Orchestrating greatness: a tribute to Gloria Jean Merriex

by Don Pemberton


May 19, 2008



by Don Pemberton

(Editor’s Note: Gloria Jean Merriex, a UF alumna and inspiring fifth-grade mathematics teacher, died of a brain hemorrhage on May 16, 2008. Merriex was well-known in Alachua County for her innovative teaching methods, which enabled students from a high-poverty school to achieve mathematics scores that were among the highest in the state.To learn more about her, read The Gainesville Sun’s news obituary, published May 21, 2008.)

First time visitors to Gloria Merriex’s classroom quickly discovered that they were witnessing a gifted maestro at work.

Tall, lean and graceful with a confident countenance, Merriex conducted her fifth grade math classroom at Duval Elementary Fine Arts Academy on the east side of Gainesville as if it were a great orchestra. Towering over her young protégés, the master teacher worked off of a script that was deeply embedded in her brain but was unknown and unseen to a casual observer.

With eyes firmly fixed on their teacher, the students were led through a dazzling array of exercises and activities that had no resemblance to any other math classroom in the world. Singing, dancing, reciting, writing and constantly moving, Merriex’s pupils unraveled the mystery of mathematics.

Merriex, a gifted pedagogue, ingeniously merged music, movement and math into a brilliant mosaic that immersed her students in an exciting new world of learning where the goal was total and absolute mastery of mathematics.

A typical classroom lesson might start with a group sing-along to a hip hop song Merriex had composed that contained essential math facts and formulas. Next, her students might pantomime geometric symbols, followed by an original dance, also choreographed by Merriex that provided visual representations of math facts and formulas. Merriex, always one step ahead of her students, would quickly change pace, returning the pupils to their seats to work on their exercises in their journals. Soon, they were up again, writing out their math problems on the board, explaining their reasoning and problem solving to the class.

Counterintuitive and unorthodox, Merriex believed in teaching the most complex and demanding mathematics principles first, then slowly and methodically adding new skills and concepts. Every day she circled back to what had been learned and taught since the first day of school, always vigilant for slippage and gaps in learning.

By the time the FCAT test appeared at their doorstep, her students were ready to conquer it. Their confidence was well-placed. Seldom did they disappoint. Year in and year out, her classes had some of the highest FCAT math scores in the state. Last year, they achieved the greatest math gains of any fifth-grade class in Florida.

Merriex’s results were even more extraordinary when viewed from the context of the under-resourced community in which her students lived. Keenly aware that more than 95% of her students came from low income homes, she never saw them as poor. Instead, she thought they were rich in potential and was determined to mine that potential and turn it into gold.

In time, word got out about the talented math teacher at Duval Elementary. It was no surprise to her colleagues when she won the teacher of the year award for Alachua County.

Merriex’s fame spread further when her tenacious principal, Dr. Leanetta McNealy, engineered one of the most substantial educational turnarounds in the state, guiding Duval Elementary School from a state grade of “F” to an “A.” Gloria became the public face of a talented and passionately dedicated group of faculty members that had, against incredible odds, created a powerful learning culture that integrated the fine arts into the curriculum, causing math, reading and writing scores to soar.

Soon the outside world discovered the amazing teacher from Gainesville. Scholars, principals, doctoral students and leaders of philanthropic foundations from around the state and country visited her classroom to see the master teacher at work.

She and her students became much in demand conference keynote presenters. Within the past year, Merriex took her class to demonstrate their math prowess, in lively and entertaining performances, that showcased her teaching strategies to audiences in Miami, Tampa, Atlanta and Orlando. They never failed to receive standing ovations.

UF College of Education researchers wrote extensively about the secrets to Gloria Merriex’s success. Not only had Merriex created an innovative curriculum and utilized cutting-edge teaching strategies, she also deeply connected with her students’ culture, community and aspirations. That connection led to evening math classes for parents, Saturday and summer classes for the children, and incorporating the student’s everyday life into the math lessons. Most importantly, she empowered her students, giving them confidence to tackle the most daunting intellectual challenges.

Suddenly and sadly, it all came to an end last week when Gloria Merriex, fondly known as Jean to her family and loved ones, suffered a massive brain hemorrhage after a full day of teaching. Put on life support, she died at Shands Hospital.

When she died, Gloria Jean Merriex was on the verge of national, if not global, acclaim.

She had recently been awarded a prestigious grant from the Kellogg Foundation, one of the foremost philanthropic entities in the world. Two days prior to her death she met with collaborators at the UF Lastinger Center for Learning to discuss the Kellogg project that would share her work with a state and national audience by publishing her curriculum, developing training seminars, underwriting an extensive tour schedule and laying the groundwork for a documentary about her life and practice.

In a separate grant, the Smallwood Foundation awarded the UF Digital Worlds Institute funding to install high tech equipment and cameras in her classroom so that her teaching could be beamed out to classrooms, researchers and teachers around the world.

As word got out of Merriex’s passing, overwhelming grief overtook her friends, family and fans in Gainesville and around the state and country. All who knew her were deeply affected by their loss, particularly since she was just months away from achieving the national recognition that she so richly deserved.

But fame was never Merriex’s goal. From her first day of teaching to her last day on earth, this virtuoso teacher wanted to orchestrate a life of immense goodness and leave a legacy that would live on in the hearts and minds of her students.

Indeed, Merriex leaves a powerful mark on this world. In her students, Merriex instilled a love of learning and confidence in their innate abilities. To adults, she demonstrated the power of human beings to transform lives.

The world is a better place because of Gloria Jean Merriex. She is greatly missed.

Don Pemberton is the director of the Lastinger Center of Learning at UF’s College of Education