New history teacher changes career to pursue passions

September 11, 2018 — by Manasi Garg and Alekhya Vadlakonda

Melissa Hesselgrave found law and other jobs didn't provide the fulfillment she sought. Education did.


After graduating from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in History and the Law, newly hired World History and World Geography teacher Melissa Hesselgrave saw herself going on to attend law school. Before she went, however, she decided to work in Washington, D.C. as a paralegal to gain experience.

After a few years as a paralegal, she found that her job had nothing to do with her love for history, politics or even law itself. According to Hesselgrave, being a paralegal was much more about paperwork and money.

“I felt I wasn’t exercising my passions very much,” Hesselgrave said.

For a couple years, Hesselgrave switched between different careers such as marketing and being a fitness instructor, never feeling quite satisfied.

Then, at the behest of her mother, she turned her to teaching.

Hesselgrave started out as a long-term substitute teaching at Rubidoux High School in Riverside, Calif., her hometown.

At first, Hesselgrave struggled with teaching because she felt she couldn’t connect with her students. But after being “guilted into coaching [Rubidoux’s] water polo team,” she realized she loved the idea of guiding students to success. She began coaching the swim team as well, and developed deep bonds with many of the students at the school.

It takes a minute for kids to learn to trust you, so just spending time showing that you care and watching kids achieve goals in a sport translates really well into what they can do in school,” she said.

Hesselgrave also began to tutor kids on campus to ensure they were passing all their classes.

Her experience at Rubidoux inspired Hesselgrave to return to Stanford, where she received a master’s degree in Education.

Hesselgrave then became a history teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, and found that teaching was much more fulfilling than working in law ever was because teaching combines her passions for history, philosophy and politics.

Over the past few years, her teaching style has evolved. At first, she focused more on lectures and individual assignments. Then, however, she began implementing group work into the curriculum and realized students were much more engaged with the material.

Sophomore Tiffany Huang, a student in Hesselgrave’s World History class, said she enjoys Hesselgrave’s teaching style.

“I like that we go in-depth with the material,” she said.

Although the basic lesson plans come from state- and district-required curriculum, Hesselgrave decides which sections to dive deeper into.

At the beginning of the year, her World History classes learned about the Battle of Thermopylae, but rather than analyzing only the Greek perspective, they considered the Persian side as well, which wasn’t covered intensively in previous history classes.

In order to reduce her current students’ stress, Hesselgrave has implemented a policy that she will rarely assign homework excluding classwork remaining and long-term projects requiring extra time.

Hesselgrave is an avid advocate for mental health and plans to further incorporate mindfulness into her classroom and become involved in the new student wellness center opening in spring 2018.

Hesselgrave said she was inspired to prioritize mental health from her memories of once being a high schooler stretched thin between multiple extracurriculars and grades.

“I really think that balance [between work and relaxation] is important,” she said. “I definitely experienced a lot of stress and burning out [during school], and I feel like if I had better strategies for how to destress or to manage my work better and take time for self care, that would’ve been helpful.”

She also pursues other interests in her leisure time, such as swimming, cycling and writing, taking a break from the hectic schedule of lesson planning, school and the intensity of history.  

Overall, Hesselgrave said, she hopes to contribute to her new students’ lives at SHS.

“I love building relationships with students and helping them think in new ways to achieve their academic goals,” Hesselgrave said. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

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