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WorkHappy Spotlight: Crab Orchard School Teacher Michelle Kissing
WorkHappy Spotlight

WorkHappy Spotlight: Crab Orchard School Teacher Michelle Kissing

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Like many in our region, Michelle Kissing’s work world was upended with the temporary shuttering of public schools across Illinois due to the new coronavirus. But when you’ve planned on being a teacher your whole life, adaptability and ingenuity take over during adversity.

Kissing started her teaching career in Pre-K and has now been teaching third grade at Crab Orchard School for nine years. A lifelong learner herself, Kissing earned her teaching degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has attended several professional development conferences, presented her own seminar, and recently participated in the world-famous Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta.

She also served in the AmeriCorps program as a mentor for third through fifth grade students, and has really found her niche in early childhood education.

Kissing recently sat down with The Southern — virtually, of course — to discuss COVID-19’s impact on her career and her tips for finding true career happiness, even in times of immense challenge and uncertainty.

Let’s jump right into the COVID-19 pandemic discussion … How are you handling the challenge of educating your students without them being in the classroom?

What an unexpected turn of events! I have been connecting with my students and families in several ways, finding what works best for all of us. I have a private Facebook group for the parents and I’ve been using an app called Bloomz as well. My students now have Google accounts and we’ve set up a Google classroom. I’ve made packets for my students to be able to pick up from the school along with their meals.

My own daughter is in kindergarten this year and it gives me a whole different perspective. She was thrilled to pick up her packet and have a sense of normalcy. I’ve been making videos of myself reading the book we’ve waited all year for out loud from my own home and posting for them to hear. I’m truly heartbroken that we don’t get to spend our days together like usual, but I am so grateful for the technology we have today that allows us to share things with each other.

How will you measure “success” at the end of this school year?

With the uncertainty of the length of this school closure, not knowing how long we will be out or even if we will be back in school this year, this situation is very fluid. I don’t know if I will get to meet with my students face-to-face again this school year. I don’t know if we will be completing our end-of-the-year testing or even the standardized state test this year.

If I’m being honest though, these tests are not really how I’ve ever measured success with my students. I consider my school year with the students to be a success when they’re sad to leave my classroom at the end of the year; when they’ve found a favorite book series and developed a real love for reading; when they dream of becoming a scientist one day because they found a love for exploration; when they realized that although you may grow older, you never really have to grow out of your childhood curiosity because there is always a place for that.

My goal in teaching is to help children become lifelong learners that hang on to the joy of questioning. When your students prefer to be at school, enjoy their time in your classroom, and learn (sometimes without even realizing it’s happening), I’d call that success.

What types of stories can share about how this situation has affected you, your students or any of your colleagues?

Monday, March 16, we had a teachers-only in-service. On this day, students and parents were allowed to come in and pick up any belongings they needed before the mandated closure. One of my students came in while I was in my classroom. She was picking up her things from her locker and I gave her a big “air-hug.” She said, “I just want to be in school. I miss it here and I miss you.” Of course, I told her how I felt the same and I hoped we would be able to see each other very soon. As soon as she walked out, I cried.

Our schools have been doing an amazing job of doing all they can to meet the needs of our kids through this time. Meals are being delivered, phone calls are being made to reassure students, and teachers have made learning packets to help keep kids from losing what they’ve worked so hard to gain this year. None of us have the answers, but all of us share a love for these kids and our work and will do all that we can to help.

Has anyone been a mentor for you in getting through this unique challenge? How about in general…who in your life has helped position you for career happiness?

My mother, Sandra Brainard, is the reason I wanted to become a teacher and the reason I am the teacher I am today. She recently retired after 35 years of teaching, and truly loved her job and her students.

As a child, I grew up in her second-grade classroom, spending every afternoon there during her prep time. She was actually my own teacher when I was in second grade. Growing up a teacher’s kid, I saw how she dealt with many of the challenges of the job.

As an adult, I had the unique opportunity to teach alongside her for eight years. She was my go-to person, someone I could completely trust, to ask for help when I needed it. She helped me navigate some difficult times in my job. She taught me how to be happy in my work, even when things are tough. The most important thing she showed me is to keep your focus on the children, because that’s what will ultimately bring you happiness.

Now to some lighter discussion … When you were a kid, how would you have answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I have always had a major interest in weather, meteorology, and storm chasing. I used to say I would “be a teacher by day, and a storm chaser by night.” At 6, I didn’t realize the flaw in my plan. Nighttime is not the time you want to chase tornadoes!

I used to play school with all my dolls and stuffed animals and even my little brother, David, who gave me some excellent early training on how to deal with students who would prefer to learn in unconventional ways. He never wanted to sit at the desk and do worksheets, so I had to “teach” him in different ways. My dolls were much more cooperative.

Why do you love teaching so much and how have your students helped grow you as a professional – and a person?

Every day is a chance to start over and do something new. I have my classroom routines, and our schedule is predictable, but within every day there are small opportunities to step outside the normal and do something different. We sing songs to remember multiplication facts. We make up dance moves to remember the seven continents. When one of the kids has an idea, we run with it! This year, my students wanted to do a sock drive for The Promise mission in Marion. They organized it and we got to make a big donation at the end of October. Kids are amazing and have such big hearts!

My favorite part of teaching is getting to know my students. They have great things to share if we’re willing to listen. When I make a genuine connection with a student, there’s just no other feeling in the world like it. I get to be a constant in kids’ lives. I get to be there for so many firsts, “aha” moments, and to share in times of grief and celebration. For me, teaching has never been just a job. It is a chance to shape the future. It’s for the kids.

What has the road to career happiness been like for you? What have been some of your primary challenges and how did you overcome them?

I came into teaching ready to change the world. I quickly realized that sometimes, that kind of attitude is met with real pushback. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many amazing educators and I’ve had support along the way, for sure, but there have also been times where others felt threatened by change.

In my first year of teaching, I was so sure that this was what I was meant to do and that this was my calling, but by the end of that year I felt completely overwhelmed and not very sure that I made a difference. Do you know though, I still have students from my class that year that come up to me with big smiles on their faces and tell me that they loved having me as a teacher? Relationships matter.

The best way I’ve learned to find happiness in my career is to keep the focus on what matters: the kids. Kids want to learn from a teacher who wants to be there with them. They feed off of your excitement and they can totally sniff out a fake. It has to be real.

What’s your advice to people who may feel like they are “stuck” in unhappy work situations?

Look for the positives. Find your people, whether at your workplace, in your social circles, or now we have this amazing opportunity to find them online! Twitter has been an amazing resource for me to connect with other enthusiastic teachers and I’ve found that Instagram and Facebook have been a great way to connect with the community. I like to share the positive things going on in my classroom and the feedback I’ve received from parents, students, the community and even total strangers has been invaluable.

Those times where I’ve felt down, I’ve found it most helpful to find something great about my work and share it. Reach out! You’d be amazed at how many people are there to support you.

Find small things that make you happy and make sure that you do at least one every day. One of my favorite things to do in the mornings at school is to stand by my classroom door and greet the kids on their way to class, whether it is my own students, or the younger classes that walk past. It is impossible to look at the face of a smiling Kindergartener and not smile yourself. I love to say good morning to them and call them by their names. They’re often shocked I know them. It makes them light up!

Small moments like that can really start my day off on the right foot. Oh, and coffee in the right mug is a pretty amazing thing too.

Joe Szynkowski is a Sr. Director for NuVinAir Global, a Dallas-based company disrupting the automotive industry. Thanks to technology, he does so happily from his home east of Marion. Email for more guidance on work happiness.

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