It’s been a good 30 years

Michele Willson came to the Tahoma School District at the tender age of 20 and started her career teaching grade school.

  • Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:00am
  • News
Michele Wilson

Michele Wilson

A teacher at 20 and now a veteran principal, Michele Willson is ready to move on

Michele Willson came to the Tahoma School District at the tender age of 20 and started her career teaching grade school.

“I loved teaching, and every grade I taught was my favorite grade, which I think is a good sign,” Willson said.

In a few weeks, she will retire, having spent the past eight years of her 30-year career as principal of Rock Creek Elementary School.

“It’s been a gift to work here,” she said. “The thing I tell people is how many people get to leave a job feeling like, ‘I love my job.’”

Her husband, David, who worked as a reference librarian and communications teacher at Green River Community College, has been retired for a few years, and Willson wants to spend time with him and their 16-year-old daughter, who will be a junior in high school in the fall.

“It’s about balance,” she said. “It was a really hard decision.”

Willson grew up in Seattle, for the most part, until her parents moved to Maple Valley when she was 15. She decided to get high school out of the way, finished her diploma at Green River at 16, then moved on to the University of Washington, where she earned her bachelors degree when she was 20. She later earned a masters degree in curriculum from Seattle Pacific University.

“I wanted to be a teacher from pretty early on” for two reasons, she said. “One, my parents didn’t come from an educated background, but they were smart people and they communicated a value for that.”

Her mother is from Belgium and hadn’t completed high school there, and Willson remembers clearly how her mom felt when she got her high school diploma here when Willson was 5 years old.

“The other part for me was that teachers had an impact, as I got older and thought more about it. I think school and public education continues to be a way you can make a difference in kids lives,” Willson said. “I still feel strongly about that, and I wanted to be someone who could make a difference in kids’ lives. You spend a lot of your life in school. You want that to be a really good place.”

Willson spent 13 years teaching in Tahoma’s elementary schools.

“I taught in the first years of our gifted program,” she said. “It was a pull-out program at the time, so I traveled in my car to the three different schools. They’d leave their regular classes for half a day.”

And she’d work with the gifted students wherever there was space, from the corner of a classroom to the lunch room and everywhere in between.

She then moved into the district’s administrative offices as part of a team that helped to re-shape the district’s curriculum.

“I worked supporting teachers in the implementation of new curriculum, instruction strategies, staff development,” she said. “I did that for seven years.”

During her time as a curriculum support specialist, Willson worked with Diane Holt, who went on to become a principal in Federal Way. Holt encouraged her to get administrative credentials because there had been some discussion of changing the way educators could get those credentials at the time.

“Diane said to myself and another person, ‘If you guys ever think you’re going to want to be a principal you better start now,’” Willson said. “So, I thought, ‘I’ll check into it.’ I applied and it’s like getting a second masters degree.”

As she was completing her credentials program, the principal’s job at Shadow Lake Elementary School opened up, and that was Willson’s first job leading a school.

“I did like being at the building level again and felt that’s where I belonged,” she said. “Glacier Park went from being a middle school to an elementary school and this building opened up as an elementary school. That was in 2000, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Willson said she’s fortunate to have worked in the district her entire career.

“In the greater context of things, it’s a great working environment,” Willson said. “For me, it’s relationships with kids, with staff, with family – those personal connections with people. Having been here for eight years, it’s neat to see the fifth-graders and remember them as kindergartners and watching them grow.”

Making school a good experience for kids is just as important as principal as it was when she was in the classroom, she said.

“That’s what I love about being a principal, too, supporting the adults who then can support the kids,” Willson said. “It’s a different way of getting at the same goals. How do we still make sure kids want to come to school and have fun and have opportunities to be creative and develop social relationships?”

Though she’s retiring, she has been asked by the district to help with special projects in the administrative offices next year. Because Willson started her career so young, she won’t be collecting her retirement for some years.

“I’ve worked here for 30 years, but I can’t actually collect retirement on the state plan until I’m 65, and I started teaching in the district when I was 20,” she said. “I’m lucky that financially I can wait.

“We haven’t talked about the specifics of what (those special projects for the district) will be, but I love the district.”

And though she won’t completely disappear from education in Tahoma schools, Willson said it’s going to be tough leaving them full-time.

“It’ll be emotion on that last day because it’s not like, ‘Yay! I’m done,’” she said. “We just have really good teachers and support staff, and we have good people who work really hard. That is why I’m so appreciative I’ll have the opportunity to do some things in the district so I can maintain some connection.”

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