Michelle Perk doesn’t think much about balancing work and family life, because every student she’s ever taught is like family to her.
“Each class becomes family,” said the Southeast Middle School Teacher of the Year, East Baton Rouge Parish Middle School Teach of the Year and Regional Semifinalist for State Teacher of the Year on April 17, pausing to speak to some students in her room studying.
She’s close to all of them on some level and takes the time to get to know each student, she said.
Some students talk about their family problems, life problems or any problem in general in class, and others talk about nothing but math — Perk teaches math to students at Southeast who struggle with the subject, and many of her students are in her room during breaks for extra tutoring.
“I love it! I love what I do, because I know what it’s like to struggle with math,” she said.
In fact, math was the one subject she failed in college. “Twice,” she laughed. Now she teaches math, including geometry and algebra to her eighth-graders.
“I couldn’t teach something that came easily to me,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you how it worked. I’ve never had to think about it. Math, I had to break down into steps. I had to really work at it.”
She got her degree in sociology from LSU and was prepared to go to law school when she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter, Annabella, now 7.
She moved back to Baton Rouge from Dallas, where she was living at the time, and began to think about the kind of world she wanted her daughter to grow up in.
That’s when she decided to go through Louisiana Resource Center for Educators for an alternative teaching certificate in math education.
Perk said she knew she would need help, so she asked for help, starting with her younger brother, Gary Vicknair.
“He’s great at math, and he was 17 at the time,” she said. She checked out math textbooks and combed through them, looking for ways to break down and understand the concepts.
She still says she’s not partial to math, but she loves teaching it.
“My favorite thing on earth is the dead silence, right before I hear a student say, ‘Oh! I get it now.’ That grin on their faces is priceless. I get to change their minds about math. I know they’re all capable of getting it, and it’s fun to see them come in here at the first of the year hating math, and seeing their opinions change over time.”
She came to realize, once she started teaching, that she was training the leaders who would shape the world Annabella grew up in, too, and the world they would each grow older in.
Perk said she knows her students, like all middle school students, face their own special challenges outside the classroom, and she also knows those problems have to be addressed before they can get any work done.
“If we have a problem — any kind of problem, Ms. Perk lets us bring it to the class, and we talk about how to solve it as a class,” said Vy Tran, one of Perk’s students.
That goes for problems with parents, other students or other classes. It’s all on the table and it helps them understand they are not alone.
Perk said she has to address the whole person in context to get a good result in a class that is the most frustrating to most of her students — she requests the students who have been struggling.
Not only does she have about 700 students, former and current, that she considers part of her ever-growing family, she brings old friends — some of whom she’s known for 25 years — back into the mix.
“I want them to know that what they’re doing is affecting other people around them,” Perk said, whether that’s their behavior or their grades. “And I’m talking about people around the world, not just here in Baton Rouge.
“I have friends who live all over the world,” she said, pointing to the walls, where she has posted more than 50 letters of encouragement she’s gotten this year alone.
“If you’ll notice, there’s nothing math-related on the walls. It’s all pictures of my students when they were younger. I want this classroom to feel like it’s their home,” she said.
For most of her students, it marks a safe place to go to make mistakes without fear and learn from them, to help each other and, ultimately, to succeed together.
The bond they form over the course of the year ensures that once each student gets the material she’s teaching, they will join in the teaching process, often with a unique perspective that sometimes can be the difference between a student falling through the cracks and getting it.
“Nobody gets left behind here,” said student Shane Evans, as he sat talking with Carlin Matthews, Rashaad Saulsberry, Vy Tran and Talyrica Triplett.
“I hated math before. It was my weakest subject, but now I really enjoy it.” Triplett said.
All agreed Perk takes extra time to make sure everyone gets it.
The expectations Perk has for her daughter, who is like a younger sister to most of her former students, are the same she has for each of her students.
Those expectations go beyond the classroom. As part of her package for winning middle school teacher of the year, Perk was judged on her service to the Baton Rouge community. She and her students, along with the rest of the school, raised $11,000 for Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure, which was the third highest fundraising contribution from a group, and the highest among school groups participating in the fundraiser.
Perk will be observed in the next two weeks, she said, as part of the statewide competition for teacher of the year. The final winners will be announced on July 11.
Southeast Principal Amber Boyd said she couldn’t think of a teacher more deserving, and not just for her work in the classroom.
“I can’t think of someone who has done more for the kids and the community. She has bonded them as a family, and that goes far beyond Southeast Middle School,” she said.