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Teacher Spotlight: Dr. Michelle Gowan, Bibb County

About this feature: The 100,000+ classroom teachers in Georgia’s public schools are on the front lines of education. They’re nurturing dreams and showing children what’s possible. And they’re making sure students have the tools they need to make those dreams a reality. Teacher Spotlights, a recurring feature from the Georgia Department of Education, introduces you to those educators.

In this edition of Teacher Spotlights, meet Dr. Michelle Gowan, a Bibb County gifted-education teacher on her 30th year in the classroom. In a phone conversation, she talked with us about gifted ed, engaging with kids long after their time in the classroom, and the difficult and important work of helping new teachers hold on to their passion and fire. Below are the lightly edited highlights of that conversation.

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On gifted education:

 “I love gifted children. They are curious. They are smart. They are smart-alecks. They are funny. I guess the thing that I have learned is to distinctly follow the lead of the learner. We do a lot of talking in education right now about rigor…and if I were to step back and just sort of observe where the learner will go, they will do so much more.”

On difference-making and slow rewards:

“When I was a young teacher, and just struggling to do the right thing, there were several occasions where I thought, this probably is not for me. You know, when you still think, ‘I’ve got the whole world to choose from and this is not working out.’ But I recognize, from where I am now, that I just did not know what making a difference looks like. …You can only know that from having a long history in education, because the children that you taught have to grow all the way up, and then you have to run into them, and then they have to be able to articulate to you what you are so desperate to know, which was: you were meaningful in my development. You don’t get that in your first five years.”

In a related point, on new teachers and the advice they need:

“I would tell them, you are absolutely making a difference to somebody, even if you don’t know what that looks like. You are, absolutely. And it will take years for you to know, and one day you will know, because they will find you, and they will come back and tell you that. Every other kind of profession, when you pour a lot of your passion into it, you usually see the result of it. These are just very slow-growing dividends, but the dividends are amazing.”

As a young teacher, Dr. Gowan had her classes bury time capsules. She’s now had two opportunities to gather with classes of former students to unearth the capsules; students drove in, Skyped in, booked plane tickets in order to attend. (You can see a photo of one of those groups above.) It was the ultimate chance to see those slow dividends paying off.

“Those events are what every teacher is dying to know, because by the time you’ve opened them, these children have grown up. They’ve become teachers, they’ve become parents, they’ve become businesspeople. They’ve become totally educated. … I wish I could tell you that in 1994, when we buried it, that we had the wisdom to know what it would become – but I didn’t. We did it for the “coolness” factor. But to be able to see the children and to know what they’re doing and what they’re doing in the world, and for those children to be able to go back to a piece of their childhood – it was such a cool experience.”

On her evolution as an educator – and maintaining her own fire:

 "I can remember veteran teachers telling me, ‘You just wait, in a few years, some of that will burn off.’ I am every bit as passionate as I’ve always been about children. If there’s one thing that I know about education, it is that education is a relational experience, and the very first thing you have to do before you can teach anybody anything is to build a relationship with the learner. Otherwise, they’re not going to buy what you’re selling.” 

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