Life and Lemons: Michelle Gordon

Our #FeatureFriday Series serves to honour educators and stakeholders of education in their ongoing hard work. Creating a more mindful, trauma-informed practice through an anti-oppression framework is not easy, but the work IS being done. Every day folk are not getting the recognition they deserve, so inevitably, we feel isolated in our grind. Our hope is that this series can be a reminder to you that we are NOT alone. Let’s connect and do this together.

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Mother of 3, wife, teacher, newly transitioned back to the US from teaching in Dubai. Michelle Gordon is quite a force to be reckoned with.

She reminds us that even such forces need to be fierce in protecting our peace and finding balance. We are so lucky to have her as our second panelist on August 17th for our talk on “the Culture of Martyrdom: how to care without burning out”.

A Story of Strength and Vulnerability

When Michelle first welcomed me to my video conference room (yes, it was MY link, but I felt welcomed by her), we clicked immediately. There was something about the smile in her eyes, something about how happy she was to meet me, that made me feel immediately comfortable in her presence. It also didn’t hurt that she offered to support our network without a second thought. My cousin Janice was the one who introduced me to Michelle; they taught together in Dubai. I kid you not when I tell you that Michelle said to me, “Karen, I love Janice. And so I love you too. I’m happy to help!”

(Can you imagine how loved she is able to make her students feel? One dreams of such a capability.)

So of course, while I was grateful for this kind soul, I also wondered how well she was able to maintain her boundaries between supporting others and ensuring that she didn’t burn out. And during our conversation, she didn’t disappoint. Michelle is the perfect embodiment of what it means to fall, push through, get back up, fall again, and relentlessly find ways to take care of herself so that she doesn’t end up a martyr for this system of ours. Her gentle strength and resolve had me in awe.

Didn’t I tell you she smiles with her eyes? Kindness and self-assurance flows from her.

Michelle is originally from Illinois and currently teaches Gifted and Talented students in Texas. She taught in the United Arab Emirates for 5.5 years, the first 3 of which was spent teaching Al Ain’s local children English in math, reading, and science. The last couple of years was spent at an international school in Dubai. Both experiences were so unique and rewarding, and as you can imagine, both dramatically different from teaching in North America.

But those are just the checklist of her recent repertoire. Her journey takes a much deeper dive than this.

Life and Lemons

My cousin Janice and her husband Jake both agreed that Michelle would be the perfect person to speak on the Culture of Martyrdom and what it means to maintain boundaries. Janice explained, and I quote, “[Michelle] works so hard at her job. She’s the one who will put 120%, and yet at the same time she recognizes how important it is to have an outside life. [This includes] her kids, her friends – she cares a lot about them… She holds true to her values.”

Isn’t this what we all wish to achieve? Excellence without sacrificing our own lives?

Sometimes though, life throws you lemons, and sometimes those lemons are just rotten. You really need to sift through the rot in order to find ones good enough to make lemonade.

In Michelle’s unique case, her teaching job was NOT where she was expected to martyr herself; it was dealing with the culture shock of an uncompromising, xenophobic American credit system that made transitioning back to the US from Dubai a near nightmare. Somehow, the American system made it so that it was easier transitioning overseas than it was coming home. “I felt like a foreigner in my own country!” she exclaimed.

Between paying a disproportionate amount in rent compared to her salary, her family also found it difficult to lease a car without a credit card, even though they were able to pay cash. These simply were not issues in the UAE. “The list goes on and on,” she said, “Needless to say, my anxiety hit the roof. I ate everything in sight, clothes no longer fit and I lost sight of what I was passionate about. It took me losing my cousin to remember that we are not promised tomorrow. I have to make sure I take care of my mental and physical health to continue to thrive.”

So what has she tried to do in order to find balance through all the chaos?

“Being a mother of 3, a wife, teacher, etc, it’s challenging at times, but I attempt to find balance when I exercise or read. You have to do it; you have to find time. Otherwise, you’ll just get lost.”

And that’s the harsh truth of it. There is no Hogwarts wand to wave, no special lavender potpourri to sniff, that will magically keep you from burning out. You have to do the work and figure out what works for you, and be relentless and uncompromising in protecting it.

We’ll dig even deeper and talk more about how during our Discussion Panel on August 17th.

The Lemonade

As she processed her grief over the loss of her cousin, Michelle took a breath and reflected on what it was that she enjoyed about her vocation. As much as the inanity of thinking about work during such a big loss makes you feel like you shouldn’t, it was still a nice moment to remember her passion and her why for what she does. “I teach because I want to make a difference.” She said to me, “I want to be a role model for children, be a shoulder they can lean on, as well as for their parents. I also teach because I honestly adore working with children.”

And in this way, Michelle is working away on the lemonade. Through her grief, through the messy transition back to America, through the responsibilities of being a mother and a wife, she is actively searching for ways to find balance so that she doesn’t become a martyr within an uncompromising system. Thankfully, her job gives her the autonomy and time to figure out her role, so in a rare case of teaching in America, Michelle’s job isn’t adding to the pile of rotten lemons (do you see how not being dbags to your employees can be such a make-or-break for them??). This is something Michelle is so grateful for, and absolutely does not take for granted.

What’s Next?

We take a deeper dive with Michelle (and our other panelist, Gabriel Malquisto) on how they came to recognize that protecting your peace is an absolute must as educators and caregivers. Thank you so much Michelle for joining us, even through all of your own challenges, to support our community as we go through the toughest years in all our careers. We appreciate you so much!

To our readers: don’t forget to join our mailing list for updates, as well as RSVP to our Discussion Panel in August!

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[IDs: Michelle sits by a window with the sun shining over her face. She is smiling brightly, her face propped up by her hand with her elbow on the window pane. Her hair is partly covered with a yellow and orange scarf, and her wrist sports colourful bangles.]

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