Educator, Leader, Author and Philanthropist Melody Arabo is this year’s Elite 40 Under 40 Winner

Melody Arabo never saw herself as a teacher. She went to college for marketing, and only fell into teaching when she found out about an elementary school that needed a teacher who spoke Chaldean. She just figured it would be a good job while she was in college. Instead she fell in love with teaching, and changed her major to elementary education by the end of the first month.
She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in Walled Lake Schools since 2002, and during that time was named Teacher of the Year at her school in 2008 and runner-up for Walled Lake Teacher of the Year in 2009, in addition to founding the Keith Caring Community Club, which encourages service-oriented development for upper elementary school kids, and co-founding TEACH, which helps displaced families in Iraq. But this year has been a particularly good one for her.
It started with being named the 2014-2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education, and she spent the last school year out of the classroom in that role, traveling all over the state and country including going to space camp and meeting President Barack Obama. Then she was nominated by the Chaldean News for Oakland County’s Elite 40 Under 40 for 2015 — and won.
“I was just thinking it would be great to be a part of the Elite 40,” she laughs. “I was surprised to find out I was in the top three, and then the winner!”
Also this year, as part of her Teacher of the Year experience, Arabo published her book Diary of a Real Bully.
She wrote the book nine years ago and would read it to her third graders each year, finding that it was something they would go back to a lot.
The premise of the book is that “bully” does not have a clearly defined identity – there is a little bit of “bully” in all of us.
Arabo was inspired to write it when she would see kids, who came from great families and were otherwise good children, would still sometimes be mean to each other, but they didn’t see it as bullying because it wasn’t an ongoing behavior; they simply didn’t identify themselves as a bully and thus, didn’t consider their behavior to be bullying behavior.
She had the chance to do a lot of author visits in the last year, from kindergarteners to eight graders, and a question she would ask each class would be, “What is a bully?”
Inevitably the responses reflected a sort of antiquated stereotype of the bully as a social outcast/outsider, big and means and wearing black T-shirts with skulls on the front. She would follow that question up with, “Have you ever made someone feel left out? Have you ever embarrassed someone?”
“The kids would realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve done that,'” she says. “The kids are very aware and they’re more willing to identify that they do those things if they realize they are not a bully all the time. They’ll admit, ‘Yes, I’ve been a bully. Yes, I have acted that way.'”
“A bully is not a person, but the way you make others feel,” Arabo explains. “It was a pattern that I saw every single year. Every year something happened in the spring: the girls would act in typical mean girl behavior; the boys would get more aggressive. I was really surprised by the kids who were doing that, and it wasn’t the kids you would expect or those you would think of as bullies. I realized we have this wrong, this stereotype; it’s more about our actions as a person. You can have a really nice person who does mean things sometimes but doesn’t see it as bullying.”
But “bullying” as a behavior isn’t something that automatically vanishes once adolescents have gone through puberty. We continue those behaviors into adulthood, at all ages, at all socioeconomic and professional levels, from the “odd” tattooed hippie mom on the playground the other moms ostracize to underhanded office politics to insulting, and often degrading, Internet commentary. It might not be described as “bullying,” because, after all, “bullying” is only something that happens to kids on the playground, but the behavior – and the outcome – is the same. So Arabo is now continuing her outreach to adults.
This year she is in a hybrid teaching role, sharing a classroom with another teacher to enable her to do some leadership development for the district, teaching workshops to students and staff alike that look at all aspects of bullying, including what are some of the similarities between adult bullies and third graders.
“The response was tremendous,” she says of her first adult workshop. “It was so exciting to see their mindsets shift. It’s something that happens everywhere, among all ages, even among teachers. This message is very powerful for all ages and something I just love to share.”
In addition to all of this, Arabo continues to run the Keith Caring Community Club, something she founded to create a model for the kids to learn about and engage in community service, teaching them to give back to others and letting them see that there are ways to give back to the community and help others who are less fortunate, whether that be at an animal shelter, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter. Participation is all voluntary, and every year she has about 100 kids who sign up.
Ultimately this is just another aspect of Arabo’s efforts at leadership training, helping the kids learn how to be better citizens of the world.
“We really want to teach the kids to be leaders.”