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Merri Willis retires from Destin Middle School, one of the last original

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Merri Willis always knew she would be a teacher. 

From the time she was a little girl she would set up a makeshift classroom in her brother's room to teach her friends. She later tutored others.

But after 41 years in the classroom, she’s retired.

Merri Willis mans the hallway during a change in classes at Destin Middle School.

Willis was one of 27 teachers hired at Destin Middle School when it opened in 1997 for grades sixth through eighth. The only original teacher left on staff from that first year, after Willis stepped down, will be Patricia Malpass. 

“It’s just time,” Willis said, who has been a part-time teacher this year, teaching three math classes each day. 

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Although Destin Middle was her last stop it wasn’t her first teaching gig. 

Willis taught in Mississippi at Clarksdale Baptist Day School, then moved to Destin in 1984 and started teaching in Okaloosa County in 1988. 

She taught preschool for one year and at Destin Elementary. 

After a stint at Destin Elementary, she moved over to Bruner Middle School in Fort Walton Beach and taught sixth grade for six years. 

Merri Willis has taught at Destin Middle School since it opened its doors in 1997. May 26 was her last day.

When Destin Middle opened in 1997 with Principal Fran Gerstman at the helm, she made the move back to Destin and has been in the same room teaching math ever since.  

“I’ve had great administrators …  they’ve been great, all of them. I haven't had an issue with any one of them. They’ve been very supportive and loving.” 

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At Destin Middle School alone, Willis worked for nine principals. Gerstman was the first, followed by Ann Killets, Alexis Tibbetts, Tommy Britt, Sherri Houpe, Diane Kelley, Charlie Marello, Grant Meyer and now Belinda Small. 

But her love of children is what has kept her going all these years. 

“I just love kids … I always wanted to teach,” she said. 

As a young girl, when she had friends that needed help, she would tutor them in math. 

Merri Willis liked using the Mimio board in the classroom instead of the old chalk boards.

However, as a teacher in the real classroom, “I just always enjoyed seeing kids … especially when it’s that ah-ha moment when they catch on,” she said. 

And she has always loved math. 

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“Most of it is just concrete, consequential. That’s kind of what I am, an organizational freak,” Willis said. “And I do everything I can to get it across to them."

Changes 

“I used to be on a blackboard with an eraser and chalk, which would just drive you crazy,” Willis said of all the chalk and dust.

But in the classroom today, she has a Mimio Teach Interactive Board. 

“For math, it’s like fabulous,” she said. 

The Mimio board allows the teacher to save their work, save a lesson and show it to the next class. 

“It’s a huge timesaver,” she said. 

The board is also multicolored and the teacher can project work from their computer up onto the board. 

Merri Willis has been in the same classroom at Destin Middle School since it opened in 1997.

“You can take children’s work … and they can come up and correct it on the board,” she said. 

Retirement 

“You know when you know,” Willis said. 

In the days ahead she hopes to spend time visiting with family.  

“I’ve missed a lot of my children and now grandchildren’s lives,” she said. 

When she and her husband Ronnie moved to Destin in the mid-1980s she had only planned to teach in Florida for 10 years. But here it is 34 years later and she is finally stepping away. 

Merri Willis, one of the 27 original teachers hired at Destin Middle School in 1997, has retired.

Thursday was her last day as a Destin Marlin. 

“I’m going to miss the friendships I’ve made, my cohorts and faculty,” Willis said. 

Mary Lynn Bettinger, who has been in the classroom next to Willis for many years, is going to miss her teaching buddy. 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” Bettinger said as tears welled up in her eyes. “She’s my world, she makes me laugh. She has a passion for kids that I’ve never witnessed as a teacher for 29 years.  

Mary Lynn Bettinger, left, and Merri Willis have taught side by side for a number of years at Destin Middle School. The two are the best of friends.

“She’s the epitome of class and grace and passion, not just for her students but for everyone here,” Bettinger added. 

What’s next for Willis? 

“Basically, I’m going to do what the Lord tells me to do. We're supposed to walk in obedience to the Lord and since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to teach school and to try help those who struggled, especially those who struggled in math. I started out being a tutor for my friends and ended up having a job. 

“I never thought I would teach this long,” Willis added. “But it’s all good.”