Michele Brown, lead Pre-K teacher at Our House’s Decatur location, is full of energy. With a ready grin and an engaging laugh, she seems perfect for the role of making learning fun for her students. And that’s her goal. She says her mission is to get her students to understand that “school is a fun place, learning can be fun.” She sits in her classroom surrounded by colorful selections of the children’s artwork, the Smart Board they use for lessons, and toys in bins labeled in both Spanish and English. She seems perfectly at home here in this sunlit classroom. But this teacher who seems built for the classroom didn’t start out planning to enter the teaching field.
Michele is from a small town in rural Indiana and started college at Kansas State with her major undecided. She took a variety of classes from a wide range of fields and didn’t think about education until a friend suggested that it might be a good fit for her because of what a wonderful mom she was to her young daughter. Based on that suggestion, Michele took an exploratory education class that had her in a classroom three days a week for 16 weeks. At the end of the class, the teacher she had been assigned to said, “You’ve got it. You know how to connect with kids.”
After that experience and finishing school, Michele realized that teaching was not so much a career as a calling. She said she felt called to work in low-income communities, especially with students who struggle with learning. “I’m going to be that teacher for all the kids who struggled, for all the kids who don’t get it, all the kids that weren’t straight A honor students,” she says, her face serious. She recounts her own experience in 11th grade where a math teacher belittled her in front of the entire class. “That’s why I teach. That’s why I do what I do.” She also has a special place in her heart for the children Our House serves; children from families experiencing homelessness. She says, “This is the greatest area where we can make the biggest difference.”
In her third year of teaching at Our House, Michele has taught Georgia Pre-K for a whopping fifteen years. And all that experience has paid off. This year, she was a finalist for Georgia Pre-K teacher of the year. It was a grueling process that included writing essays, submitting a video of her teaching a lesson, and participating in an in-person interview. Even though she made it through an intense competition and had her teaching skills recognized state-wide, she still makes it clear that the work she does wouldn’t be possible without Britney Michel, her assistant teacher and a graduate of Our House’s job training program. She refers to Britney as her co-teacher and says that they’re on the same page in terms of what they should be doing every day. “It’s like, let’s just go in, let’s do what’s best for the kids, make it fun for them, give them a great experience, so that they equate school with happiness and joy,” she says. Britney nods in the background while cutting out construction paper shapes for the day ahead.
When asked whether she feels like she has made a difference in the lives of the children at Our House, Michele is brimming with pride and success stories. She talks about a little girl whose mother didn’t even have her GED and how that same mom now has a GED, her trucker’s license and drives a bus for the DeKalb county school district. That little girl, “Deja,” is now in accelerated classes in elementary school. Then there’s the story of a little boy, “Moses,” who was living in a safe house with his mother and siblings after fleeing from domestic violence. Moses is now in kindergarten and his standardized test scores are the highest in the kindergarten school-wide. Michele acknowledges that it can be challenging to work with children who have experienced such trauma but is still filled with hope about their potential.
“They have to feel safe, they have to feel like you love them. [I]f they feel like you care, they’ll learn from you. So you never know which of these children may do great things. You gotta have that experience of someone showing you some compassion and love.”
And when she’s asked what she likes most about working at Our House, Ms. Brown doesn’t hesitate. “Our mission,” she says, followed by, “the families we serve.”