Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, staff writer Paul Wood chats with Michelle Gonzales, 47, of Champaign, a former teacher who currently serves as chief of staff for state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign. She's also a dog lover.
Where did you grow up and how did you get here?
Skokie. I came down to go to the University of Illinois in 1990 and never left.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
I was in a math enrichment program throughout elementary school. A handful of students were selected from each grade and met with the same teacher during the regular math period. The teacher of that program, Joyce Hammer, was and still is my favorite teacher to this day. She was kind, patient and motivating. She met everyone’s individual needs. After I became a teacher, I went back to visit her decades later, and she still remembered me. It was remarkable to see her in my new phase of life as she was still teaching her students the way she taught me. How very special.
What made you decide to go into education?
After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, I was unsure of what I wanted to do. I knew I loved kids, so I got a job working in a day care center. After two months of working with children, I knew it was my calling. I went back to school to earn a second bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at Illinois State University. After graduating in 2002, I taught third grade in Champaign for 12 years.
What insights did you gain as a teacher?
Teachers are a special breed. The amount of responsibilities, decisions and time they have to balance is tremendous. I have the utmost respect for all my teacher friends. Also, each child has gifts to share. It’s up to the teacher to build that connection in order to extract those gifts. They come in infinite forms. Lastly, the cliche “it takes a village” could not ring truer when it comes to teaching. The parent involvement in my classroom was crucial, and I credit much of my students’ successes to the parents coming in to volunteer, learn alongside their children, donate items, time and energy, and to celebrate their accomplishments. Some of my fondest memories are of the numerous celebrations that showcased the students’ learning, projects and presentations.
How did you get from teaching to working for an elected official?
After deciding to leave the classroom to see what else was out there, I got a temporary job working at the university doing office support work. While I was there, Scott Bennett was appointed as the new state senator in our district. He needed a legislative assistant and he knew me through social circles, so he offered me the position. It was a significant pay cut from teaching, which was a concern, but there were many other benefits and opportunities. I told him I had to think about it. The next day, I went to work at my university job and my supervisor called me into her office. She said because of the budget situation with the new governor, my position had been terminated. That made my decision for me, and I have been working for the 52nd District for the past 4 years.
You’re very active as a volunteer. What have been some of your favorite experiences?
I’m a regular volunteer at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. I’ve grown to love working with the Wednesday crew and serving the wonderful guests. The soup kitchen runs completely on donations and volunteers. Having worked in the restaurant industry, I’m beyond impressed with how this operation functions like a well-oiled machine, considering all its moving parts. Also, I enjoy selling 50/50 raffle tickets at any fundraising event. I’m always touched by the generosity of this community. Nine times out of 10, the winner donates his/her winnings back. It’s a beautiful thing.
And how do you find time for all of this as a single mother?
I’ve had to learn how to say “no” more than I’d like. My son is 15 and becoming more and more independent. We enjoy our time together, but we also appreciate our time apart. From what I understand, so goes teenage life.
Tell us about your son and dog.
Sam is a kind-hearted, smart and funny teen with an old soul. He’s a sophomore at Central and has been practicing martial arts since he was 8. His father and I divorced when he was in second grade, and it’s been just him and me in our house with our dogs ever since. Most of our conversations revolve around or with our 2-year-old mini-dachshund, Leo. If it weren’t for him, I have no doubt our home would be extremely different.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
I feel guilty when I look at Facebook way more than I should. However, I’d have to say there is a lot of good that derives from it. I’ve connected with phenomenal people and made some lasting memories thanks to information transferred on social media. I just wish it wasn’t such a time sucker.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
Everywhere. Having traveled to a few other countries and around many of the states, I’ve become insatiable when it comes to this extraordinary Earth. My list keeps growing.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but the one I had the longest was my mini-dachshund, Charlie. I got him when I was in college to become a teacher, so when I did start teaching, I would bring him into my classroom to celebrate his April 15 birthday every year. Since he lived to the ripe old age of almost 18, he met all my classes throughout my 12-year teaching career. The kids would make him cards, he would do tricks, he’d open presents, run around the playground and go down the slide. I took a picture of each kid with him on their lap. To this day, I still have former students tell me they remember Charlie’s birthday party. I’m pretty sure it was his favorite day of the year.
If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?
Duh. A dachshund. They have the best life.
What’s the happiest memory of your life?
The moment my son was born and took his first breaths, I mimicked his first two cries. I matched the exact pitch and intonation of his voice. On his third breath, his crying came to a dead stop, he opened his eyes widely and they locked on mine. I said, “Welcome to this world, Sam. You’re going to have a beautiful life. I love you.” He stared back at me quietly and understood.
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
Lack of compassion. In myself, I hate how much I procrastinate. There’re not enough hours in the day, and I’m way too distractible.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Be humble and recognize the good in everyone.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
When I decided to leave the classroom. Being a teacher was profoundly gratifying, but stressful. I put in a leave of absence before officially resigning simply to see what else was out there. Had I not done that, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow and learn more about this outside-of-ordinary community in which we live through my current job. Champaign-Urbana is a truly special place and it’s an honor to serve.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
I don’t, because every moment has led me to the next. I am beyond grateful for where I am and for where I have yet to go.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
Depending on the situation, leaning on dear friends and family and their wisdom, walking in nature, yoga, Leo yoga and prayer. God is my rock.