Meet Your Neighbor: Johnson City teacher turns to activism in retirement

Jessica Fuller • Updated Nov 12, 2017 at 5:49 PM

Whether as a biology teacher, an academic coach or an activist, Michelle Treece has always loved teaching.

Born and raised in Morristown, Treece found herself in Johnson City when she enrolled at East Tennessee State University seeking a biology degree. She graduated, and upon not being able to find a job in teaching, she moved back to Morristown.

It wasn’t long before Treece was back at ETSU, this time as a resident director for Lucille Clement Hall, a women’s residence hall at the time. After a while, watching students come straight from high school into the college made her decide to pursue a graduate degree in counseling.

“These are 18-year-old girls right out of high school and it was like magic happened, one night they were in high school and the next morning they were heading for college, and these girls weren’t ready for college,” Treece recalled. “There’s got to be some sort of transition because it just wasn’t there.”

Treece worked toward her master’s, chasing a new dream of being a counselor after not being able to find a job as a biology teacher for several years. As luck would have it, she learned that a position for a science teacher had opened up at Science Hill High School the day after she graduated with her master’s in counseling, and within 20 days she began teaching in her new position.

She recalled the class being a little tough at first, since she was teaching beginning level science and a lot of students only took the class to get a credit and didn’t find passion in the subject. She eventually became a biology and ecology teacher at the school, and taught that position for about 20 years.

After some new teaching standards rolled out, though, Treece decided she needed a change of pace.

“I felt like I was just jumping through hoops to please the system and I felt like these kids are losing out, I wasn’t teaching the way I wanted to teach,” she recalled.

She accepted a new position at Topper Academy, formally known as the Alternative Center. Treece’s job was as an academic coach for seniors in danger of dropping out of school, and to find a path for them to get their high school diploma.

The students Treece worked with were out of options, but she helped them carve a path in order to graduate with their peers with a high school diploma instead of a GED or dropping out, like so many who came to her were sure they would do. Through the program, she was even able to get these students to consider regional colleges.

“They get to tour campuses, they apply and they can go to college, and these are kids who never once thought they would be able to go to college,” she said. “I watched them cry, it was the most amazing job, you see these kids come in at the bottom, and we (teachers) got to watchthat same kid who was destined to drop out, we see them graduate.”

The position was cut though, and Treece was sent back to Science Hill’s main campus for a new program in which she would work with students who had good grades but behavioral issues. The idea, Treece explained, was for her to intervene with those students before they went to the alternative school, but after a quarter in the position, Treece knew it wasn’t a job for her.

Treece said she loved her time with Johnson City Schools, and didn’t want her last years in the system to be negative, so she retired.

That’s when she started getting involved in the community as an activist. Treece said her main goal is getting more people of color recognition in the community.

It started when she was asked to play jimbay, an African drum, at the women’s march in Jonesborough in January. From there she kept learning of other activist groups to participate in, including women’s rights groups and humanitarian groups.

After working with kids for so many years, and with two kids herself, Treece said one of her main goals in her retirement is to get more people of color in a positive light in the community so children of color can have role models in the community to look up to.

“I’m just all around the place but my main mission is I want to see more people of color showing their faces in Johnson City doing good stuff, not just in the paper for being arrested,” she said. “I know that there are lots of black kids in our Johnson City schools, and I want any kids of color, kids with disabilities, I want all those kids too know they can be a teacher or a principal or a mayor — they can have all these positions in Johnson City just like anyone else.”

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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