Dr. Michelle Tuck Thomas
Dr. Michelle Tuck Thomas is the epitome of leadership. In her career as an educator, she has not only taught students in the classroom, but she has also trained other teachers. What's more, she currently leads the local chapters of two national organizations for women. But her story teaches us that leaders are not simply born, they are developed by those who take the time to nurture them.
Q) What was your upbringing like in Person County?
A) I was born to Matt Tuck and Bobbie Jo Dillehay Tuck, and I have two sisters, Felicia and Keisha Tuck. From the time I was born to around age 4, we lived in the Chub Lake area. My father used to farm for Mr. Elmer Mitchell, along with my uncle, Herman Johnson. My dad ultimately had to decide between his full-time job with benefits at Collins & Aikman and farming, and he chose C&A and as a result we then moved to a house off Highway 57. I remember having to draw water from a well and heating it for bathing, as well as going to fill jugs of water at my great uncle's house for cooking and drinking. So I have some very humble beginnings. We moved to the McGhee’s Mill Area when I was around 11. My parents became first time homeowners, and my dad still lives there. So that is what my family considers our home place now. But despite the relocations I always attended Woodland Elementary School. After that I went to Northern Middle School, which was then Northern Junior High and was considered the new Northern after they had closed the Morgan Street location.
My parents had high expectations for us in terms of education. Especially my dad. Neither of my parents finished high school and I would always hear my dad say, “I didn't have a chance to get mine, but you're going to get yours.” I started kindergarten at the age of four. My uncle had a girlfriend at the time, Val Brown, who was a teacher, and she taught me everything I needed to know for kindergarten. But when I started, my teacher at the time didn't know how to differentiate instruction for me. So my kindergarten year consisted of me being in a listening center for most of the year. But I did have elementary teachers who saw potential in me and they frequently told me so. Starting with Vickie Coleman, my first-grade teacher, who was the first teacher to speak some positivity in my life. Then there was my fourth-grade teacher, Mary Ellen Hubbard. Whatever I needed to support my learning, she worked with my father to make sure that I could have access to it. Like purchasing a dictionary—there is this huge red dictionary that we still have today that my dad purchased when I was in her class. He told her, “Give me to the end of the week and when I get paid I will make sure she has it.” And so that was important because at the time, part of our work was dealing with vocabulary development.
But then when I was in fifth grade, my teacher was Gloria Prout, who is also a charter member of the Roxboro Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. She was my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and I remember her letting me be in a listening center for my birthday so that I could play music and have a free day while everyone else was working. And it just felt so good that she thought so much about me to do that for my birthday. And it’s funny because once I became an educator, she and I became colleagues working at the North Carolina Teacher Academy. So I got to work alongside her training teachers across the state.
Junior high was really a blur because I dealt with a lot of bullying and teasing at that time until I learned to stand up for myself. But in ninth grade I had Lisa Coleman, who is now Lisa Pixley, and she was the younger sister of my first-grade teacher. With her I was able to really get a good grasp on math and for the first time I was on the honor roll, and that was something that I maintained from there until the time I graduated from high school.
I am proud to say that my parents’ push for education did pay off for my sisters and me. I became a first-generation college graduate when I graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1996. My sister, Keisha, graduated in 2010 from NCCU with a Criminal Justice Degree. My youngest sister, Felicia, is scheduled to graduate with her Bachelor’s Degree in the spring of 2023. Also my dad earned his high school diploma my sophomore year in college and I was able to assist him in his journey to obtain that lifelong goal. And I am happy to say that influence extended to the third generation. My only child, Kalejah, is a proud Aggie. She graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting and in December 2018 with a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in accounting.
Q) What has your educational path been like?
A) I have four degrees. In 1996 I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from NCCU. Then in 1998 I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Middle-Grade Education, with a minor in history, also from NCCU. When I was getting my first degree, they had a required class that was only offered in the spring every other year. I was fearful of Dr. Fletcher who was the department chair and the professor of the class, so I dropped the class twice. But in the meantime, I decided I would pick up some secondary education courses because in my mind I was going to be a high school math teacher. The Lord said otherwise, but I picked up secondary education courses while waiting for that math class to come around again. So my first degree doesn’t have education declared on it, but I did complete all the coarse work for secondary education with that first degree. But my first school job was in a middle school, so I had to go back to get the middle grade certification and that’s the degree that I completed in 1998. Then In 2004 I earned a Master’s Degree in School Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill. And in 2019 I earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership with Superintendents Endorsement from High Point University.
Q) What is your career path and what are your proudest achievements?
A) My first school teaching position was in Orange County at C.W. Stanford Middle School, which is now Orange Middle School. I started mid-year with eight grade mathematics. It was my understanding that I was the 13th person in that room, with all the subs, and I just made it very clear to them that I did not scare easily and I would be there the remainder of the year. So I started there in March 1997, and I started as lateral entry even though I had the education background, so it was while I was working there that I went back to get the middle education degree.
But prior to that I was working in Person County as a G.E.D. instructor at PCC. This was when Judge Pattie Harrison was the judge and part of the sentencing that she gave was that if you did not have a high school diploma and you were incarcerated in Person County, you had to get your G.E.D. That was between 1995 and 1997. My daughter was born by that time. I was also teaching a developmental math class at PCC twice a week. And on top of all that, I was working third shift at C&A. So…All I can say about that experience is that as a woman and a mother, you do what you have to do.
When I went to teach in Orange County in March of ‘97, I knew that because it was lateral entry, they did not have to hire me back the next year, so I kept working at C&A. I would get off work, go home, shower and go teach class all day in Orange County, and then twice a week teach the math classes at PCC. In August of ‘97 Orange County invited me back to teach sixth grade, so I finally resigned from everything else so I could focus on just teaching. In 1999 I left and went to Durham Public Schools and that’s where I’ve stayed except for 2004-06 when I was the assistant principal at Helena Elementary.
At Helena I worked under Dr. Kay Allen. It was quite an interesting experience. Having come from Durham and looking at leadership in Durham, I was used to everything being team based. Leadership wasn’t dictatorial—everyone was pulled in together to work in unison. And I didn't necessarily feel that in Person County. There were great experiences with that role in learning the dynamics of a rural county’s educational environment as compared to a more urban environment. But needless to say, returning to Durham was more appealing for me because of where I wanted to go in my career. In Durham there were always opportunities to move up and move forward. And I just didn't think I could get that here in Person County, with everything still being on the proverbial good ol’ boy network and me having to tread lightly as a Black woman in that environment. It was an experience that I learned from but what I learned was: these are the things you don't do, and stay in the environment where you will be able to grow professionally. So I went back to Durham and back into the classroom teaching. I also oversaw all after school activities. And so, I almost doubled the income that I was making in Person County.
From there I became a full-time mentor with Durham Public Schools, helping to lead other teachers. I also worked as a literacy trainer with the North Carolina Teacher Academy until it was dissolved in 2011. But those two positions have been the highlights of my career because they involved helping to train teachers. And I’m happy to say that I have at least two mentees who have gone on to be school administrators.
When the mentor program in Durham was dissolved, I was tapped to be a campus curriculum leader for math and science instruction at a low performing school in Durham that was on a list to be shut down. My efforts working with that school resulted in tremendous math and science gains and the school was removed from the list within the two years that I was there. In the last few years I've worked in schools where my role has been multifaceted, with the primary one being overseeing the coordination of assessments. That led to my current position in the central office where I'm sort of the second in command for state and local assessments for Durham Public schools.
My passion is for teaching and learning, especially in mathematics. And that’s not only for students but for teachers as well—being able to teach teachers how to teach math and teach it well, and to make sure that students are benefitting and growing in their understanding of math. So my dream job would be to oversee mathematics instruction for a district because I believe I have a proven track record.
Q) What organizations or community endeavors do you participate in?
A) I'm a trustee at Hyco Zion Baptist Church and I currently oversee the audio/visual needs there. I'm involved, not only because of my love for God, but because that's a way for me to serve my church. It's given me great pleasure to ensure that we continue services during the pandemic and that the church is able to navigate virtually.
I’m currently the president of the Beta Kappa chapter of Delta Kapa Gamma. It is an international society for key women educators. I'm also the region five director for North Carolina. My purpose for being involved is to continue to provide an avenue to support the teaching profession and to motivate women educators. I believe, from looking at the records that we have on file, that I am the first African-American female to hold that position. This past year we were able to deliver treat bags to the staffs of every school within Person County Schools, as well as Roxboro Community School and Bethel Hill Charter School. We were able to do that through a sponsorship that we had with Hyco Zion. As the Bible says, you have not because you ask not, so I sked my church to sponsor us and they willingly helped. So as a result we were able to provide full bags of treats to every faculty and staff in those schools, every individual in the building, because it is my belief that everyone in the building has a role in educating students.
Our chapter is small but we have a big heart. I won't be satisfied until every woman educator in Person County is a member or wants to be a member. But it will take all the girl power we can muster to continue supporting this profession, especially in these unprecedented times when people are leaving in droves. We welcome other community agencies, churches, civic organizations, and clubs to partner with us to support the folks who impact students every day.
I am also the president of the Roxboro Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., an historically African-American sorority dedicated to public service, with an emphasis on programs to assist the African-American community. When I was young, local Deltas like Ms. Vickie Cartwright made an impression on me that never left, so I applied and was initiated in 2001. As a Delta, I’m empowered to stand up for social justice, be the voice for those in need, shed light on political undertakings that involve people of color, and, of course, do all this with women who are bound by sisterly love. As I mentioned in our annual MLK program this past January, Person county is not immune to all the things that we see on TV that's happening in our nation. We still see hatred. We still see the biases against people of color right here in our own backyard. So we have to make sure that we're more vigilant than ever to move forward with those ideas that our founders have set forth and established for us.
Q) Why is it important that women be recognized for their foundational work in our community and our nation?
A) You know, it's often said that women bear the weight of the world on their shoulders. For so long, the face of our society has been men. But women across the globe are surpassing milestones traditionally held by men and are being recognized for those accomplishments. It seems like we are also learning something new every day about women and their roles in history thanks to social media and historians who are bringing a lot of this information to the forefront. It's important for women to be recognized, especially women of color, because it sets the tone for little girls to dream, as well as to let the world know the power of our minds and our voices.
Q) What do you envision for the future of Person County?
A) It is my hope that everyone in Person County will one day come together to value each other as human beings and make sure that we really live by the fact that equity matters. I hope that in the near future Person County will expand and support economic development opportunities and bring businesses here other than chicken franchises. It was very disheartening last year when I received a statement in the mail that my property taxes were going up, yet I don't even have a decent place to shop for a dress other than Cato. For citizens to have to go to another county to shop, eat, and to seek entertainment is disheartening. So Person County being reinvented as a premier destination for major corporations, shopping, education, and entertainment is my desire.
Q) What is your advice for girls and young women who look to you as motivation?
A) It doesn't matter what your current circumstance is, you can be successful in life. Write your vision for your life, set goals and mark them as complete each time you accomplish one. And don’t stop when one goal is complete. Go after the next one. Know that the road to get to where you want to be may be difficult, but don't give up. Get a mentor. Stay abreast of trends, especially technology. Keep learning something new. Surround yourself with like-minded people who are goal-oriented, maybe even those who think differently from you and are perhaps even smarter than you. But don't ever think that your opinion does not matter. And most importantly, get to know God, the one who will never leave you nor forsake you.