Teacher Profile #2: Michelle Lewis Barnes

I think early childhood is a field from which we can make the largest impact on the social and emotional wellness of our population. Whether it be directly through our work with young children on a daily basis, or with their parents — we have this intensely valuable inroad we cannot ignore.

Hometown – I grew up in Hubbard, a small town about 30 minutes south of Portland.

Current Location – I own and operate three small early childhood settings here in Portland, OR. Busy Bee Preschool, Sunflowers Preschool, and The Nest Playschool.

Job Title – I’ve never quite settled on the perfect title for what I do. Owner? Director? I make most of my work about supporting my teachers, and (not so) occasionally getting out of their way when their ideas are far more valid than any of mine.

Degrees/Education – I meandered my way through my education over many years. I started out at the University of Oregon after high school, starting out in the journalism program. I transferred to Portland State University, changing majors a few time. Life intervened, and after getting married and having children, I took a “break”. 20 years later, I decided that I had to get back to it, and finished up my B.S. in Social Sciences, mainly so I could pursue my not-so-newfound passion for early childhood education, and I just finished up my M.Ed. from Champlain College last year.


How long have you been working with children? Do you have your own children?

I’ve been working with children since my first daughter was born — it was 17 years ago this month that I skidded out of the emotional meltdown that was my maternity leave to give notice to my employer, knowing only one thing: I had decided that hell or high water, I was going to figure out how to stay home with her. I quickly found myself researching how to open a family child care home. Many years later, I am now the mother to five children: my 11 year old daughter, 14 year old son, 17 year old daughter, and two stepsons: 17 and 18 years old.

Is this your calling? If not, why do you do it?

Yes, it is most definitely my calling. I find myself endlessly passionate about so many pieces of this work. If you’ve ever seen the Venn diagram where the thing you are great at, the thing you love, the thing the world needs, and the thing that people will pay for comes together in the middle — that middle part is 99% of my work day. Seriously, I’m often both shocked and enthralled by my luck and good fortune.

Do you feel fulfilled in this work? How so?

I do feel extremely fulfilled in this work. I’m able to create these beautiful spaces where children are able to experience the security of relationships with amazing and nurturing teachers, purposeful play, and continuity. I get to be there to see the community form around these places. It is easy to feel both challenged and blessed.

This idea is so intriguing to me. Tell me more about the ways that you see your schools as builders of community?

Our schools are a welcoming center for so many of our families. I meet so many parents of young children who lack much extended family support, or who find themselves isolated from other parents who share their values around parenting. To me, our school communities can be a support and a shared community which fill some of those voids.

Tell us about the trajectory of your career. Who was helpful along the way? How do you feel like having your own children (if you have any) influenced your career decisions/aspirations/understanding/etc?

There are so many paths into (and out of) this field. I’m always curious about the different paths people find into this work, and the understandings we can share with each other. When I first started out in this field, I was where so many family child care providers start — wanting nothing more than to just find a way to care for my own children, while making enough money to support my household. Unlike many women starting out, I was nothing but encouraged, supported, and mentored by experienced providers. Perhaps I didn’t know any better, but I took all their advice and funneled it into building my business, digging into what sparked my passion, and rarely took no for an answer. I don’t believe I would have found this work if I hadn’t had my own children. For me, motherhood was the mother of invention.

I want to know more about this too. I had a similar experience, but am keen to know more about yours. What do you think it is that draws us to not only create these spaces, but to invest in them long-term? Is it a “motherbear” instinct? Something about understanding the world more deeply?

I have to say, I immensely enjoy creating these spaces for children. Truly, it is the part of my work that fills me with joy. My husband would say it’s because I like to shop. But creating this rich environment for children, a space just for them…that is something that inspires me year after year. It’s not about the toys, it’s about the messages we send to children. It’s about the idea that we can create a beautiful space just for them which holds the value for me. Children deserve more than our culture generally affords them, so much more.

Tell us what your hopes for the future are. Where do you hope to be in ten years? Twenty?

I’m loving where I am right now. However, as far as goals for the future: I want to be able to grow my business to the point where I can pay higher wages and offer benefits for staff. I’d like to be able to continue to serve families in our community. I also feel it’s a part of my work to help parents to expect more for their children, and understand what is possible.

Do you feel like this might lead to more advocacy work for you? Or policy work?

I think of my advocacy at a more local level, currently. I have some of my own personal issues, which I see as somewhat tangential to my early childhood work. I am in the beginning stages of working as a CASA, or court-appointed special advocate, for foster youth. But for me, the daily messages and resources I’m sharing with other providers, with families, and in my own circle of friends and acquaintances — that is what I define as advocacy for myself, today. Tomorrow may become something more!

What is the bigger picture for you? How do you see the work of early childhood education acting on the world?

I think early childhood is a field from which we can make the largest impact on the social and emotional wellness of our population. Whether it be directly through our work with young children on a daily basis, or with their parents — we have this intensely valuable inroad we cannot ignore. Finding ways to be gentle with ourselves, parents, and young children can have that so-called “butterfly effect” which will continue to pay dividends over the lifespan. Creating and fostering the environments which ground our children and families in the values of acceptance, kindness, critical thought, and devotion to the immense task of raising healthy and strong humans is the work to which we must each keep circling back. In today’s climate, it takes much strength, to not feel discouraged or dissuaded from our belief in the power of good. And truly, early childhood is the best place to be — nowhere except with a roomful of young children do I feel that sureness that the world is a place full of goodness and potential.

What is on your plate for this school year?

Teaching, being the best boss I can be, researching, presenting, etc. Someday soon, I plan to spur myself to begin training in earnest. Life is always so busy, but I tell myself that paying it all forward is immensely important.

How has your teaching evolved over the years? As early childhood education becomes a more honored part of our culture, how do you think this has influenced your work with children or teachers?

I believe that I live in a happy bubble of people who DO truly honor our work. I think we have miles and miles to go before society as a whole values our work in the ways I would like to see. I hope I live to see more forward push. I hope I am a part of it each and every day with my own teachers, colleagues, families, and friends.

What is your advice to young/burgeoning teachers?

I say, know that you need to LOVE this work, it’s too hard not to LOVE it. If you feel your flame flickering, find ways to rekindle that flame. Surround yourself with your positive, passionate tribe. Don’t be pushed and pulled in a direction which doesn’t feel right in your gut. Keep your deepest values intact and honor them. Keep reading, keep practicing, keep making mistakes, and stay true to your core values. Oh, and remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (I’m not sure if my prodigious use of cliches means I’ve stumbled upon some deep meaning or that I just don’t have any fresh advice!)

How do you help yourself relax/unwind after a long day of working with children? What helps you feel healthy and taken care of?

I’m a voracious reader — fiction and non-fiction. I’m a dog person, through and through. Dogs are the only living creatures I may enjoy even more than young children. Curled up on the couch with a book and a dog in my lap is this introvert’s happy place.

Can you talk about a sacrifice or setback that you have tackled as an early childhood educator over the years?

Like all entrepreneurs, I suppose my biggest challenges have been the financial risks, missteps, and scary moments. I believe deeply in my vision, and that has been both a strength and a weakness at times. For all the creative freedom which comes from being your own boss, you will sometimes pay for that in other areas of your life. It can be very hard on my family in some ways, but as time goes on, I’ve been able to balance work/life a bit better. I worked 60+ hours a week for a very long time to get to the place I’m at now. And I had to work very hard to trust and delegate well, so that I can now go to lunch in the middle of the day. That adjustment was a scary change for a person who ties so much of myself to my work. I had to forgive myself a bit, and adjust to a new reality. I’m very lucky to have amazing staff, which has made it easier for me to pull back and work on the big picture and planning for meeting needs in each school.

Last book that you read that really inspired your thinking around your work?

It’s hard to pick just one, but I truly enjoyed Erika Christakis’ The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grown-Ups. She not only challenges all the “norms” of today’s early childhood practices, she does it from a place of experience in the field, weaves in well-researched sources, and best of all, humor and anecdotes. AND she challenges the sacred Thanksgiving Handprint Turkey. It really doesn’t get better than this stuff. Bring your highlighter and your post-it notes.

Final thoughts: Hope, belief, love of the profession?

If we can get society to pay attention, I believe that early childhood settings are where some of the best practices in education can be seen in action. We need to protect childhood, and keep fighting for the importance of play, time in the outdoors, and hands-on learning. We must keep pushing back against the intrusion of overly academic learning in the early years.

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