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Simmons sees herself in her Monmouth students

Barry McNamara
07/30/2020
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Michelle Holschuh Simmons wants the Monmouth College experience to be every bit as life-altering for her students as her own college experience was to her.

Promoted to associate professor of educational studies at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, Simmons will begin her sixth year of teaching at Monmouth in August, but she’s spent many years molding students since graduating from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., in 1993.

“I was the youngest of a big family, a blue-collar family,” said Simmons, who grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and has been known to wear a cheesehead to amuse her students and have some good-natured fun with any Chicago Bears fans in her class. “I had more academic opportunities than my siblings – I loved school.”

Inspired by her high school mathematics teacher, Simmons set out to follow that career path at St. Benedict. She wound up altering her course, but that didn’t diminish the role that college played in her life.

“Much like what Monmouth College does for its students, St. Ben’s changed my life profoundly,” she said. “I received some amazing scholarships, and now that I’m on the other side of that, I appreciate them even more. St. Ben’s took a chance on me.”

Life-altering experiences

In rapid succession, Simmons had three life-altering experiences at St. Benedict. In her first freshman seminar class, she met Bob Simmons, who attended the neighboring all-male school, Saint John’s University. She and Bob, who is now a classics professor at Monmouth, married in 1996. The couple has four sons, ranging in age from 15 to 11.

That seminar class was taught by an English professor, which proved helpful when Simmons realized that becoming a math teacher “didn’t stand out to me in college the way it did in high school.” The professor helped her transition to English major.

Following graduation, she spent a year teaching in Belize, “within walking distance of Guatemala,” she said. “I taught math and English to ninth-graders. That experience confirmed to me that I wanted to teach.”

Michelle and Bob earned their master of arts in teaching degrees from Minnesota State University in 1995, then “applied everywhere to get a job.” They were both hired in Nebraska, where one got a job at Omaha South High School and the other at Omaha North.

“We taught there a number of years,” said Simmons. “A lot of my students were recent immigrants who were in Omaha because of the meat-packing plants. It was very similar to my experience in Belize. They were kids who needed a chance.”

University life

When Bob pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, Michelle continued her graduate studies, too, earning a master’s degree in library science in 2000 before completing a Ph.D. in language, literacy and culture in 2007. It was during those years in Iowa when Simmons began working full-time with college students as the consulting librarian for arts and humanities at Cornell College in nearby Mount Vernon.

By the time Simmons completed her Ph.D., the couple was off to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where Bob taught classics. Michelle taught at the university’s school of library science, and she was also contacted by San Jose State University to do full-time online teaching. It was a job she could perform from North Carolina, but she also appreciated the four trips to California each year for in-person faculty meetings.

“I was teaching students who had Ph.D.s in German literature or medical degrees or law degrees, and they were seeking to add skills with the library and information science degree,” said Simmons. “The students were more like peers, and through them, I now have connections all over the world.”

Even after Bob began teaching at Monmouth in 2014, Michelle continued her work with San Jose State. During her husband’s first year on campus, a Monmouth educational studies faculty position opened.

“The job called for public school teaching experience. I had that,” said Simmons. “It called for a Ph.D. in education. I had that. I reworked my C.V. a little and applied and, miraculously, I got the job. Although I’m teaching all students, I’m specifically working with students who plan to teach secondary school, and my specialty is high school English teachers.”

Connected at Monmouth

Simmons feels a special connection to her Monmouth students.

“I love working with our students because I see myself in them. They tend not to be entitled, and they typically don’t come from privileged backgrounds. I want their experience to be as impactful as St. Ben’s was for me.”

Simmons drew on her experience with San Jose State when Monmouth made the move to remote learning in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She already had eight years’ experience with that teaching model.

“My apprehension wasn’t the same as some of my colleagues,” she said. “Developing a sense of community is really important. It helped that I already knew my students and that I’d built that rapport. Even though we were online, I tried to build that community through little things, like the cheesehead. In the last few minutes of one class, we all did a pet parade and showed off the pets we had at our homes.”

Simmons tries to incorporate “a variety of technologies as seamlessly as possible,” while also stressing the essential foundations of writing and reading.

“I’ll always be an old English teacher,” she said. “No matter what field my students go into, it undermines their authority if they can’t communicate through writing.”