Melissa Elwell insists that being a people millionaire is one of her greatest strengths as a teacher.
“I literally called in every favor I had and said ‘I want top of the line fingerprint kits, I want top of the line laser systems, I want stringing kits so I can do blood splatters.’ That’s the people millionaire thing,” the CCV Bennington instructor said of her prep work for the forensics class she teaches. “I really believe that my students deserve everything you would get at a major university.”
And while it may be true that having lots of connections makes for great classes–Elwell has had author Archer Mayor visit class and called on judges to open up court rooms for use–in actuality there are likely other factors at play. For instance, one could say students are drawn to her classes because they feel like the real world.
In her forensics class, Elwell sets up crime scenes so realistic looking that passersby have been concerned that a terrible accident or crime had actually occurred. For legal courses, her students wind up in courtrooms and interact directly with people in the judicial system. What it boils down to is that Elwell’s classes aren’t stare-at-the-board affairs, they’re get-your-hands-dirty endeavors that students love.
“What I see happen in class that’s so great is when their hands touch something for the first time, it stuns them,” Elwell says. “But they learn through that process. Even when they’re like ‘This is so much harder than I thought,’ they learn it, they really get it.”
You might also say that Elwell’s years of experience as a first responder–she’s responded to almost 6,000 calls and has two cardiac arrest saves to her name in 17 years of service with Bennington Rescue–adds another dimension of reality to her courses. Coupled with decades of experiences with multiple federal, state and local agencies, Elwell is able to present situations to her students that grant them some insight into what they might encounter in the field. While she openly states that she’s seen things most people don’t want to see and that adds value to her lessons, she’s equally quick to say that it’s her mistakes that make for the best teachable moments.
“I never hide those mess ups,” Elwell said. “I love my students to learn from the things I did wrong, the mistakes I made, and the successes that later became failures. I think it helps them see me as a normal person and they learn that even if you fall down, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on.”
Of course it’s not all fun and games in her courses. Along with forensics, Elwell also teaches criminal justice, constitutional law, American judicial process and business law at the College. Students delve into textbooks and in some of her classes, she takes them right back to basics covering math, geometry, and the proper use of a protractor. Those are the skills, she says, students need to investigate crime scenes, which is a far departure from how the field is represented on television. Although the math and the gritty details do turn some students off, Elwell said, by-and-large her methods resonate, and she sees it in the student evaluations. This semester, she said, a group of students has insisted she attend graduation, because she’s “the one they want to be there to thank.”
“That just rips your heart out, it’s like, wow, I’ve touched them as people and given them somewhere to go with all the energy they have.”
Finally, students may just gravitate toward Elwell’s courses because they’ve come to know that she’s not just an instructor, she’s a lifelong learner who continues to take classes in order to improve herself and her lessons. But after all the blood stringing, legalese, and math brush ups are complete, Elwell says the one thing all students need to understand is the importance of education and what it means.
“Education is freedom,” she says. “It is the freedom to change jobs when you want, to add on to that degree when you want, and I truly believe that education is the one only thing we truly do for ourselves.”