I meet Michelle Sengara at her lovely downtown home. She gives me a tour before we settle into her living room to eat Portuguese custard tarts and drink G&Ts. I’ve only heard about Michelle through my sister, but I am immediately captivated by this big thinker, big personality, and big-hearted person. She is completely open and admittedly a little naïve. She takes people at their word. She reminds me in some ways of… me.
I know you initially through my sister and you both speak so well using your educational words…
I’ve been called a therapist more than once ‘cause of how I speak. But I still feel like a 12 year old inside. Just this past summer I gave a talk at Oxford University… I had to use mantras to calm myself down and get through it!
What did you say?
Well, repetition through conditioning—“You’re smart. You’re good at your job. You’re worthy. You’re enough.” Something along those lines—I had to say them three times—so in that moment I could embody those feelings. But yeah, I still feel 12 years old, I just have different tools in my toolkit, like language. I have different ways of speaking to different groups about different topics.
Okay, you have to tell us who you are! What are these tools?! Then we’ll get back to this mantra thing—
We are beautifully all over the place, trying to get everything out all at once—the questions and the answers.
Okay, my name is Michelle Sengara. I’m an educator—teacher and learner. I have been in education in a variety of different fields. I have taught ESL at home in Canada, as well as on the continents of Africa and Asia. I studied in Europe for a year—studying social sciences in Amsterdam. Actually, I think everybody should take a social sciences undergrad. The study of humans, the study of people is essential to any profession that you choose to go into. I was very lucky to choose that as my first degree.
Social science is really like acting.
Exactly. There is no limit to what you can do when you understand people as individuals psychologically… like if you understand the brain, motivations… that plays a role! And then you do sociology which is the study of groups… why certain things happen… I see it all the time when I’m walking down the street and see some kind of advertisement for a piece of jewelry that will make me feel loved and beautiful. I need to understand how and why I am being manipulated.
So you think your undergrad really made you a critical thinker?
Oh yeah, more so than my education degree—shh… don’t tell OISE that: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto—yeah don’t tell them that! What makes me a better teacher is the fact that I love people. And I love creating. Design is something that educators are doing every minute in a classroom, they just don’t call it that.
Can you talk more about that?
Sure, teaching is creativity, design, and figuring out the pieces of a puzzle—how they fit together. The puzzle of a teacher changes minute to minute—the pieces that you have available to you—the colour of those pieces, the size of those pieces change at a moment’s notice. Kind of like parenting I imagine.
I have never thought of parenting as design work… ooh…
Is your intuition really strong?
Well, I think like any artist, you have to start by observing, you have to start with what is real… and then building and creating the unknown from there. But the creative process for me starts from what is real: what do I know, what do I feel—those are all real things that you have to start from. Maybe that’s counter to how artists tend to work. Do you dream first and put stuff together second?
She’s giving me food for thought. I’m definitely a dreamer.
My mantra is structured chaos! Actually this feeds into the discussion on failure—mantras are very helpful for me in staying flexible, able to deal with situations even if I know it’s going to be chaos.
I like that. Do you always have a plan, an outline?
Some of the best writing advice I got when I was writing my dissertation was to write my title first to give it a purpose, a goal, an overall umbrella. Both your sister and I did our degrees extremely fast. I did a PhD in education in 2.5 years—because I came with a purpose!
She tells me about her thesis… Education and Technology, refusing to believe that technology cannot be used for good! Go girl! We circle around how the educational system stifles creativity and is designed to produce industrial workers. We talk about the infamous Ken Robinson!
You are obviously great at making connections?
Well… yes, but humans are my skill. I can’t skate or draw to save my life. But a skill that I have actively worked to cultivate is human interaction. Humans fascinate me!
We laugh. Apparently that’s my problem!
I saw everything, so sometimes I said too much! Stuff like that. I was horribly bullied as a kid.
‘Cause you’re so open!
I was very open and an easy target. I was very easily manipulated because I took everybody at their word. I still find it extremely difficult to hear someone say something and accept that that is not true. It’s like cognitive dissonance. But you’re saying it! Why would you say something that is not true?
We talk about the sociopaths and narcissists she has dated, but which have brought her to some of her greatest ‘ah ha’ moments!
I realized that we spend far too much time as individuals concerning ourselves with the intentions and motivations of others. Even if I asked you why you interviewed me, you might give me an answer and you might even think it was true, but it might not actually be the “truth”. I am a bit of a truth fiend! Radical honesty. I have learned to mitigate that a bit…
How did you learn this?
From observation of my emotions and realizing that I wanted to live a peaceful happy life. I realized that one of the most tormenting things I was doing to myself was asking myself why. Why do they do that? Why is that happening? So I don’t do that anymore! Now I say, “how do I want to respond?” I ask questions about me processing people’s actions as opposed to me analyzing those actions.
Words of wisdom to live by.
Okay, let’s talk about failure!
The reality is once you embrace failure it’s an incredibly freeing space. Failure is an opportunity for sure.
Do you have a pivotal failure moment that you rose above?
Well when I applied to my Bachelor of Education I was rejected. I’m not comparing myself to Michael Jordan, but he was kicked off his basketball team in junior high… these professions that we gravitated toward (baseketball, education)—these professions didn’t want us! So I felt all the emotions that we are taught to feel about failure. I was distraught, I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to tell my dad—but it opened me up to the ESL world. I traveled to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam; I worked as a program officer in Tanzania… this whole International world opened up to me. My focus as a consultant on development in education—
She tells me about the project she’s currently involved with, working to bring technology to refugee camps in Jordan. People growing up in these camps need access to the GED—the General Equivalency Diploma—in their own languages so they can get jobs…
I think I always would have focused on marginalized populations because of my experience being bullied, but I never would have had such an international focus if I had stepped right into a public teaching job and hadn’t been rejected. I say rejected proudly!
Failure was useful!
That particular failure was probably the biggest turning point in my professional career!
We talk some more about how she has navigates sexism in the boardroom, phrases like “You have such a beautiful smile, it’s hard to listen to what you’re saying,” her unrelenting optimism…
Do you get depressed by the sexism in the world?
I have a somewhat unpopular opinion, which I am happy to share. It is partly a result of the mother that I have and the strong women in my family.
Like can’t be broken?
Yeah, to say strong-willed is an understatement—exorbitantly strong willed… can’t be undermined! I think a lot of what we are talking about are questions of dismissal. Like patronizing comments dismiss you. But I grew up in a house of women that refused to be dismissed. I was raised to be a woman that refuses to be dismissed. So it’s a privileged background in that sense. I’m also an optimist. So my strategy… I don’t whine (see I said it was unpopular!)… instead I strategize and figure out a way around the current structure in order to get where I want to go. My goal is the most important thing to me! I ask myself “what can I do?”—I can’t necessarily get what I want (being treated equally) and for people to hold my vision of a woman as a strong powerful source of light in the world. I can’t make people think like me, so I identify the loopholes and get allies… my strategy is to find a work around, a slow and steady approach to get clients to see me as a whole person. I can’t bulldoze people and tell them they’re wrong if I want to achieve my goal. I care so much abut what I’m producing as an artist and designer that sometimes I have to accept, strategize, and deal with archaic behaviour.
We’ve been talking for two hours when I realize I need to be home to relieve my babysitter. We hug! I feel lucky to have crossed paths with this enchanting woman… PhD, educational designer, mover and shaker who wants to change the public education system and probably will. Keep your eyes out for this one in the world!
Michelle Sengara is an education visionary whose instructional experience across four continents inspires her to see teaching and learning as the development of meaningful communities of inquiry. As the lead trainer and consultant for The Alina Group, she delivers powerful, customized material that addresses specific community needs, incites change, and supports sustainable engagement.