“You can take the girl out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the girl.” So begins our interview with Julie Fisher. “Forgive me if I talk to too much, it’s what I do,” she apologizes. To that, we all can say, “Thank goodness for teachers like Julie.”
Julie’s interest in education began in her senior year at U of M. Based on her internship the previous summer with Special Olympics International in DC – and at their request – she marched into the Sociology Department and pitched the idea of piloting a program pairing university students with Special Olympic athletes, then teaching a class on developmental disabilities and inclusion. To her surprise, the school gave her a green light, the course was listed in the catalog and a full class signed up. Based on that project, she graduated with both a Student Achievement and Student Humanitarian Award. And, as a result of an article that highlighted her in the news, she was recruited into Macy’s buyer’s training program in New York City. Talk about competitive, high pressure work. Bring it on.
As Julie was to discover, teaching was her first love. After those first years in retail, she returned to school for her Master’s in Education at Loyola University in Chicago. In Chicago, she taught high school history in Evanston, then took a job on the south side of Chicago at a school with metal detectors at the doors and an active police department inside the building. “I would start the year with all these fabulous eager students,” Julie said, “And then, I had kids who were arrested in my classroom and girls dropping out of school before the end of the year because they were pregnant. Kids just didn’t understand that they had better options.”
As the trajectory of her career would suggest, Julie is well-attuned to the challenges of teens and advocating for better options for young people and their families. A board member of Planned Parenthood of Michigan for many years, Julie served for more than a decade as Director of BBFA (Building Better Families though Action), a non-profit parenting education organization focusing on preventing destructive behaviors in kids and teens. While running BBFA, she jumped back into education and into a former role as an AP History teacher at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills. Juggling the two tracks of her career seven years ago, Julie started The Social U, a company that developed proprietary technology to help student assess, manage and clean up their digital footprints.
True to form, always a student and ever-prepared, Julie provided fully written notes for most of the questions in her Q&A with myJewishDetroit. What follows are excerpts from the combination of her written answers and insightful discussion:
On early years, kids and marriage
myJewishDetroit: As you wish, please share a little about your family.
This summer, I’m lucky enough to be celebrating 24 years of marriage to Mark Fisher, a guy who makes me laugh every day and who I met in my Echo Park preschool carpool when we were 3 years old. We have two daughters who light up my world and keep me forever on my toes; Sarah just graduated from U of M and is moving to Chicago for a job and Olivia is a senior at Emory University.
myJewishDetroit: As friends first, when did you and Mark start dating?
I was 25, had been working in Chicago for some time, came home for the High Holidays and ran into Mark at temple. We chatted, then he invited me to come back the following weekend to go to an Elton John concert, and that was it. I broke up with my boyfriend of five years and, our parents, who were already close friends, were thrilled. When we announced our engagement, my mother had wedding plans ready to go.
On enterprise and learning curves
Please give us a snapshot of the MJ Fisher Group.
Via the MJ Fisher Group, I do much of the same work I did with both BBFA and The Social U: I speak on topics related to 21st century parenting issues with a focus on social media and college admissions, tech safety and etiquette – including a whole category of discussion I refer to as “How to Be an Analog Parent Raising Digital Natives.” I am, in fact, writing a book on the topic.
How and why did you start the enterprise?
About seven years ago at BBFA, I started to see the trend: parents started coming in with requests for programming that had to do with technology and social media – that brave new digital world of their kids. At the same time, parenting had started to become a competitive sport – particularly in navigating, helicoptering and snowplowing “tea cup kids” through school and on to college. Parents didn’t know what to do.
We know helicopter parents hover, what’s snowplowing?
“Snowplow parents” plow everything out of the way so their child has a clear path without any potholes, bumps or chucks of ice to step over. “Tea cup children” are essentially kids without adequate coping skills and their lack of resiliency leads them to break under the slightest pressure.
Granted, these may not be the most pressing issues of parents wondering where the next meal is coming from, but if you live in Birmingham, Bloomfield or Troy – all these places where we have hyper competitive parents – your level of stress and worry is real.
So, even when BBFA closed and we shut down The Social U website, I knew that I wasn’t “done” teaching and advising. I needed to continue the work I had been doing with both companies, as I still very much believe in their missions.
What curricula are you developing based on the needs you see in the community today?
- Resiliency/coping skills (for parents, students, schools)
- Stress and anxiety reduction (for parents, students, schools)
- Parent education on a variety of topics related to student mental health
On Jewish Detroit’s Mental Health Initiative
What is your role in Federation’s mental health initiative for young people? “We Need to Talk”
Currently, in partnership with Federation, I am developing strategic plans customized for Jewish Day Schools in our community. Working as an objective third party, my role is to meet separately with school administrators, faculty and staff, students and parents – all stakeholders in their school communities – to determine pressing issues related to mental health in each school. We then create a workable plan that can be adapted to a school setting with the goal to help everyone recognize the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and to decrease those feelings among students.
I’m not a mental health worker, but as an experienced educator, I know that some of that work can start with small changes put easily into practice in the classroom.
- Before a test, a teacher can turn the lights off and guide students through a minute and a half breathing exercise.
- To reduce homework overload, teachers can allow for time during class so that students have a chance to start assignments and ask questions.
- To reduce stress over tests and grades, let students choose to drop their lowest grade in a grading period.
- To help students learn time management skills, create a unit calendar so students know what’s coming and can better plan their time in advance.
What do you see as the prominent mental health challenges that parents are struggling with today?
Parents themselves are stressed out and kids feed off their parents’ stress. When parents don’t know how to manage their own stress or anxiety levels, it’s hard for kids to learn how to manage their own.
Another challenge is that we have a generation of “analog parents“ raising digital children. As parents, we understand how to talk to our kids about sex, alcohol and substance abuse because we grew up with that. But we don’t know how to talk about technology, mobile devices in everyone’s hands, the inability to disconnect from social media, a 24-hour news cycle, the pressure cooker of life today – all amplified by our overly competitive peers and our goals to “succeed” in everything we do. We don’t know how to talk about being ON 24/7 – and we often don’t model good behavior.
And what do you hear from our kids?
“My parents don’t understand what it’s like to be a kid today.” We hear that over and over.
The very notion of building a resumé starting in junior high or high school was unheard of in my day. It breaks my heart when I’m talking to 6th graders and they start telling me about how stressed out they are and what they have to do to get into college. The pressure is coming from all directions — from schools, parents, peers and often it’s self-inflicted, too.
What’s the difference between “stressed out” and anxiety?
We’re all stressed. Stress is normal. But the levels of stress we see in kids and their parents today has to do with overload . . . too much homework, too many activities, too little time.
Stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to stress and often stems from fear and triggers avoidance.
What can parents do?
As parents, we can start by changing the conversation. For example, when a child comes home after school, instead of asking, “How did your test go?,” try asking, “What’s the best thing you did at school today?” Take the conversation off academic achievement.
And instead of insisting that your student does nothing until the homework is done, remember that kids need downtime, too. Allow them the freedom to plan for themselves how they get their work done.
On digital media use and abuse
Let’s talk about leaving kids to their own devices. What’s the first thing you like to tell kids about social media?
The first thing I like to tell kids about social media is this: The moment you hit enter/post/send, you are giving up control of your content. Even if you’re just texting back and forth with a friend, the instant your content is on another device, your privacy is out the window.
I like kids to think about their “digital footprint” as a digital tattoo. They need to know it’s permanent and follows them for life. I tell kids that when they realize they’ve made a mistake online, try to delete it, but be aware that even if they delete the post from their server, they can never be certain that it’s “gone.” Even if a post is out there for a moment before it’s deleted, there’s no way of knowing who has seen it, saved it or how it will be used down the road.
What advice do you give to parents in setting ground rules for the use of social media?
Start early and talk often. If you can establish ground rules before your kids start using social media, then you’re off to a good start.
Be more concerned about quality of time spent on screens than quantity. It’s about creation instead of consumption. (And don’t forget that if you have a gamer that plays online or even with others in a private game, it’s a form of social media).
I always like to tell parents to find ways to say “yes.”
This means that YOU need to go on the sites your kids want to use, navigate your way through them to learn what they are and how they’re used.
You need to have your kids’ usernames and passwords (which is much easier to get when you start talking about ground rules and social media before they are online) because you are responsible for their actions and safety online just like you’re responsible for them offline. You need to set reasonable expectations, as well as consequences.
I highly recommend NOT using the “you’ll lose your device or ability to be online” as a consequence for bad behavior for every time your kid makes a mistake online – even if it seems like an appropriate natural consequence. Why? Your children need to know they can always come to you when they find themselves in trouble online. They won’t turn to you for help, if they think you’re going to take away their ability to connect with their peers online.
As much as we would like to keep our kids out of trouble online, our job is to teach our children how to use digital media safely and wisely. Your children will need an online presence by the time they are ready to apply for college or for a job – that’s the reality of the world in which they live. Social media and technology aren’t going away. “Appropriate” use is subjective and can mean different things in different families. Don’t expect your kids to learn at school what you should be teaching them at home about appropriate behavior online.
On the stigma of mental illness
In your view, how can each of us do a better job of fighting the stigma of mental health issues?
We, as adults, need to start talking about our own challenges and experiences with mental illness. We need to take that conversation public and help our kids understand that having any kind of mental illness isn’t shameful. We need to provide support structures and systems to help both ourselves and our kids.
On promoting resilience and mental stamina
What is your definition of resilience? And how can parents help develop or promote resilience in their children?
Resilience to me means the ability to cope with life’s problems, ups and downs. Parents need to release the reins a bit and allow their kids to face adversity and learn how to cope with struggles or failure from a young age. We need to allow and empower our kids to make some decisions on their own and to face the consequences when those choices don’t yield positive outcomes.
We have to change our expectations – to step back and allow our children to fall – and to be okay with their stumbles and disappointments. Our job as parents is to give our children the “gift of failure” because that’s the way we all learn and grow. As parents, we need to allow our children to have their own experiences – supporting them, not by snowplowing their way, but by stepping out of their way.
As I always like to say, “I want to be my kids’ best cheerleader, but I don’t need to be on the field.”
Restaurants: El Barzon, Ronin
Place to take kids or visitors: Franklin Cider Mill
Sports: Anything that’s on tv that keeps my husband busy and happy
Jewish food: Noodle kugel
Jewish expression: God can’t be everywhere at once, that’s why he created mothers
Stress-buster: A workout in the gym twice a week
Guilty pleasures: Sander’s bumpy cake for dinner, getting in bed by 7 pm and watching HGTV
Never leave home without: Candy in my bag, preferably Peanut Butter Twix bars
Words to live by
A shower fixes most everything.