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A History-Making Principal

New Tupelo High School leader brings wit and wisdom to the position.

Interviewed by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Dr. Melissa Thomas made history in April when the Tupelo Public School Board approved Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou’s recommendation of her as the next principal of Tupelo High School. She became the first Black woman to serve as THS principal. The longtime educator’s time spent inside the classroom and in administration has offered her a broad view of how education should look.

The 42-year-old Thomas and her husband Daniel Thomas are the parents of two daughters, 11-year-old Maliyah and Mia, 9.

“They are the sweetest little girls,” Thomas said. “They’re tough, but they have a heart for people. Even though I played basketball and softball, I have ended up with cheerleaders.”

Her journey to THS principal has been, well, educational. Thomas’ first job was a year of teaching history to seventh and eighth graders at Coldwater Middle School in Tate County. From there she returned to Nettleton and taught history to seventh and eighth graders for a decade. She also coached junior high basketball and high school girls and boys track and field.

She served as principal at Nettleton Middle School for two years and then was appointed to the position of principal of Nettleton High School, where she made history as the first Black female principal. She took a turn as assistant principal at THS and as principal of Lawndale Elementary School.

For the past three years, Thomas, whose Ph.D. is in Curriculum and Instruction, has served as director of curriculum for grades 6 through 12, training teachers and working with principals, trying to make teaching and learning more efficient.

“But I have missed the kids, the teachers, the ups and downs, the rollercoaster that comes with being a building administrator,” Thomas said.

And it’s her ultimate goal to do her best always to make the way better for students and for teachers. Thomas visited with Invitation Magazines and answered some questions a short time before she moved into her new office at the high school.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in the Poplar Springs community off the 45 bypass in Shannon. It’s mostly a family community, with a church and a ball diamond.

Q: Where did you receive your high school education?

A: We lived right on the Lee/Monroe county line, on the Monroe County side. So, we were bused to Nettleton from kindergarten to 12th grade. I was the youngest of four. The same teachers taught all of us, so by the time they got to me, expectations were pretty high.

Q: Was education always your professional goal?

A: I think so. Even in elementary school, at the end of the school year, I’d keep my workbooks, go home and erase all the pages. Erase and reteach. In middle school, there were teachers who poured a lot of themselves into my self-esteem, taught me to set goals. I took ag and learned how to stay with things from start to finish. I vowed if the Lord would help me find a way to college and help me finish, I was going to teach. I’m glad it worked out like it did.

Q: After high school, where did you continue your education?

A: I attended Itawamba Junior College (now ICC) in Fulton on a basketball and softball scholarship. Then I went to Ole Miss where my sister was a member of the track team. I became a member of the team and was introduced to the javelin. (Thomas set a school record in the javelin throw.) I always wanted to be part of a team; I loved the camaraderie. I’m thankful for the opportunity. I got a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. After I started teaching, I started on my master’s degree at Ole Miss, but when my grandmother died, I moved in with my grandfather and finished my master’s online. I received my master’s in Education Leadership.

Q: In your professional life, who have been a few of your mentors or people who inspired you?

A: I have worked under some of the best leaders I think our state has ever seen. Carrie Ball Williamson was my basketball coach at Itawamba Junior College, and was later the athletic director. She was one of the very first to take me under her wing and showed me I could accomplish anything. Russell Taylor, who is now superintendent of Union County Schools, was very patient with me as a young administrator. I learned a lot from Dr. Gearl Loden. And, of course, Dr. Brock English, Dr. Rob Picou and Mrs. Kim Britton have all helped make me better.

Q: What are your hopes/goals for Tupelo High School?

A: My goal is to help Tupelo High School be the best — not only in test scores. I want to help the students reach their personal and academic goals; I want our athletic programs to be competitive; I want us to be the best, not for recognition, but I want all to know our teachers work hard and they — and the students — are the best.

Q: What do you think is a principal’s most important priority?

A: My top priority are the teachers. I want to take care of their needs so they can do what they are tasked to do. And I expect the students to be the top priority of the teachers. Any teacher who has ever worked with me will tell you they are my priority.

Q: You’ve served once as assistant principal at THS. Does this feel like you are coming home?

A: Absolutely. It does feel like I’m coming home. I have a good working relationship with the teachers. They know me, and we have a solid, honest, working relationship. It’s almost like I’m making a full circle.

Q: When not thinking about education, what do you do for fun?

A: I am so glad you asked me this because I have learned to balance. Seven years ago, I worked. And I worked. I knew I had to find a balance. So, every year for the past seven, I would do something different. One year I bought a sewing machine and learned to sew. Another year I started a garden and spent a lot of time at Philips Garden Center and Walton’s. During COVID, I bought wood and tools and built a deck. I’ve learned to crochet. Sometimes I get real good at what I do; sometimes not. I made one quilt and we love it, but I won’t be making another one. If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned life is short. We can be productive, give it our best and still enjoy life.

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