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Episode 18: 2022 Teacher of the Year with Michelle Stradford

This episode is part of a Teacher of the Year series where we interview innovative teachers in the field. The Teachers of the Year program recognizes excellence in teaching across the nation. The process begins at the school level, with teachers being nominated or chosen by their colleagues. One is chosen to represent his or her school district, and they then go on to compete at the state and national levels.  

Ms. Michelle Stradford teaches fifth grade at Horace Mann Elementary School in Beverly Hills Unified School District. She has worked for the district since 2005, enrolled as a substitute and as an elementary school teacher. Michelle taught fourth grade for one year, and she has been teaching fifth grade for 15 years. Michelle was named one of Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year in October 2022 and was nominated for California Teacher of the Year.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [01:40] 
Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation, and we are really excited to learn about your work. Would you mind telling us about why you were selected for a Teacher of the Year this year?  

Michelle Stradford [01:50] 
Oh, gosh. I was actually nominated by a wonderful person at our district office, our Assistant Superintendent, Mr. Dustin Seemann. He had emailed me to let me know that he was nominating me for this whole process. It was actually a process I was super unfamiliar with. I didn’t even know about the Teacher of the Year and so I did a little research myself.  

Why I was selected – that’s been an interesting thing to reflect on. You hear this nomination it makes you reflect on your entire career and the things that you have done. I went back and thought through, and Dustin gave me some help. I think the best I can answer is that I hope I was nominated because I’ve done a lot. I’ve been with my district for a very long time and done a lot of roles, kind of over and above just my teaching job, which I think helped. I like to be a problem solver. I think that’s a natural teacher tendency to do. I’ve worked in a variety of roles with my district office, and so I think that for him, I was someone that he could always count on and turn to and get the answers he needed for curriculum or things going on at our schools. I think, in reflection, I hope that’s why he selected me to be a part of this process this year.  

Nati Rodriguez [03:08] 
Can you speak to some of those other roles that you’ve taken on aside from classroom instruction?  

Michelle Stradford [03:13] 
Sure. One of the biggest roles that I’ve taken on, and it’s titled something different in every district; in Beverly Hills, we call it grade-level specialist. You are the person who’s in charge of your grade level, you act as a liaison between the district office and your school site. I’ve actually done that job for about twelve years now. I started it very early in my career, and it’s just something that I enjoyed because I went to my team and got answers, and took it back. We had a small cohort of grade-level specialists that worked with the district to solve those problems that you need a smaller, tight-knit group to work through instead of working with hundreds of teachers. So, I did that. I’m still in that position, actually.  

I have worked on several committees. I’ve done textbook committee adoptions and school site council at our school. We have something at our school called Instructional Leadership Team, which is site-based, and it’s our small group of teachers who get together and talk about problems that need solving at the school, curriculum issues – what do we need? what do the kids need? what do the adults need?  

I also have been our PTA Rep for a number of years that I’ve been here to work with the parent side of our school site. And then on the teacher side, I have always been a part of our teachers’ union, but I also stepped up about six years ago to start taking on an actual role in our union. I’ve done K-5 Director, so I’ve been in charge of the issues hitting our K-5 staff, and then I was the Secretary of our union for the last several years as well. So, learning that whole side of the job, which is an entirely different side to teaching than just being in the classroom.  

Nati Rodriguez [04:55] 
That’s great. That’s fantastic. It just reminds me of, with more time in the field, the expansion that teachers can experience in their learning and their own careers, that’s not just about the classroom, but really informs that instruction. I’m curious how those roles, if at all, how those changed during distance learning and COVID? How did that impact your experience? 

Michelle Stradford [05:18] 
Like everything it impacted it severely. I think that we were thrown into the situation. I know the same words get reused and are redundant, but it was something none of us ever thought we’d experience, and didn’t know what to do. We were all day-by-day trying to figure it out. As a grade-level specialist, it was transitioning to meeting with my team on Zoom and then going to the district office staff on Zoom and just finding that time. In our district, we taught full days during the pandemic, so we’re not on shortened days necessarily. We were teaching full days. It was a lot of after-hours work, which, in the past, we would get a sub day and talk about things. It was more commitment during the pandemic. The union, of course, made everything harder because we were again, dealing with – how do we make this successful while keeping teachers safe and kids safe? What decisions do we need to make, and compromises do we need to come to with our district? But really keeping our staff and their health and safety and what their wants and needs were, kind of high priority.  

That was something that, while that’s always our intention as a union, now we had this whole other virus that is something that we had no idea what to do. It was a lot of, I mean, we made some hard decisions, and not everyone was happy with us. That was also a really hard situation to deal with, and everyone has different views on what was the right thing to do, and we just did the best we could during something that was so unprecedented. So, it was hard. All about teaching was hard. Those other roles that I had to do outside of my teaching job, it was a learning experience for sure and something that I will take. Hopefully, if we ever have another virus, we do things a lot better this time around, but it was difficult for sure.  

Michelle Stradford [07:28] 
Yeah, I think we have a foundation to build on, whereas we had nothing when this happened. Nobody knew what they were doing. We were all just, I mean, it was an hour-by-hour at some points during the year. I think if this were to happen again, I hope it doesn’t, but I think that we now have past experience to build on. Hopefully we will not make some of the mistakes that we made, because mistakes were made, because we didn’t know. Now that, you can call it a blueprint, if you will, if this were to happen again, we at least have some starting off points and we know what worked virtual learning and what certainly didn’t work virtual learning on the kids’ side. We know for the adults – what do we need to do and come together. I said this word again, I’ll probably use it a lot. What do we need to compromise on to make sure that everyone is being heard and decisions that were being made were benefiting everyone involved as much as possible. 

Nati Rodriguez [08:20] 
Thank you for sharing that. Maybe this leads to my next question. What keeps you in the profession? What excites you about your work?  

Michelle Stradford [08:28] 
The kids. I have been asked a lot of these questions lately going through the Teacher of the Year process. Again, it’s going back, that’s why teachers do this job in the first place. Sometimes people forget that we are here for the kids – that is our number one thing. People ask me why I still do this job. It is them and it is a hard job. I will never, ever use another word to describe it. This job is hard every single day, but you have these little beings who you never know what’s going to come out of their mouth, and you never know what they’re going to say or do. That is what makes the days fun, exciting, and sometimes weird. That’s okay because they are who they are. When I think of my career path, when people ask me if I ever want to go into administration, my answer is always a quick no, because that takes me away from the thing I love best about this job, which is the kids. Although you’re still dealing with kids as an administrator, it’s an entirely different situation. For me, the kids are what keep me here.

Nati Rodriguez [09:35] 
Thank you for sharing. I’ve heard that what’s tricky about education and being a classroom teacher is that often the better you are, the more veteran, and the more experienced, you tend to go towards an administrative path, but that might not actually be what is best for the individual or even for the students being served. I’m curious, have you given some thought to what could change so that teachers stay in the classroom, who are meant to be teaching, and then the administrator is a different path?  

Michelle Stradford [10:08] 
No, I think I understand you. I think that I read something on Twitter recently, and one of the things that this person was talking about is that in teaching, there is a really big energy imbalance. Teachers give so much energy to the kids because that is our job, and that is what it is. But we have so many others asking for the energy that we have left, and there’s more energy being asked of us than there is that we have. Keeping teachers in teaching is I mean, there’s got to be a shift in what is expected of us in the hours that we’re expected to dedicate to this job. It’s not a new story to tell that we work outside of our hours. I always tell people I teach from eight to three, and then I work after three o’clock because you don’t have that time during the day to do those things.  

Again, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think there’s so much being asked of educators, and there’s not actually enough time being given to them to actually accomplish a lot of those tasks. I’m 18 years with my district, 16 years full time. I wouldn’t say it’s getting easier, and I think that at some point when you’re a veteran, things should get easier, but it’s not, because I feel like every time, there’s just more and more being asked of teachers. People go into administration, I don’t envy that job either. I think that that is an incredibly difficult job. I think that there’s even more being asked of you, weekend events, and nighttime events, and all these councils that you have to sit on, and it is difficult. I think that there’s a lot of people who don’t want to move into administration because, as I said before, you’re taking out that funny, cute little kid part that you get to do all day long, and deal with more of the paperwork and bureaucracy. So, it’s hard, very hard.  

Nati Rodriguez [12:39] 
We watched your TOY video and you mentioned “not needing to fill every minute with instruction.” Could you just tell us about what other things you incorporate in your classroom that bring joy into that experience?  

Michelle Stradford [12:54] 
Yes, that was the funny thing. No one knew which clip they were going to show, so I had no idea what they were going to show. I’m actually really glad they chose that one because, obviously we’re here to learn. Instruction is what schools is about, but I think, and I will include myself in this, I think sometimes we forget that we’re working with kids. They are children. They are little. They are, in our case, we have transitional kindergarten (TK) on our campus; they are four years old. My kids, at max, have been about twelve years old and so they need breaks. So, yes, obviously I teach most of the day, but even if it’s just take five minutes and walk around and talk to your friend, stretch your body, do a little yoga in the corner. I’ve got these boys this year who love to dance, and so they’ll just go to a corner and dance, because for them, that’s their energy release, and that’s their way to reset themselves.  

Socialization is also really important in school. It’s not about independent learning all of the time. It’s not about working alone. Letting them just have 15 minutes to talk to one another. We play a lot of games. Blooket is a big one in our schools, and so it’s just a fun game that they get to play. I’m not always great at it, but it is deeply part of my daily thing to give them time to just be kids. Sometimes that’s watching a funny video that’s letting them – I had a kid write a rap the other day about nothing, but he wanted to share it with the class – of course, you can because, although I have standards to teach, and I have assessments to give and state testing to give, they are children, and that actually should be priority number one.  

Nati Rodriguez [14:27] 
That’s great. The students that are in your classroom must be very lucky.  

Michelle Stradford [14:30] 
I hope so. I think so.  

Michelle Stradford [14:38] 
That’s like the million-dollar question. I have been asked that again a lot recently, and I will tell you, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. It’s all I ever knew. If you talk to my parents, they’ll tell you that I came home in kindergarten and I wanted to be a teacher, and I had a fantastic kindergarten teacher, Ms. Laughlin. I can still even tell you her name, I can remember her classroom, and that was it. That was my path. I did not stray from that path. My entire K-12 education, I was in an ROP program in high school where I got to teach elementary school for two periods a day. I had a great high school that allowed me to do that. I went to a fantastic teaching program at Long Beach State, and I went knowing what my major was. I was in a special program to get me in and out in four years, and I was done. 

I worked for Beverly Hills; I got hired three months after I graduated from college. I just wanted to be – I don’t know – one of the running jokes is I think I really wanted to write on an overhead projector when I was a little kid. Which then, of course, the funniest part about that is we don’t have them anymore. I became a teacher, and they were obsolete, and so I don’t know. I always loved school. I loved my teachers. I enjoyed being at school. I think there’s an inherent creativity to education, which I think that I also really liked as that aspect. I don’t know, I was on that path and found myself here.  

Nati Rodriguez [16:00] 
If we wanted to – I’m thinking about you having this kindergarten teacher and what kind of teacher you are now for your students – how do we get kids more excited to be teachers?  

Michelle Stradford [16:13] 
I am the teacher I am because of the teachers I had. That’s 100%; I can name you my favorite teachers from every school. I’m still in contact with some of my teachers that I had growing up, whether it just be social media acquaintances, or I actually see one when I’m in my hometown. I try to see her every time that I’m there. I think that, and it’s funny because I think everyone has this idea that the best teachers are the fun ones and the ones that play games all the time.  

While that may be true, some of my favorite teachers were the hardest teachers that I had because they pushed me. I think finding that balance of good management with your teaching, having that strictness, but doing it in a way that is not detrimental to who kids are, it’s a really fine line to walk that you want, of course, a structured room, you want kids that are following rules and that’s part of life but finding that balance of also having fun and it’s okay to laugh, and it’s okay to be – I’m a fairly sarcastic person and my kids learn that sarcasm really quick – but it’s okay to joke around. I hope kids that I’ve had go into teaching, and not just because of having me, but because of having some of the fantastic teachers that I also work with, because that is the reason that I am in this profession, because of who I was surrounded with growing up.  

Nati Rodriguez [17:58] 
Thank you. What advice would you give a new teacher?  

Michelle Stradford [18:01] 
Day-by-day. Again, reflecting, going through this Teacher of the Year process, I went back to my first year. I would not have survived without my colleagues, not only on my team, but I had a fantastic administration team at that time, and I had fantastic colleagues. I leaned on them so much – that is what you have to do. To be a new teacher you want to surround yourself with the people that you work with, that you can ask questions to, get answers, ask for help, and it’s okay to ask for that help. 

 I didn’t know what I was doing my first year. It was survival mode. I was up late looking at standards, learning how to teach all this material. When I needed something, I had such great people to turn to on my team who helped me with that. Mine would be to lean on your coworkers, lean on your colleagues, that’s what we’re here for. I mean, you work with kids all day, so you’ve got to find yourself in a room with the adults and ask them for what you need.  

Nati Rodriguez [19:02] 
Thank you. Looking now towards the future, where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?  

Michelle Stradford [19:08] 
I think still teaching fifth grade. Everyone, they’ll always tell you, especially this is advice for new teachers, you’ll find where you fit. I had always said I was going to be a third-grade teacher; that was my thing. When I started working as a substitute and I started working in other classrooms, I realized that there was other loves that I had, and so I started teaching fifth and fifth is my place, and so I love the curriculum. I get to teach American History, which I think, the foundations of this country and democracy, and to me, that is a personal love of mine. Teaching fifth grade is where I would like to remain. I’ve been very fortunate. I know how often teachers get moved in their jobs and moved in grade levels. I have been incredibly lucky to stay in fifth grade by choice. I think in three to five years, you’ll still find me in my little fifth-grade bubble, and happily so.  

Nati Rodriguez [19:59] 
Awesome. Thank you. I have heard of a lot of teacher movement, and I didn’t realize that it’s not in the teacher’s hands often.  

Michelle Stradford [20:08] 
No. Teaching is seniority-based for the most part, of course, not everywhere, but the longer you’ve been in a position, the little bit more seniority you hold. Generally, if there’s a closing of a class, if you have five fifth grades and we’re going to four, the lowest person with the lowest seniority will be moved to two different grade levels. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. I have a coworker at my school who’s been moved to four different grade levels in four years. It’s an unfortunate side to that seniority part of teaching, but everywhere does it different. I know there are some schools that don’t kind of follow that. That’s just a precedent where I work. It’s hard, I think it would be hard to teach a different grade level every year. I do deeply feel for those teachers that get moved when they don’t want to be or involuntarily.  

Nati Rodriguez [20:57] 
Got it. You’re teaching fifth grade, and do you have them all day or is there any co-teaching involved? Do you teach every subject?  

Michelle Stradford [21:04] 
I teach every core subject – Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies. We are very fortunate. Again, I do realize the privilege that comes with working where I work. My kids also attend multiple specials throughout the week that I do not attend. They have a standalone music teacher; they have a standalone art teacher. They go to Makerspace, which is about engineering design. Also, we have a science lab class that I actually go with them to. It is co-taught in a sense, a science lab with them. They have standalone PE teachers as well.  

We also have a fantastic program that we started a few years ago. Our kids are getting social-emotional learning every other week. They are also getting digital citizenship every other week taught by standalone teachers. Particularly after the pandemic hit, the social-emotional issues that we’re struggling with, and because they’ve been online, making sure that they’re learning how to be productive online citizens, which has become a really important thing. Yes, they are with me all day, but they are elsewhere with other staff for a variety of things.  

Nati Rodriguez [22:08] 
That’s great. It’s great to hear that they have these additional experiences. Are the SEL and the digital citizenship – do you foresee that being permanent because of what’s happened?  

Michelle Stradford [22:19] 
I hope so. Our counselor is the one that teaches our SEL lessons. She is a counseling professional, so she can do things that I’m not necessarily trained to do in that area. I think you deal with social emotional issues as a teacher all day long, but it’s nice to have a structured lesson about a specific topic. For fifth grade, she does a lot of work on their transition to middle school next year. How is that going to make you feel and what stresses you out about that? She’s really good about hitting on topics that are really specific to the age of kids she’s working with. Our digital citizenship teacher is one of our tech specialists, and she does again, how much time is too much time online? What do we do if you run into a situation that’s unsafe online? To me, they’re good life lessons in both. I deeply hope that that stays as something that we keep as a part of their day.  

Nati Rodriguez [23:31] 
Just going to shift gears here. What are you reading, watching, or listening to lately?  

Michelle Stradford [23:36] 
Oh, gosh. I am a huge reader, but I have found myself in the middle of a very long fantasy fiction series, which has taken me many weeks, called Zodiac Academy. It was recommended by my best friend. It’s fantastic, it’s a young adult thing. I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo recently, which I really loved. I love an author named Frieda McFadden, so I’ve been eating up her book. She’s a mystery thriller author, and I jumped on the bandwagon of the Colleen Hoover books as well, so I’ve been reading a lot of hers recently.  

Watching – I was a big House of the Dragon fan, so I just finished that. I am patiently waiting for another season of Ted Lasso, which I hope comes sooner rather than later. I’m a baking nerd, so I love Great British Baking Show and watching that. I love Yellowstone, that’s coming back on very soon.  

Listening to – I do a lot of podcasts. I love the true crime genre, so I do a lot of that. I love – for teaching, for kids there are two podcasts that I really love that I’ll listen to sometimes with my class called But Why and Brains On which are two really fantastic kid-based podcasts. They answer kid submitted questions in a really humorous way, so we’ll listen to that sometimes in class.  

Nati Rodriguez [25:03] 
I love it. We’ll have to check those out. Is there anything else you would like to share with the Learner audience?  

Michelle Stradford [25:13] 
Oh, gosh. Say thank you to teachers. Be kind to teachers. You know I think that it’s been a hard two years for everyone, and it’s been flipping this job on its head. over and over and over again. We have all been working very hard, and our deep love is for the kids that we teach and everything that we’ve done. I even try to tell the kids in my class, a simple thank you goes a really long way. If you are in another teacher’s class, just a quick thank you. We do this job because we love the kids. So be kind to your teaching staff.  

Nati Rodriguez [25:45] 
Well, thank you. I think that’s a good way to end. Thank you, Michelle, thank you for your commitment and your leadership at your school and school district. We’re really happy to have you and look forward to continuing to see you grow in your profession.