Forty Under 40 Q&A: Michelle Thompson Gieg

Michelle Thompson Gieg, 31

Executive director/Principal, Democracy Prep Baton Rouge

MichelleGieg.vuAfter graduating from LSU in 2005, Michelle Gieg took on the challenge of teaching elementary school in North Baton Rouge at the now-shuttered North Highlands Elementary School. She vowed at the time to someday start a high-quality school in the same neighborhood that would give her students a dramatically different experience from what they had at North Highlands. She’s now made good on that promise. After several years as head of Teach for America’s summer training institute for hundreds of new teachers, Gieg has founded Democracy Prep Baton Rouge, replicating one of New York City’s most successful charter schools.

THREE MAJOR PROFESSIONAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Founding Democracy Prep Baton Rouge alongside an amazing team of educators, parents and scholars – the College Classes of 2032 (kindergarten) and 2026 (sixth grade). At Democracy Prep our mission is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. At our school, we WORK HARD, GO TO COLLEGE and CHANGE THE WORLD. I consider it a great accomplishment (for our whole team, not just me) to be mid-way into our founding year, working everyday toward our vision.

 Launching the first-ever Mississippi Delta Teacher Training Institute in 2010 through Teach For America. At the time it was the largest institute, training over 800 teachers and providing summer school to more than 3,000 students in multiple rural school districts across the Delta region.

 Developing a framework and training for how to strategically manage toward a vision and create an adult culture aligned to that vision. While this is not as huge a milestone or as great a benchmark as the items above, this has been my greatest area of professional success in the roles I’ve had, and I enjoy sharing what I have learned with other leaders.

VOLUNTEER AND COMMUNITY AFFILIATIONS AND INVOLVEMENT

 Past Presidents of the Student Body, Louisiana State University

 Baton Rouge Youth Coalition (BYRC)

 Teach For America Alumni

WHAT ACTRESS WOULD PLAY YOU IN A MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE?

I would love for Diane Keaton to play mature me, and maybe Jessica Biel for the early years.

WHAT IS YOUR THEME SONG?

“What I’m For” by Pat Green

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM IT?

One summer in high school I worked at Servpro, a cleaning and restoration service for victims of fires, floods, etc. It was hard manual labor for 10 hours a day. From those long days I learned the meaning of hard work, the power that comes with access to a college education, and what that access means for career trajectories in our country.

NAME ONE BOOK THAT HAS INSPIRED YOU PROFESSIONALLY.

Quiet by Susan Cain. As an extreme extrovert myself, reading Quiet helped me become a better manager and leader of introverts. Since reading, I have tried to build far more diverse teams and inspire the introverts I manage to unlock their potential on a team where that could otherwise be challenging.

WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?

Before I could have decided for myself, my parents would have said I should’ve been a lawyer because I could uphold a logical argument from a very young age – some things never change.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PLACE FOR A BUSINESS LUNCH IN BATON ROUGE?

The “Dragon’s Lair” at our school. Eating lunch with 6th graders is always both informative and hilarious.

WHAT RITUAL DO YOU DO TO GET PUMPED UP BEFORE A BIG MEETING, PRESENTATION OR PITCH?

I have to boil down the key take-ways right before anything important. I ask myself: What am I really going for here? Sometimes it’s on a post-it, other times a napkin, or the back of a manila folder. But I always know the three things that people must walk away thinking, feeling or believing.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST FULFILLING MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER SO FAR?

The first day of summer professional development for our founding staff at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge – seeing a group of people I greatly respect come together to build something new was an overwhelming and wonderful feeling.

WHAT WAS YOUR PROFESSIONAL “AHA MOMENT?”

I took a trip to India in 2012 to learn about Teach For India, a fellowship similar to Teach For America. That trip helped me realize the importance of finding true connection to the people in the work and approaching things less from a goal-driven mindset and more from the human perspective.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN THE HARD WAY?

I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says, “Don’t let yesterday get in the way of today.” That’s because I’ve learned the hard way (too many times) that dwelling on problems doesn’t solve them.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR JOB WOULD SHOCK CUSTOMERS OR CLIENTS IF THEY KNEW ABOUT IT?

People may be surprised how long and hard all of our staff works – we are talking teachers who put in 10-12 hour days and operations staff who do the same – all in the name of the mission.

MAC OR PC?

Mac

WHEN DO YOU TEXT AND WHEN DO YOU CALL?

I am generally more of a phone call person, but I have a lot of friends who prefer texts. I also am a part of an epic friends group text that is always sure to brighten my day.

HOW LOW WILL YOU ALLOW YOUR REMAINING BATTERY LIFE GET (IN %) BEFORE YOU HAVE AN ANXIETY ATTACK?

Anxiety sets in at about 7%, but I don’t plug in until 2%. I have no explanation for this.

HOW MANY UNREAD MESSAGES ARE IN YOUR INBOX RIGHT NOW?

18, but that’s because I just archived over 1,600 messages last week over Fall Break.

WHAT APP GETS YOU THROUGH THE DAY?

Box.com, a storage site that allows me to upload classroom videos to a shared sever without taking space on my iPhone/iPad.

HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU HIT THE SNOOZE BUTTON?

Too many! I usually set my alarm for a full hour before I actually have to get up.

BREAKFAST AT HOME? BREAKFAST ON THE GO? BREAKFAST AT YOUR DESK? NO BREAKFAST AT ALL?

I go to the CC’s coffee on Perkins everyday for a Super Grande Iced Caramel Latte, with half the syrup and an extra shot. Their morning team knows my order and can even put my phone number in the system if I forget my loyalty card.

IS THE GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL? WHAT’S IN THE GLASS?

Philosophically, I think it’s both. At times, the glass is half empty because I have learned that it is best to be prepared for all possibilities. At times, it is half full because there is no sense in dwelling in what’s not there; instead we should focus on the possibilities that lay ahead. What’s in the glass? If it’s just for me, it’s red wine or an iced coffee!

THE SAYING IS, ‘BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.’ SPECIFICALLY, WHAT ARE YOU ‘BEING’ TO MAKE BATON ROUGE BETTER?

At Democracy Prep we “Work hard, Go to College, Change the World.” At Democracy Prep our mission is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. For me, it’s important to be a leader that can inspire and equip our scholars to change the world around them, even before they graduate from college and become the future leaders of Baton Rouge. For example, our Kindergarteners are currently studying elections and we will be having a daylong Get-Out-The-Vote campaign on the Friday before the November general election to help rally participation.

WHAT’S YOUR MOTTO?

Since college, the signature line on my personal email has been, “You only come this way once. Do it right.”

WHAT’S YOUR IDEA OF PERFECT HAPPINESS?

A vacation day at the lake with my nearest and dearest family and friends. If not that, binge-watching Hulu (it’s a bad habit).

WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOU HAD GROWN UP?

When I got engaged.

WHICH LIVING PERSON DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?

One of my best friends, Kionne Feaster. I met Kionne when we were 15 and 16 working at a camp together. She’s was most true-to-herself person I had ever met – and still is. As a teenager, she could captivate anyone with her contagious JOY and simultaneously challenge them to be a better version of themselves with her incredible INSIGHT. As an adult, Kionne is a woman of integrity and commitment. She is a behavioral therapist, a wife and a mom – and somehow does it all with excellence and grace. She’s not the person in the center of the stage like at camp – but she is the center of her kids’ world and that I am consistently impressed by and admire so much.

WHAT TRAIT DO YOU MOST DEPLORE IN OTHERS?

I am a stickler for details in aesthetics, so I get irrationally frustrated with messy people. I constantly going around school straitening things!

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST EXTRAVAGANCE?

I am an amateur photographer, so I like to treat myself to high-quality photography gear.

WHAT TREND DO YOU REALLY WISH WOULD MAKE A COMEBACK?

Fanny packs (mostly for my wife’s sake).

IF YOU COULD CHOOSE YOUR AGE FOREVER, WHAT AGE WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?

16 – perceived freedom with no actual responsibilities! Plus, that was the year I really discovered what I was capable of and found my footing in school.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE JOURNEY?

I love driving around the Mississippi Delta. It brings back a lot of wonderful memories from my time working there, and there is nothing like a sunrise over the vast fields.

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST REGRET?

There have been times that I’ve distanced myself from friends because I thought they wouldn’t accept me because I’m gay. I wish I would’ve given them the grace they deserve instead of shutting them out or making false assumptions about them.

WHEN AND WHERE WERE YOU HAPPIEST?

I married my wife, Meghan, in Maui, Hawaii on July 30, 2014 among our closest family and friends. Everyone stayed for a week in one bungalow, so by the night of the wedding, it was like one huge family dinner. It was blissful and full of love!

WHICH TALENT OR SUPERPOWER WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE AND WHY?

I would love to be able to multiply myself. An extra set of hands (or four) would really come in handy at school.

IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I’d like to be more patient.

WHAT’S YOUR MOST TREASURED POSSESSION?

I have two: A rosary case my maternal grandmother gave me for my first communion. It was once stolen with some things out of my car, and the police found it in a dumpster! And a really wonderful print that one of my close friends made for our wedding. Every time I see it I remember all the love we shared that week.

IF YOU COULD LIVE ANYWHERE ON THIS PLANET AND TAKE EVERYTHING THAT YOU LOVE WITH YOU, WHERE WOULD YOU CHOOSE TO LIVE AND WHY?

Hogwarts – for obvious reasons.

WHAT DO YOU MOST VALUE IN YOUR FRIENDS?

Advice and willingness to problem-solve. My best friends are people that push my thinking and allow me to push theirs.

WHAT DO YOU MISS MOST ABOUT THE ’90s?

ER (the TV show)

IF YOU HAD TO BE A TEACHER OF SOMETHING, WHAT WOULD YOU TEACH?

I have taught a lot of things over the years, second grade, fifth grade, dance, and leadership skills. While I enjoyed it all, my heart belongs to fifth grade.

IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME 20 YEARS, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF?

It’s ok to just be who you are and be honest about it. The world will catch up.

WHAT USELESS PIECE OF INFORMATION WILL YOU NEVER FORGET?

The Zulu words at the beginning of the Lion King song, “The Circle of Life,” translates to, “It’s a lion, Father. Yes, it’s a lion.”

WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH EVERY TIME YOU THINK ABOUT IT?

My wife Meghan does a chipmunk voice that can always make me smile. It takes a lot to make me laugh!

WHAT’S THE NEXT CHALLENGE YOU HAVE PLANNED?

Each year Democracy Prep Baton Rouge adds a grade in elementary and in middle – next year we will be K and 1st AND 6th and 7th. Our model ensures that I will have exciting new challenges for years to come!

DO YOU PLAN TO BE IN THE CAPITAL REGION FIVE YEARS FROM NOW? WHY OR WHY NOT?

Absolutely! At Democracy Prep Baton Rouge Elementary, in five years we will be in our final year of growth and we will be preparing for our current class of Kindergarteners to enter our middle school. It will be a big year!

NAME THREE THINGS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST.

See our first class of scholars graduate from College in 2026.

Go to Thailand.

See the town where my sister and I were born (Bitburg, Germany).

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