Cleveland High English teacher Melissa Pearce was named the Johnston County Public Schools (JCPS) 2023 Teacher of the Year. With the naming Pearce made history, as she is the first person to ever receive the award twice. Pearce received the award for the first time 2007 and was named a finalist for the award in 2022.
Pearce has been an educator with JCPS for the past 19 years. She has been teaching for 20 years, spending her first year teaching in Pamlico County. “It wasn’t quite home,” she said. A native of Johnston County, she attended Wilson’s Mills Elementary, Smithfield Middle, and graduated from Smithfield-Selma High. After that first year, Pearce decided to come back to her home, Johnston County.
Interestingly enough, teaching was never a part of her plan. As a young girl, Pearce got to tag along on a science field trip with her aunt, a high school civics teacher, to the marshlands along the North Carolina coast and was completely intrigued. “I fell in love with it!” she remarked. From that moment on, she was determined to become a marine biologist.
She happily attended Appalachian State University as a biology major until one ill-fated day. Pearce and her lab partner were working on dissecting a frog when an unfortunate event took place. She thought to herself, “This is not it!”
However, she had no idea what she wanted to do. Pearce had spent 10 years focused on marine biology. She scheduled a meeting with her advisor, and talked extensively with her family. At one point, her parents asked her what she was going to do. She answered, “I don’t know, teach?”
Once she made the decision to become a teacher, Pearce said it felt right. The other decision she made was to pursue teaching English. An avid reader from an early age, on family vacations, Pearce would pack more books than clothes. She would also get in trouble for being distracted by her books when she was supposed to be cleaning her room.
In the beginning, Pearce couldn’t wait to share her love of reading, and just knew her students were going to love reading as much as she did. She quickly realized that wasn’t the case. “That’s when it shifted from the love of the story, to the love of the students. That’s why we’re here,” Pearce said.
Pearce didn’t come from a long line of educators. In fact, the only teacher in her family was the aunt who took her on that science field trip. She did, however, realize that a lot of her own teachers were influential in her life. One of those was her 11th grade French teacher Phyllis Parrish at Smithfield-Selma High.
Ms. Parrish was taking a group of students to Paris and Pearce wanted to go. Her parents paid for half of the trip and the other half was up to her, so she got a job waitressing, which she was not so great at. She did raise her half and was on her way to Paris. That experience left an indelible mark on Pearce, and she knew that traveling was going to be a big part of her life.
Following in the footsteps of Ms. Parrish, Pearce and a small group of teachers thought students might have an interest in traveling, too. They were right. In the summer of 2013, they took their first group of 24 students to Ireland, and have been taking students all over the world ever since. Their adventures have included Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. “I’ll take students anywhere,” Pearce said.
In between the summer trips and teaching full-time, Pearce found a way to earn her graduate degree from East Carolina University. At the time she was teaching at West Johnston High, and some colleagues had found an English program entitled Multicultural and Transnational Literature, which means they studied various texts from all around the world.
The texts included African-American literature, African literature, Native American literature, Jewish literature, multicultural children’s literature, and Chinese American literature. “It was nice to see an entirely different cultural perspective on the world and see the differences and the similarities,” remarked Pearce. Of all of the texts she studied, world indigenous literature was her favorite because it was the one she was the least familiar with, giving her a challenge, which she loved.
With that knowledge, she is able to weave those texts into the fabric of the curriculum. If a student needs inspiration, Pearce now has a vast array of literature that she can reference. Additionally, when she escorts students on these travel adventures, before they even leave Johnston County, Pearce has introduced them to some of the literature from that country. “When they see those things they’ve already read, it makes it more permanent,” she said.
Pearce has always taught high school students. When asked what she likes about that age group she replied, ”It’s very cool to know students at this time in their lives. They are beginning to plan their future, and the dreams they’ve had are starting to take shape, whether it’s college, work, or the military.”
With 20 years of teaching under her belt, Pearce said her favorite thing about teaching is that there is something “magical that happens every single day.” It could be an aha moment, or a student will share something funny.
Being named the 2023 JCPS Teacher of the Year is twofold for Pearce. She greatly appreciates the accolades, the plaque, and the banquet. Yet, there is something more important to her. “It’s an opportunity to represent JCPS. It’s my home, and I am a strong, avid supporter of public schools, so it’s an opportunity to speak on JCPS,” she said.
Nominees went through a blind judging process conducted by the JCPS Curriculum, Instruction, and Accountability department. Pearce was one of 20 semifinalists selected to move on to the interview phase. They were asked to submit a best practice from the classroom. The 20 semifinalists represented 16 JCPS schools.
Now, Pearce will move on to represent JCPS in the regional competition for North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year. Not bad for someone who thought her calling was to be a marine biologist. If it wasn’t for that frog, JCPS would never have such a vital educator dedicated to her students in its midst.