“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.


ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Melody Arabo
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Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

Inclusive Education Vital for All, Including Persons with Disabilities

I want to draw your attention to today’s News Release from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner regarding the importance of inclusive education for all people, including persons with disabilities. Sometimes I think we forget that our shared work to develop more inclusive schools is, in fact, the foundation of peace in our communities and in our world. Thank you for your peacebuilding work; we have so much more to do.

As you enter the new school year, I hope you will find many opportunities to reflect on Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which the U.S. ratified after World War II. The UDHR serves as the foundational document for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and for all of the other human rights conventions. The CRPD contains no new rights, but helps to explain how modern nations have agreed to interpret the rights of persons with disabilities.

Article 1 of the UDHR reads:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

I have a UDHR app on my smart phone so that I may try to learn more. I hope you will look it up, too. It is amazing how applicable it is in daily life.

Please share the U.N. News Release.


More Info

Open Discussion on the Role of Education Technologies in Early Childhood STEM Education

This is a cross-post of a Blog from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). Please submit your comments there.


On April 21st, the U.S. Department of Education came together with the White House and numerous public and private partners to announce our shared commitment to improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in early learning (Preschool–3rd Grade). Early engagement in STEM is critical for our youngest learners because opportunity gaps in STEM can begin prior to preschool—and they can continue grow as students progress through school. There are a host of ways that the public and private sectors can partner to better address this STEM opportunity gap in early learning, such as integrating STEM with the arts and literacy, and using education technologies including screen media (e.g., television, computers, videogames, tablets). We believe that the use of technology can be an important tool for closing these gaps when used intentionally and appropriately in conjunction with other forms of pedagogy.

The U.S. Department of Education would like to initiate a discussion with the early learning and STEM communities on how best to engage and support parents, caregivers, educators, researchers and developers on how to eliminate opportunity gaps in early childhood STEM education, especially by leveraging education technologies. This conversation will inform federal policy decisions in the coming months.

Call to Action:

We ask early childhood educators and researchers, in particular, to help address these fundamental questions:

  1. Recommendations for screen media use in early childhood vary. It is difficult for educators, parents and caregivers to make informed decisions about which content is effective and how and when to use it. For example, how can educators, parents and caregivers best determine what content is age-appropriate?
  2. How can we make it easier for educators, parents and caregivers to select applications that are high quality and proven effective? What research gaps do we need to address to inform these types of decisions?
  3. How do we effectively support professional development (PD) for educators to facilitate the effective use of education technologies to close STEM opportunity gaps in early learning settings? How can education technologies help provide effective PD?
  4. How can we help media developers address the needs of diverse students and those with special needs to increase student engagement, and to promote social emotional learning?
  5. How can we bridge the opportunity gaps between STEM education, literacy, and the arts? What, if any, is the role of technology and screen media in these efforts?

Please submit your comments and questions in the open forum of OESE’s original Blog (no comments accepted on this OSERS cross-post) by 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, May 13, 2016.  We seek open and robust discussion of these issues so that we can improve education outcomes for all young children and provide effective guidance for parents, caregivers, and educators.

Recommended Reading (in chronological order):

Note: These resource materials are provided for the user’s convenience. The inclusion of these materials is not intended to reflect its importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed, or products or services offered. These materials may contain the views and recommendations of various subject matter experts as well as hypertext links, contact addresses and websites to information created and maintained by other public and private organizations. The opinions expressed in any of these materials do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of any outside information included in these materials.


Go to OESE’s original Blog post to submit your comments.


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Office of Elementary and Secondary Education