Rebecca Mieliwocki: Making Teaching Joyous
The National Teacher of the Year becomes an accidental spokesperson
"Hi, this is Rebecca Mieliwocki, national teacher of the year."
That's how the seventh-grade English teacher at California's Luther Burbank Middle School introduces herself on the phone, and it's not a humble brag. She said, "I do that so people know who they're talking to, because most people don't know who Rebecca Mieliwocki is."
The Council of Chief State School Officers knows who she is. Before it selected her as its 62nd annual top educator from across all U.S. schools, she went through a competitive vetting process that started at the campus level and then went to district, county, and state, and finally, the national plaudit. While she feels honored, she places the award in perspective: "I work with some incredible teachers, and I know that if at my school there are that many good teachers, then in California, a state of 325,000 teachers, there's no way I'm the best."
Mieliwocki may demur on the notion that she is the best, but the title puts her at ground zero of the debate dominating education policy: What makes a great teacher? Are some teachers just better at educating than others, or is it the right teacher in the right place at the right time? Shouldn't the national teacher of the year know? It's not a quantifiable, grade-on-a-curve kind of award, but if being national teacher of the year were based on one ability, it would be how she can talk about the profession she loves, and how she can communicate on behalf of all educators. She said, "I'm one teacher, but I represent all of us."
Mieliwocki did not expect to become the anointed spokesperson for educators. As a pre-law student, she "took that meandering path that kids today take to find out what they really want to do." The classroom wasn't on her planned route, not least because both her parents were public school teachers. She said, "It was a point of pride to do something different," but after several years in different careers, "I was no further along in understanding where I was supposed to be than when I left college. Then my husband, wise man that he is, made me make one of those lists of what do you want to do every day for the rest of your life at your job, and what do you never, ever want to do again." Her list was simple: to be creative, to be her own boss, and to make a difference in the world. "He just started to laugh and said, 'It's really obvious to me what you're supposed to be. I don't know why it's taking you so long to get it.' It turned out to be teaching." She launched into the secondary certification process and, she said, "The minute I started the program and started working with kids, I knew that I was home."
She was already picking up awards as a high school English teacher when she took some time off to raise her son. When she came back to the profession ten years ago, she said, "The only opening was at the middle level. I went kicking and screaming and throwing great tantrums and making a big fuss about it. Then my husband reminded me – because as we've already established, he is a very wise man – that you can do anything for a year. It took me about two-and-a-half minutes to fall completely in love with seventh-graders."
She describes her own teaching style as "very positive, very enthusiastic. I'm silly, and I like to have fun. There's no reason we can't make teaching joyous." But how can Mieliwocki inject that sense of joy into the classroom when the fear of drill-and-kill testing is breaking school spirits? She calls for perspective on what tests can do, and credits having bosses who understand their value and limits. She said, "My principal said to us that this test score is just one piece of information that we will use to determine what kids know and can do and what you need to know to improve as teachers and students. But it is not everything." While Mieliwocki acknowledges that tests play a role – not least in teaching how to deal with pressure – she is critical of the current climate that has inflicted "very superficial little skills tests. ... They are in no way indicative of what I teach kids, how I teach kids, or what I want them to know." For every policymaker doubling down on high-stakes testing, she sees families that want more than just a grade sheet. She said, "Our parents don't send their kids to the Luther Burbank Testing Academy. They send them to a middle school, and they want them to come out having had a variety of experiences."
So what makes a great teacher? The key, she said, "is that kids deserve to have the best and the brightest teachers in front of them, who care about getting results with kids, who care about making them into better people than when they walked through the door, who take the job seriously but themselves less so, and who want to make it as exciting and opportunity-filled as possible."
Rebecca Mieliwocki talks about "Supercharging the Teaching Profession by Igniting the Power of One" at 3pm, Monday, March 4, in Room 18ABCD of the Austin Convention Center.