At four years old, Melissa Hurst was setting up her classroom so she could teach her sister. The Clayton native, now in charge of Princeton Elementary, always knew what she wanted to do.
After graduating from Clayton High and then NC State with a major in English Education, Hurst came back to Johnston County to teach at North Johnston Middle. At first, she couldn’t believe that after all these years she was finally in the classroom.
“My first thought was ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this,’” Hurst said. “It was overwhelming, but at the same time I felt like I had the best job in the world.“
Hurst loved the classroom and soon moved to North Johnston High. She always said she was the teacher who thought she’d never leave the classroom for an administrative post.
“I wanted to be in the classroom,” she said. “But, when I was in the classroom I started mentoring new teachers and really just enjoyed that piece of teaching. You teach students all day but then working alongside colleagues was very rewarding.”
That interest in mentoring her peers soon led her to a position with the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI). There she worked for seven years as a member of the High School Turnaround Team. She and her teammates would travel across the state to underperforming schools to work with and mentor teachers to help improve their schools.
“Again I got to do that mentoring piece where I’d go out and work individually with teachers and PLC’s [Professional Learning Community] to develop their instructional capacity,” Hurst said. “Working for DPI gave me the incredible opportunity to be able to be anywhere. I could be in Charlotte one day at an inner-city school and be in Bertie County on the coast the next day.”
While working on the Turnaround Team, Hurst realized that many of the issues schools face lay with the structures and systems put in place by the school’s administration.
“To really affect change we had to work with the school administration, the school leadership,” she said. “As I started working more with principals in that role I thought I needed to know and learn more.”
So Hurst went back to school at UNC-Chapel Hill where she completed her licensure in school administration.
“The point of that at the time was not necessarily to go and be a principal,” she said, “I knew I needed to know more about that work and have a different lens if I was going to support and work with principals.”
But as she got more involved with principals, she saw how important strong leadership was to the success of a school. After a stint in the Wake County Public School System central office, Hurst moved back into the schools as an assistant principal.
“As a curriculum person, central office was a dream job,” she said. “But, I missed the energy of schools, and I missed seeing the direct impact of my work. When you’re out in the school and you get to look in to the faces of the kids and the teachers every day, there’s a certain energy that you get that you just can’t replicate anywhere else.”
After a few years as an assistant principal at Holly Springs High, Hurst moved into her new position at Princeton Elementary, where she’s already seen some of her work come full circle.
“One of the second grade teachers here was in the very first class I taught at North Johnston Middle,” Hurst said. “You know, every teacher wants to feel like she’s had an impact on a child’s life and to see where they end up. I’m just blessed enough that now I’m here and I’m getting to see my former students teach.”
Hurst wants to continue to make an impact on students’ lives.
“I’m excited about being at the elementary school level because I think we have such an opportunity to keep kids turned on to learning because I’ve seen that. I’ve seen it in middle school. By the time a kid gets to middle school he hates reading, he believes he’s not any good in math, he hates school,” she said. “So it’s often been a question for me, ‘when did that happen,’ I think, ‘at what age did you tune out, and how can we keep them tuned in.’ So I think it’s my job as the principal to keep everybody focused on the idea of what’s best for kids in this building, not what’s easiest for adults.”
While keeping the main focus on the students, Hurst also wants to make sure she’s building strong relationships with both her staff and the Princeton community.
“I’m going to listen a lot,” Hurst said. “I spend most of my day just listening to people. I think it’s been the best use of my time.”
During the summer, Hurst has spent Fridays in the community just getting to know Princeton better.
“I need to be visible, and I need to be out in the community,” she said. “It can’t happen in the walls of this office.”