Michelle Willenbring Brings Massage Therapy Teaching and Learning Full Circle

Posted by on October 16, 2013

Michelle Willenbring began as a massage therapy school student at Minnesota School of Business-St. Cloud (MSB) just like many other students: excited to be learning skills and applying them to her future career.

massage therapy school

Michelle Willenbring, massage therapy program chair

Before graduating in 2008, she’d already opened her own business in Little Falls, Minn., called Hands-On Healing Massage and Body Work. Her journey next included a move to Big Lake and working for a Maple Grove chiropractic clinic for three years; then in 2010 a call came from the dean of faculty at Minnesota School of Business wondering if she would be interested in teaching as a massage therapy adjunct faculty member.

“My boss [at the chiropractic clinic] caught me jumping up and down,” Willenbring recalls with a laugh. “I was so excited.”

“It began as just one night a week and grew from there,” she explains. “But I’d always wanted to be a teacher. Ever since 7th grade, I wanted to learn to do something, then teach it to others.”

Willenbring became a full-time instructor in 2012 and currently serves as the chair of the massage therapy department at the St. Cloud campus. And she loves her job.

“I love the feedback and reaction I get from my students. My favorite thing is when I say it’s time for a break, or we are ending class, and they say, ‘Aw’ in disappointment.”

Willenbring strives to bring more businesses to the MSB table. “Working in the community to make connections is an added bonus. It’s all about networking and giving our [massage] program [an even] better name. I like to show them what we are capable of in comparison to other schools.”

massage therapy school

Michelle Willenbring (kneeling, left) and massage therapy students at the 2012 Spartan Challenge

Applied learning is a primary focus in her teaching also because of the community connections. It’s not just about practicing skills, she maintains.

“It’s huge,” she says. “The networking [alone] has untold benefits. It’s about [students] getting their face and name out there. It’s about creating the ability to say, ‘I know a guy.’ It’s about learning to be polite. You can be fantastic hands-on, but it takes a lot more to communicate with clients.”

Willenbring kids that she is “stalked” because her students are so in demand by businesses for applied learning opportunities. But she is deliberate in the site choices and interviews the needs of each before committing her students to the experience.

Two of her favorites are the Rocori Spartan Challenge, where high school athletes across central Minnesota gather in late-summer competitions to test their strength and abilities, and the upcoming “Enchanted Evening,” focusing on women’s health, sponsored by CentraCare Health system.

“The Rocori thing is huge,” Willenbring remarks, “because we are able to be a central part of an event so massive and not do just general chair massage. You learn to hoof it. You are a part of something.”

“I’ve worked very hard to partner with CentraCare,” she adds. “They are such a large medical industry here. It helps dispel [the belief] that massage is just for the rich and healthy. We are seen more as integrative health care. The closer we can work with CentraCare, the easier the transition.”

Willenbring even lends a hand in teaching other teachers. She is featured in the October 2013 “Instructor on the Front Lines” section of the national Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP) website. Her featured tip to other instructors is an entrance/exit activity slip that builds in accountability for students.

“That made my day,” she said of being published.

Teaching fulfills a dream for Willenbring. “I not only got my goal,” she says, “I beat myself.”

No wonder she’s smiling.


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