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Morris Area teacher Shelley Messner finds it all adds up

Morris Area math and social studies teacher Shelley Messner (center) with some of her students after being named the Morris Area district's 2008 Teacher of the Year last week.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Shelley Messner grew up with a mother who was a teacher, and Shelley had no intention of falling in line behind Mom.

Shelley was going to be an accountant.

"I just wasn't going to bring home that much work at night and get paid what teachers get paid," she said.

But a funny thing happened on Messner's way from her Lake City hometown to the Morris Area School District. All the late nights grading tests and the lack of additional zeros on her paychecks weren't sufficient deterrents -- Messner found she loved her mother's job.

"I can't honestly see myself doing anything other than what I'm doing," she said.

The rest of the Morris Area district faculty obviously are glad about that. Last week, the Morris Area Teachers Association named Messner as its 2008 Teacher of the Year.

Messner teachers mathematics and some social studies classes, and she's been doing it since 1993 when she came to Morris for her first job out of college.

Messner grew up in the Lake City area, where her father, Gerald Dahling, worked as a dairy farmer and mother Roberta taught English and Spanish in the Lincoln High School from which Messner graduated in 1988.

Shelley entered what is now Minnesota State-Mankato with the intention of becoming an accountant. She learned quickly that wasn't her calling.

"I just did not like all the business classes," she said.

What Shelley did find fulfilling was a job with the campus' tutoring service, helping other students with college algebra. On the practical side, she needed to find some work, but it intrigued her that math -- something that came so easily for her -- was such a difficult subject for many students.

She began to understand what it was that hooked her mother.

"That set it," Shelley said of tutoring. "I just loved doing it. I found it very odd that I never had to think twice about the math I learned -- it just came to me. I was surprised by how much trouble some kids had with math."

Messner's career choice was cemented during a year she spend as a "research lackey" for Mankato State math professor Mary Ann Lee. Messner said she was delighted and honored when their study of high school and elementary math text books was published.

The study helped Messner learn what worked and what didn't work in math education. And like all good teachers, she also found that sharing and collaborating were much more effective tools than lecturing.

"I found that I could take something I enjoyed very much and make it something they could enjoy, too," Shelley said.

Messner taught social studies and some math classes during her first six years in the Morris Area district. She moved into primarily teaching math when Roger Gunnufson retired.

Messner bolstered her credentials by earning a masters degree in curriculum and education from the College of St. Scholastica in 2005. But she isn't stuck in books and worksheets all day. She played volleyball in high school, kept up with the sport in intramurals in college, and is the 9th grade coach and varsity assistant coach at Morris Area.

"Coaching and that relationship with a team, that's priceless," Shelley said. "I enjoyed it so much because it's about interaction with kids. You can teach them something even if it doesn't have anything to do with volleyball. It's a place for guidance, too."

Messner said her teaching has been enhanced by the diligence and knowledge of para-educator Lenora Waddell -- they've worked together nine years -- and the Morris Area staff and administration.

"I don't know if I could have found a better fit," she said. "The faculty here is very supportive of each other. If you have an idea you want to bounce off somebody, you'll always find people who are willing to listen or offer advice. The administration is supportive of what we do in the classroom and gives us the leeway to get there."

Messner and her husband, Robert, had three children: Phillip, 11, Andrew, 8, and Katelyn, 5. In addition to her family, teaching and coaching, Messner now must find some time to complete the application process as the district's candidate for state Teacher of the Year. But she's not concerned since anything more would be icing.

"To be nominated was in itself an honor," Shelley said. "When (teacher) Evelyn Griffith said my name, it was a little overwhelming -- I find myself in some pretty good company. It's great to advance to the (state competition), but it's different when you're just information on paper; people don't know you. This is the big one. This is the big honor."