Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Michelle Ryan (MA '15)

March 9, 2016

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Social studies teacher Michelle Ryan (MA '15) hopes her lessons go beyond academics to teach students about life, love, hard work, conviction, integrity, passion, patience, hope, and the power of laughter. She received her Milken Educator Award at Randolph High School on November 13, 2015.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education? 

Michelle Ryan: Education ended up in me. It didn't happen suddenly or as a result of one particular event or person. It followed me throughout my life, dropping crumbs and planting seeds that would lead me further and further into its labyrinth. One day I realized I was in the middle of a beautiful maze and felt like I was supposed to be there all along. So far, I have decided not to press charges against the educational gods responsible for orchestrating this masterful maze-like mission.

There were a few "aha" moments that helped me decide education was where I belonged. First, I came to the realization that we are all teachers, whether in the profession or not. Through our words and actions we teach others to hope, doubt, learn, fear, challenge, change, and/or grow. On a daily basis, whether we intend to or not, we are directly and indirectly teaching those around us. In college I discovered more clearly that inspiring and teaching others was something that felt like part of my life's purpose. When I recognized all the unanswered questions children have, as well as the impact those undiscovered responses have on their development, my second "aha" happened — and continues to happen. I connected and related to the impact the responses to children's who, what, where, when, and especially why questions, had on subsequent academic and socio-emotional development.

As I entered college and began working in various youth programs, I repeatedly discovered how many questions students of all academic and social backgrounds had about their future, life, school, and success. From the at-risk seemingly academically disconnected student to the high-achieving well-rounded child, every student craved a sense of direction and the answers to questions they knew how to verbalize, and also to those they were not yet able to articulate. I learned that the academic, social, and emotional success of each child I encountered hinged on how they resolved these three questions: Am I capable of success? How do I know? And will I achieve my dream(s)? Just when I think I am close to figuring out the puzzle that is education, these questions move me further into the beautiful labyrinth. 

MFF: What was your first job?

Michelle: Do household chores count? They sure felt like a job, except my mother refused to pay me. I still love you, Mommy!

My first paying job was as an event staffer at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston, the same facility I spent hours practicing in. I would leave school, hop on the bus, practice my heart out, freshen up, change my clothes, and switch into event staff mode. I was able to work track meets and other events in the evenings and on the weekends. By watching high school and elite athletes compete, and witnessing the entire process of planning and hosting an event, I learned that a goal is never accomplished without hard work, planning, stress management, and the adaptability to respond to the unexpected. I learned firsthand about the crucial role that effort, preparation, and mindset plays in determining outcome and success.  

MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?

Michelle: Roland Gibson, a professor I had in my first year of graduate school. I had yet to encounter someone who embodied a passion for education, students, and people in general the way he did. Through every lesson, assignment, and reading, he challenged us in our understanding of the importance of the work of education waiting at the end of the preparation program. He challenged us to define our reasons for entering the field and uncover the biases and baggage that might impact our work. Mr. Gibson instilled in us the idea that there is no position, politic, or issue more important than the educational experience of the students. It is easy to get distracted by the work, initiatives, testing, deadlines, logistics, and protocols, and forget that the students' positive experiences within our systems are the most important priorities in our daily work. My work as a practitioner was largely impacted by the lessons learned in Mr. Gibson's class, where he prepared us for the challenging, critical work of our careers with a balance of care, boldness, and humor. 

MFF: Tell us about your first class.

Michelle: All I remember is that it went by very quickly! My emotions were a mixed bag of bliss and anxiety. Thankfully, my experiences teaching in various settings kicked in and I started to feel comfortable in what would be my classroom. The most memorable part of my first year was discovering the many talents and potential each of my students had. I was supposed to be inspiring them; little did I know they were inspiring me.  

The hardest thing about my first year was simply staying on top of all the obligations and responsibilities of a teacher — lesson plans, meetings, parent contact, grading papers, finding sources, and department tasks. Creating lessons from scratch for three different courses without many resources was exhausting. By the end of my first year, I understood why the education gods granted us the summer plus most major holidays off — the maintenance of sanity. Overall, the positive outweighed the negative, which is why I keep coming back for more every September.

MFF: A student tells you he/she is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?

Michelle: Probably something to this effect: "Most careers you enter will require hard work and possibly even long hours. So let's get past the long hours you will absolutely have to put in when working in education. The work is tedious and exhausting and immediate gratification and praise may not always exist. But then again, that is the reality of most jobs. That said, it is not about how hard you will work, but rather what impact your hard work will have on the world. One thing I can guarantee about education is that your impact on the world will be so large that you will likely never be able to quantify it. You will plant seeds in the life of one child, and that one child will grow and spread that influence to 10. Then, those 10 will impact another 10 until 100, maybe even thousands of people — whom you will likely never meet — have been positively impacted by the care, education, and investment you made in one child. In some cases, you will start the butterfly effect; in other cases you will have the ability to reset negative effects into positive chain-reactions. However, in all cases you will have the opportunity to witness caterpillars turning into butterflies."

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Michelle: I believe every student felt a renewed sense of pride in the school, as well as a renewed sense of trust that their teachers were capable of preparing them for their futures. The energy in the gym was remarkable and unforgettable! Hopefully, the surprise element of the notification was confirmation that making small positive choices each day might one day impact the course of your entire life.  

MFF: What’s your favorite time of the school day?

Michelle: I love the passing time between periods. Before and after class, students are always asking me the most interesting questions or giving me some new update about their lives. In those short moments, I learn fascinating, comical, and admirable aspects of my students' lives. I also have the chance to chat with students I've taught in previous years, and a moment to take a deep breath in the event that a student decides to check on whether my patience batteries are still charged.

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars to use at your school, what would you do with it?

Michelle: In an ideal world, I would find a few volunteer financial experts who would reinvest one-fifth of the money to provide each student a partial subsidy for their post-secondary goals. Students occasionally have to make post-secondary decisions based on finances. It would be amazing if our school could provide more scholarships to students to support in their goals after high school.

More practically and realistically, I would provide every student with a laptop or iPad, improve the WiFi networks to support all the technology that would be overloading the servers, let each teacher bring students on at least one field trip related to their subject area, update all computer and science labs within the building to support STEM education, purchase a huge library of books for each classroom, redesign the cafeteria to include a huge trampoline playground and video game center, and build a faculty fitness center to support mental-health and self-care.

MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Michelle: It would be wonderful to know that I had a positive impact on their lives in some way. Secondly, I would love to know that I didn't only teach them about a subject matter, but I was also able to teach them something about life, love, hard work, conviction, integrity, passion, patience, hope, and the power of laughter.

MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Michelle: Working as a physical therapist with elite athletes, recording albums and touring the world, or working as a lawyer in some large firm. As you can see, I clearly had too many interests as a child. I still do, only now the interests have changed. Don't worry! Most of my outside interests are within education or can be accomplished alongside my work in education. I will not be running off into the sunset and away from education anytime soon, if ever.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when..."

Michelle: When one of the following happens:

  • A student says, "Ms. Ryan, I have a question" about something academic, personal, and/or philosophical.
  • I see progress in the development of an academic skill, even if the student moaned and groaned the entire way through the process.
  • A former student pops up after graduating to give me an update about their life.
  • I never see a former student again but hear about the good things they are accomplishing in their life. 
  • A parent tells me their child told them something positive about my class that I didn't know before.
  • I read or see a material, strategy, or activity and wonder how I might incorporate it into my classroom.
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