Profile and photo by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Melissa Schmidt says that her parents, Eric and Mary Anne Jaeger, determined long ago that if they were blessed with children, those children would attend schools which were diverse and challenging. Schmidt and her sister, fellow teacher Kristina McFarland of Lakewood Elementary, attended the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
After attending Northside, Dicken, and Slauson, Schmidt graduated from Pioneer High School, where she had been a member of the first Pioneer National Championship Women’s High School Swim Team her senior year. That led to swimming at the University of Michigan, where her specialty was the 200 Fly. And that led her to compete in the Olympic Trials in 2008.
After earning her ELMAC (Elementary Masters of Arts and Certification) at U-M, she began her teaching career with three teaching positions: computers at Lawton, EL at Allen and kindergarten at Logan. She taught third grade for four years at Pittsfield Elementary, before deciding to pursue an International Baccalaureate position at Mitchell.
Now into her eighth year teaching, Schmidt teaches third grade at Mitchell School and focuses her free time on IB curriculum development, the soon to be first IB accredited school in the district.
She and her husband of nearly five years, Mike Schmidt, live in Ann Arbor with their cat, Alfred. She enjoys setting annual running goals with her sister and mom, which has included the Key West Half Marathon. When her running partners aren’t near, she also likes to sneak in a little Pure Barre.
What do you most remember about being in third grade? Oh gosh, did I love Ms. Hermie (Ms. Jane Herman) at Dicken! We were all so sad to see her move away to Chicago after a memorable year We loved learning in Ms. Hermie’s class so much that we gave her a nickname! It is coincidental that my current class of third graders has also adorned me with a nickname, Ms. Schmidty. I sincerely hope that my students love me half as much as we loved Ms. Hermie.
What was always written on your report card in grade school? Hmm….grade school, that went quite smoothly. Just don’t ask my parents about hiding my homework in my Slauson middle school locker! I really had a great all around experience in grade school. The highlights of my grade school were my specials teachers and our yearly grade level musical/concert. It is fun to get out the old VHS tapes and reminisce about the good ole days.
What inspired you to become a teacher? Growing up in a family of educators, it just felt right. My mom spent many years working with English learners, so it just seems natural to be teaching here at Mitchell, where our students represent numerous language groups. When I see a child light up with confidence and pride, it is the best feeling in the world. I have worked to encourage a high level of discourse in my class. When students share their thinking with one another, it is better than listening to the most riveting TED talk. While listening and learning from my students, I am inspired to work towards a better, more equitable world.
Why elementary education? Children are so engaged and eager to learn during their elementary years. The world is their canvas. My job is to guide and facilitate their precious work and inquiry. I realize that the work of an elementary teacher is not just about teaching all subjects well. We are full-service relationship builders who teach the whole child. I believe in enculturation, or the idea that students grow into the educational life around them (Vygotsky). Every day I ask myself, “What do I want the children I teach to be like when they are adults?” Grounding myself with this reflection helps me keep the most important thing about elementary education my top priority.
In your eight years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning? Students must feel that important sense of urgency in learning. Every moment is another moment to grow and develop. As teachers, we work very hard to thoughtfully plan learning experiences that will engage and enrich our students; learning which we know will interest them into wanting to dig deeper and learn even more on a topic. Today in our school culture, we are accustomed to playing the ‘short game’ because we have to test right after learning has occurred. I have learned that we can teach students soft skills—which are not really soft at all—such as curiosity, wondering, and questioning. These are all dispositions of learners I hope to teach in my classroom. I believe these are the most valuable residuals of education.
Describe an average workday. I’m an early riser. If Pure Barre is part of the plan, I rise at 4:50 a.m. so that I can be home in order to get ready for school, arriving there by 7:30. The school days simply fly by. I typically use my planning time for collaborating on writing IB curriculum, problem-solving our SISS staff and mentoring my student teacher. If I have any after school meetings, family contacts, or even student sports games, I get home in time to prepare a little dinner for my husband Mike and me. Mike is the cleaner upper, thank goodness, so that helps! Then, it’s on to catching up with email, looking over my students’ work, and making final mental preparations for the next day while listening to the radio. I work hard to get to bed before 10 so that I can get up early to start the day on offense.
What will you never forget about training with Michael Phelps and other great swimmers during your years at the University of Michigan? Swimming with some of the greatest swimmers of all time was once in a lifetime experience. One of my most vivid memories from this time in my life took place at an elevation training trip in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It was New Year’s Eve and our coach, Bob Bowman, decided that the best way to bring in the New Year was with an intrasquad swim meet at midnight. My main event was the 200 Fly. So there I found myself—after five plus hours of daily practice and additional dryland training—getting ready to race against Olympian Kaitlin Sandeno in the 200 Fly at 1:30 in the morning. The moment I dove into the water, my goggles filled up—not with water, but with my tears. I finished the race a close second. It wasn’t the final place that mattered. It was the feeling of overcoming the hardest physical and mental challenge I had ever experienced. That memory helps to define me to this day, as I continue to challenge my own teaching practice day in and day out. As we all know, our job requires our whole self to overcome the hardest challenges.
How do you stay organized? I try hard to not hoard a lot of stuff. We humans really don’t need it all! I also believe in thorough planning. Just as chefs mise en place their ingredients before cooking a meal, I try hard to make sure my learning experiences are thoughtfully planned out and prepared for, before starting my school week. This allows me to be flexible when things happen that are out of my control. My goal is to maintain a simple life, filled with solid relationships and positive happenings.
Favorite websites: NPR. Mlive. Nationalgeographic.com.
Apps you can’t live without: Apple Health. Instagram. Spotify. Netflix.
Three favorite devices: My radio. My handheld Dyson vacuum. My iPhone and MacBook.
What is unique about teaching at Mitchell? The collaboration is key to sustain our IB work. This is not easy and requires intense focus and preparation. In the end, however, the payback is great. My Mitchell staff is second to none. I work with the hardest working individuals I have ever known. I am consistently encouraged by their growth mindsets and their willingness to do whatever it takes to help a child learn or meet their needs. My staff supports me on the most challenging days and pushes me to be innovative on the best days.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching? There is nothing better than when a past student returns to share about their current happenings. When they share memorable times they had while in your class, it can bring a happy tear to the eye. Teaching students to be thinkers, a tool they can use for rest of their lives, is the most rewarding part of teaching.
What has surprised you most about the profession? Fortunately, many our families—who are first generation to our country—value and support their children’s teachers. It would be wonderful if they could influence the public sentiment, which currently is not the most supportive right now. I am very surprised that the larger society doesn’t realize the intense shortage of teachers our country is beginning to experience. I am surprised they are not yet overly concerned about this reality. I am also surprised some real soul searching hasn’t yet occurred to determine why our young are pursuing the field of education at a 30 percent reduced rate across the country.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher? I wish folks realized that a solid teacher’s work is never really, ever done. We are always thinking about how we can improve our work of teaching and learning, because the very best teachers constantly reflect on their practice. I have learned long ago that it is no use to get anxious about my never-ending to-do list. It will always be there and I will just have to give it my best. It is also true that many teachers work a second job in the summer or at other times during the school year. Personally, I have never had a summer off as I have taught at our summer schools for the last eight years.
If you could change one thing about public education, what would it be? I would change the general public’s perception regarding the depth and wealth of knowledge our students acquire while attending our public schools. We are a nation of immigrants who have so much to learn from each other. What better avenue, than our public schools?
What would you tell a college student considering becoming a teacher? Be ready to work really, really hard. You will never be bored and you will experience excitement and learning every day. What we learn from our students is overwhelming. The work of the public school teacher is the most important work of our modern society.
What about your personal life is most exciting right now? I am pretty happy that my sister moved in six doors down the street from my house. We love to take walks together and talk about our days at school. Plus, being a cat lover herself, she is always happy to cat sit little Alfred.