Prior to her 32-year career in education, Mathis began learning at the very place she would start as a teacher, at North LaFayette Elementary,
She attended that school as a child (Melissa Walker) until the seventh grade and then moved to newly created LaFayette Junior High School, where her mother Mamie was a secretary for principal A.J. Isbell.
“I vividly remember my first day at LaFayette High School. I remember the old gym and sitting with my freshman class,” Mathis said. “Those were great days indeed. It was small-town America at its best.”
As an LHS student, Melissa Walker was an energetic cheerleader, a member of Future Business Leaders of America and Future Teachers of America. Science and English were her favorite subjects, skills that served her well years later as a teacher and principal.
“I liked the humanities, sociology and psychology. It was in the seventies and there was so much social change for the first time,” Mathis said, acknowledging a similarly tumultuous time now for students, consisting of civil unrest, economic crisis, protests and war.
Reminiscent of the seventies, student curiosity continues to center on differing levels of an uncertain future. The constant that remains the same is that a high school diploma and further education will pay dividends to those who try.
“I certainly wasn’t the greatest student. Hopefully I have been a much better teacher,” Mathis said, a statement validated by her determination, which lead to becoming the school system’s Teacher of the Year in 1982, 1986, and 1995.
“I didn’t come to the realization that I could do better until I was in college,” Mathis said. “It sort of stunned me that I had some potential and ability that I had never utilized. That was one of my driving forces as superintendent, to make sure early on that students understood what their potential was, what their driving forces ought to be, and what the future could look like for them.”
Career path leads back to her beginning
As a teacher she began at North LaFayette Elementary, spending a few weeks painting mismatched chairs and creating the colorful classroom that often resembles a patchwork quilt for rookie educators.
Mathis can recall many of the students from her first classroom and even the layout of the bright bulletin boards she created.
“They were brilliant children and ready to learn. They allowed me to love them and teach them, and they taught me the joy of education,” Mathis said.
“It’s an old adage — they won’t care until they know that you care,” Mathis said about what teachers must prove to students to gain trust.
She is thankful for the valuable support of parents and community members, as she was one of numerous new teachers at the time. “It was the greatest of situations. I loved every minute of it,” Mathis said.
Mathis credits several incredible mentors, including Dot Graham and Anne Abney, for developing a passion for being a teacher and witnessing how the classroom experience came to life for children back in 1974.
“They taught me about the heart of a child and the specialness of a classroom when you get it right.” Mathis said.
School principals Clarence Boyle and Ted Rodgers gave Mathis an opportunity with a specialized instructional assistance program in which she helped classroom teachers. It helped both struggling and gifted students with enrichment lessons and vocabulary.
She began to understand the concept of standards-based learning long before it became a state mandate. She had to develop her own curriculum in 1993 for a combined classroom of second- and third-graders.
The book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins served as an inspiration for direction as she became the curriculum specialist for Walker County, and as a mantra as she became the superintendent.
“We did a lot of performance-based learning back then, and that is what I want to see at our new K-8 school in Rock Spring,” Mathis said.
During the recent accreditation (done every five years since 1950) by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Mathis developed an annual report that focused on the present and paid homage to the forgotten past.
“This is something I certainly hope continues as a report to our community about the state of our schools,” Mathis said.
The accreditation (prior to SACS) of Walker County schools dates back to 1921 by R.D. Love with the first external review.
There were 52 schools in the county during that period.
“I discovered so many facts about the true rich history of Walker County,” Mathis said. “It started at the John Ross House with one room which Chief John Ross designated to be an education room for Native American children.
“We need a proud sense of our heritage in this community, in something that has stood the test of time,” Mathis said. “Those schools still stand as a testament to the past and we have beautiful new facilities that stand as a testament to the future.”
Also acknowledged in the report are the Marsh family efforts of erecting the Chattooga Academy.
“Simply knowing that our earliest initiatives are still present today from 1835 to 2011, we have a visible history of education in Walker County,” Mathis said.
While the average school superintendent serves for two years, Mathis has been the leader in Walker County for more than five years during the largest increase in graduation rate and the largest expanse into classroom technology to benefit future graduates.
The continuation of the school system’s mission statement, “Ready for College, Ready for Work and Ready for Life,” stands as the principle that her tenure established with the staff and faculty.
Being ready for life after education came as a surprise for Mathis, as she was advised by her doctor to scale back to benefit her health and reduce stress.
“We have vital new leaders in our schools who will serve Walker County for years and years” Mathis said.
Director of personnel Craig Davoulas will serve as interim superintendent, while the Walker County school board will search for a permanent replacement.
Mathis plans to enjoy a retirement trip with her daughter Rachel, who is graduating from the Medical College of Georgia. They will spend time together in Italy during April.
She also plans to write a few short stories, and possibly a novel, about growing up in a small town.
Her immediate plans are to rest and improve her overall health.
Gardening, walking and exercising will be part of her daily routine.
She also plans to volunteer with children in the hospital, and other initiatives, that support children’s causes.