing 130 countries. She was invited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to Paris for the ceremony last week.

Melissa Tracey posing with her certificate
Melissa Tracy, a Delaware educator from the Odyssey Charter School in Wilmington, was in Paris as a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. (Courtesy of Melissa Tracy)

“In all honesty, I just felt incredibly honored to represent my school including my students as well as to represent Delaware let alone to be an American finalist. I also felt incredibly honored just to represent the US,” she said. “I was able to spend a few days with some of the other finalists and I just felt incredibly honored to be in their presence.”

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Reflecting on her experience, Tracy spent valuable days with other finalists, and said she was humbled by the diverse stories and perspectives shared by educators from around the world. That included one conversation conversation with a Ukrainian educator, another top 10 finalist, who actively teaches during times of war.

“We were having a conversation, and then all of a sudden, he pulls out his phone he’s like ‘in my city, you know, there’s a warning to go down to the bomb shelter, I keep actively teaching during a time of war,’” she said. “There’s another educator from Ghana who’s teaching students computer science without access to the internet.”

Pakistani teacher Sister Zeph won the prize for her work developing her own school for underprivileged children outside her home when she was just 13.

“It just puts a lot of things in perspective,” Tracy said.

While she found the different teaching methods and innovations of other educators informative, Tracy’s personal journey to the top 10 was shaped by her community work, including teaching English in a rural Thai village, and contributing to education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

At the heart of her recognition was her ‘one-of-a-kind’ food studies program, which started in 2019. This innovative program imparts knowledge on a healthy food system and empowers young girls through the Girls Grow Greens project.

“One of the reasons I was a top 10 finalist is for the Innovative food studies career and technical education pathway that I developed that is unique to Delaware and probably one of the kind in the country,” she said. “I teach students about food through the lens of culture, environment, power, and history. I also helped to cement a partnership with Del Tech to offer six college credits and to teach students about principles of plant growth and hydroponic production, and then separately I have also created an elective course called future food.”

As part of her program, she made a hydroponic lab, reshaping a classroom into a useful space for growing greens that help communities dealing with food insecurity. Some of those vegetables are leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and collards where they often partner up with small non-profit organizations in the city of Wilmington.

“To date, we have harvested and donated about 6,000 pounds of produce,” she said. “Now on a monthly basis, we harvest and donate about 6,000 greens.”

Beyond serving communities in need, the program also contributes to students’ well-being and awareness of real-world concerns. Tracy emphasizes the importance of preparing this generation for the challenges of climate change and sustainable food production.

Students holding plants
In one of the Food Studies classes, students are harvesting cilantro and lettuce. (Courtesy of Melissa Tracy)

“It’s important because this generation will be disproportionately impacted by climate change and we are going to have to figure out how to sustainably feed an ever-growing global population,” she said. “I think that the program helps students to be more human.

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It helps them to develop empathy for others, particularly people who are struggling and who are food insecure, this simple act of growing food and helping to feed somebody else.”

Even though Tracy didn’t win the grand prize, she values the experiences and recognition she received. For her, it’s not so much about the money, but more about the validation of her 17 years of hard work as an educator.

“At the end of the day for me personally, it was really less about the prize,” Tracy said.  “It’s surreal. And as an educator of 17 years, I really felt like all of my hard work was validated just by the recognition.”

Tracy said many teachers in Delaware possess innovative ideas similar to the food studies program. She underscored the importance of a strong educational support group within the school that is open to saying ‘yes’ to projects, as the foundation of success for any initiative.

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