“Allow them to make mistakes”

Allow them to make mistakes. Junior forgot his homework or his lunch? Don’t be so quick to run it up to the school for him. He broke a school rule and was issued a detention? All him to serve it. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is that actions have consequences. What better way to teach them that lesson than in a controlled environment where the worst punishment might be missing 20 minutes of video game time?

School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?

To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Michelle Person.

Michelle Person is a passionate educator with over 20 years of experience in education. In 2017, while searching for books for her youngest daughter she was disappointed by her inability to find diverse, multicultural characters that her daughter, as well as the students she serves, could identify with. She began writing as a way to fill that void. She is the author of 6 popular children’s books including the #1 bestseller Nathaniel English in Leaders of the Revolution. Her work took her into dozens of schools, meeting and coaching hundreds of teachers and parents. It became clear very quickly that the lack of diversity was an issue across all content areas in elementary education. Just Like Me Presents was born. JLMP is a multimedia production and development company whose goal is to increase access to culturally reflective teaching materials available to parents, teachers, and community organizations. Michelle graduated from Skidmore College with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and holds a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Capella University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?

Well I have been in education since 2020. I joined Teach For America after graduating from undergrad and taught for eleven years. I thought I could make more impact as an administrator so I transitioned out of the classroom and became a principal. After almost 10 years as an administrator I decided that I could have more impact working outside of the system. Currently I work as an educational consultant empowering families and educators through interactive programming and culturally responsive content.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Once when I was in line at Target a cashier recognized me as their former 2nd grade teacher. As she was scanning my items out of nowhere she began singing (very loudly) one of the songs I taught her in 2nd grade to help her memorize her multiplication facts. She told me that even though all of her classmates hated math she always liked it because the songs I taught her made it easy. She was 7 when I had her. She was 17 when I saw her in Target. As teachers we don’t always get to see the fruits of our labor. We plant seeds. But what I have learned is that those seeds always grow!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson comes from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming! Life can be hard. But you will never know how far you can go if you give up.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I always say that a good leader listens first, supports seconds, and acknowledges often. Whenever I go into a school I listen first. I listen to everyone’s concerns, what has worked in the past, and what their hopes are for the future. And only then after I have heard and have a holistic picture of the situation in front of me do I begin to influence policy. Change is not easy for everyone, so I do begin to implement changes. I work hard to make sure everyone receives the proper level of support so that they can experience success. And when they do begin to experience those successes I make sure to acknowledge them, publicly and often. People need to feel seen and appreciated. We like it when others do it for us so it only makes sense that we should do it for others.

My first year as a principal I was the third principal the building had had in as many years. Each principal before me had come in, made sweeping changes, and left. My first year I deliberately did not not change much in my building. I took time and met with each of my teachers individually, getting to know them, their needs, their fears and their strengths. I supported them as best I could and made sure to publicly praise them whenever possible. My second year I implemented several policies that were a one hundred eighty degree shift from how things had been done in the past. It made some parents a bit angry. But all of my teachers backed me 100%. They helped smooth things over with parents, supported one another, and we were able to make significant changes in the building. That never would have happened with a leader who had not first taken the time to listen.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on several exciting projects. This spring Just Like Me Presents launched our new social studies curriculum Meanwhile in Africa. Meanwhile in Africa is a culturally responsive supplemental social studies curriculum designed to give students a strong sense of self, affirm their identities, and cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. Each unit strives to provide a more accurate retelling of history with interactive hands-on activities that focus on the lessons on the past and how we can use those lessons to help guide our future.

Working on MIA made me realize how often BIPOC kids are marginalized and mis-educated as a whole. We wanted to help empower more parents as they navigate the tricky world of traditional education so launched our first podcast, Re:WOKE , Rewriting Our Kids Education this September. Re:WOKE takes complex issues in education and breaks them into small actionable steps that educators and parents can immediately implement to better support our children on their learning journeys.

It is our goal to open our first school in the fall of 2022. A school where class sizes are small, content is relevant, and everyone is engaged. You can learn more about all of our projects on our website www.justlikemepresents.com

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority about how to help children succeed in school?

As I mentioned before, I have been working in education for over 20 years. As a teacher my test scores often led my administrators to mentor other teachers. As a principal the schools I worked with consistently experienced increased academic achievement and parent engagement. I know what works and what doesn’t.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?

There are so many challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school. State tests have taken over. The first few weeks used to be easing into routines and building relationships. Now it’s assessing the students immediately to see what skills they are lacking, and creating intervention plans to catch them up. Students are data points and the teacher’s goal is to move their points as far as they can as fast as possible. I yearn for the days when students were humans and our goal was to help them develop into productive members of society. We also need to look at how we fund education. The push is to move the data points but schools are given precious little in the way of funding to meet those lofty goals. And the unfortunate reality in this county is the lower your tax bracket, the less funding your school is likely to have.

Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?

Test less, allow for other assessment options like capstone projects and portfolios.

Eliminate tax base school funding. Continuing to fund schools this way will mean that there will always be inequalities because we live in a country with an extreme wealth gap. If we truly believe education to be the great equalizer then we will make sure our schools are funded equally.

Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?” Please share a story or example for each.

Be active in the school community. Fill out forms, volunteer for field trips and student dances, and attend open house and parent teacher conferences. Your students shouldn’t be experiencing school in isolation. It should be a family affair.

Help with at home learning. School is only 6.5 hours a day. Take out an hour for arrival and dismissal procedures, an hour for lunch, and an hour for specials (ie. gym, music, art) and you are left with 3.5 hours of in class instruction. Teachers need your help. Review homework before it gets turned in. Practice math facts before bed, and make sure you are reading for 20 minutes whenever possible at night with your child. This sends the message that learning never stops and that it is important to you. What is important to you will in turn be important for them.

Allow them to make mistakes. Junior forgot his homework or his lunch? Don’t be so quick to run it up to the school for him. He broke a school rule and was issued a detention? All him to serve it. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is that actions have consequences. What better way to teach them that lesson than in a controlled environment where the worst punishment might be missing 20 minutes of video game time?

Seek out support for yourself. After a long day at work, homework might be the last thing on your mind. I get it. Besides, you don’t even like math. Find a parent partner who can help. Maybe you alternate watching the kids so you can make dinner and they can start homework. Maybe you hold each other accountable to make sure you both make it to this month’s PTA meeting. Whatever it is, having a partner, or a group of people, is always easier than trying to go it alone.

Teach your child how to advocate for themselves. A common rule in many elementary classrooms is to “ask 3 before me”. Meaning before you bring me your issue, I want to know that you have attempted to solve it independently first. Allowing your child the opportunity to problem solve increases their resiliency and encourages them to think creatively.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

Teachers need to be paid a living wage. Yes, the school day is 6.5 hours. But the average teacher easily spends almost double that amount of time planning their lessons, analyzing data, and attending professional development to hone their craft. You want someone at the top of their field to sign on to work 60 hours a week for 45k dollars a year? Why would anyone choose that when they could go into the corporate world, make twice that, get a sign-on bonus, stock option, and great health benefits? It doesn’t make sense.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to sit and chat with Oprah. She is a serial entrepreneur, like myself, is a strong believer in education and supports multiple educational organizations and she started her own! The insight she would be able to provide would be invaluable.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am on FB and IG @justlikemepresents. Our YouTube channel is Just Like Me Presents, and of course there is the website www.justlikemepresents.com Feel free to reach out with any questions at [email protected].

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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