Barby Michel: Creating a “positive thinking area”
On entering Barby Michel’s second grade classroom at the Block Island School, a visitor is immediately struck by a large banner occupying the facing wall announcing “This is a Positive Thinking Area!” After speaking with Michel for just a few moments, it quickly becomes clear this outlook fundamentally invests her approach to teaching.
A retirement party held for her and art teacher Teri McCombe on Sunday, June 2, on the grounds of the Manisses Hotel, which over 200 people attended, was, Michel says, spectacular. “The highlight of the day — what made it perfect — was that Alice Huggins came out especially” for the occasion. Huggins and Michel began at the school together in 1974.
Explaining that she and Huggins “were always philosophically in sync,” Michel adds, “We felt the same way about teaching: children should learn at their own pace and learning should be experiential and fun,” Underlying her approach is a deep sense of respect for the individuality of each of her pupils and an equally deep belief in their abilities to meet challenges.
Uncovering inner strengths
“I so believe in approaching children from a positive perspective. I can strike a balance between laying down expectations that are very clear behaviorally and academically, but within an atmosphere that incorporates a positive outlook.” Within that structured framework, Michel helps her students discover their inner resources and tap their strengths.
Michel notes that her responsibilities include working very closely with parents. To that end, she maintains an ongoing system of communication with them — through newsletters, emails, texts and phone calls. “Parents always know they can call me at home, if they need,” she says, “and we can often clear things up in just a few moments — whether about a homework assignment or some other issue.” She explains, “We are all working together for the same outcomes: the best for the children.”
Citing the nature of a small community, she said, “Here it’s easier; we are like a family.” In fact, she recalls that her husband Doug periodically tells her, “I love the way you always say you’re like a mother bear and they [her students] are like your cubs.”
Nodding her head, she agrees that she sees herself in that way: “I am here. I protect them. I’m going to make sure they have whatever they need.”
Reflecting on her long tenure at the island school, Michel says what is “so memorable is having taught so many of the island children and then to have a second generation of the same families.” She finds it remarkable to see the resemblances of youngsters to their parents and to meet her former students on an entirely different level, in their new mature roles as moms and dads.
In fact, she quips that when out for an evening and meeting these former students, “It’s a little embarrassing to be still called ‘Mrs. Michel.’”
Married on the Bluffs
Michel first came to the island when she was three months old. “My mother was a Rose, one of the families of original settlers here.” As a youngster, Michel grew up in New York State, but spent all her summers on the island.
In fact, while in college at Colgate University, it was on one of her summer returns to the island that she met her future husband, Doug Michel. Noting they married here in 1973, she thinks, “We were one of the first couples to be married at the Bluffs.”
At Colgate, Michel studied sociology, psychology and anthropology, graduating with a Social Relations degree. She became certified to teach through an exchange program with Skidmore College. When she returned to the island in 1974, retired teacher Gertrude Ball called her to make her aware of an opening at the school and also that there was an apartment available.
Speaking for both herself and her husband, she says, “Block Island kept calling us, pulling us. We both felt as if we were coming home.”
Though she says she still is very happy teaching, she wants to devote more time to her family. Noting the island will always be their home, Michel hopes to continue her involvement with the school and anticipates helping with some educational programs through the Historical Society.
In addition, Michel and her husband hope to travel — one day taking their “dream trip to New Zealand and Australia.” Michel notes, “I love what I do and it is very hard to leave. However, how fortunate I’ve felt to have had the career I’ve loved, with the people I love, on the island I love.”