By Lucas Vader
For 24 years, Michelle Gillis taught English at Cedaredge High School, all the while building up a reputation for being a tough grader and assigning a high number of essays to her students. As the story always went, students who had Mrs. Gillis would learn better word choice, they would learn grammatical rules they never quite understood before and they would learn how to write in an active voice versus a passive one. She also ran the journalism program for 21 years of her time there.
On June 10, the Cedaredge Bruins Facebook page brought the news that Gillis is retiring and will not return to CHS in the fall.
“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the retirement of Michele Gillis,” the announcement stated. “Mrs. Gillis has impacted so many students, parents, and community members that we need your help to say thank you.” The post asks for past and present students of Gillis to create a 30-45 second clip of congratulations, gratitude or just memories of her classes. Those can be sent to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gillis commented on the matter and said that COVID-19 pushed her into making the decision, but overall she saw it as the opportunity to step away. She will be 66 years old in October and is at risk due to asthma.
“I just decided that with my health issues, it was a better choice for me because I could do it, so I did,” Gillis said. By the end of the school year, she had not made the decision yet, but that decision didn’t come without a bit of recent history.
Due to the risk COVID-19 posed for her, Gillis decided she would leave for the remainder of the school year, but the day that was supposed to be her last for the year ended up being the last day before the Delta County School District switched to online learning. For that reason, she stayed.
“I went ahead and finished my classes online, which was great, I really enjoyed it,” Gillis said. “I’ve never taught online before and I did enjoy it.”
Gillis’ entire career as a teacher took place at CHS, but it wasn’t her first career. She learned she loved to teach in a more indirect way.
“I worked in advertising and I was always the person who got sent to learn something new on equipment, on computers or software, and then I would come back to the company where I worked and I would teach everybody, and I really enjoyed that,” Gillis said.
When she came to CHS, Gillis didn’t get to teach journalism right away. The administration was reluctant to grant her that extra job right out of the gate, so she taught English. For those first three years, she regularly inquired about running the program until they ultimately gave it to her in 1999.
In those earlier years, she also coached volleyball.
Throughout her over two decades at CHS, she had students who grew up and had children who were later her students as well, along with multiple sets of siblings. All throughout that, she’s enjoyed working with countless students on their writing techniques, watching improvement as the year went on.
“Every year, there was a great class or more than one, and there were great discussions that happened in more than one,” Gillis said. She brought up AP Literature, which launched at CHS for the 2015-2016 academic year. In that class, there were always deep, honest and thoughtful conversations on classic texts, she said.
Overall, she took part and put effort into these discussions and the critical thinking of students. She graded hard and expected effort from each of them.
“I was pretty honest with my students,” Gillis said. “Yes, that’s what I enjoy the most, and I will miss that, but maybe it will be me writing now and working with myself and my writing.”
Gillis said she’s interested in writing a book but could give no details on what that would look like, as she has about five or six general ideas.
In the near future, Gillis will be isolating for her own safety, but her long term plans don’t involve walking away from the world of education completely, though she’s confident at this time that she won’t come out of retirement.
Gillis is currently completing paperwork to participate in the grading of Advanced Placement (AP) exams next spring, but she’s keeping an open mind in case it doesn’t work out.
“If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, okay, onward,” Gillis said.
In the meantime, Gillis is sure she won’t grow bored at home, as she has a big garden and horses, she loves to watercolor paint and she loves to read.
“We can blame the stupid virus, we really can,” Gillis said. “I really am trying to look at this as a positive effect, that maybe I just needed the nudge to go on and do other things. That’s just how I’m looking at it.”