Rebecca Mieliwocki makes those she’s speaking to wish they were teachers, or at least had the skills to inspire or cajole young people to learn. As the 2012 Teacher of the Year, that’s Mieliwocki’s job, to be the face of the profession in what she describes as a political atmosphere in which teachers are often disparaged.
Mieliwocki was in friendly company when she spoke to a group of Eastern Sierra administrators, Inyo County board members and students at a luncheon hosted Nov. 13 by Inyo County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer at the Jill Kinmont Boothe School.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” said McAteer in reference an opening in Mieliwocki’s schedule. In addition to addressing the luncheon, she was able to spend the morning visiting area schools.”
The 42-year-old English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank was selected last April and recognized, with all of the State Teachers of the Year, by President Barack Obama in a ceremony held at the White House. Since then, she’s been on an international tour as the spokesperson for the teaching profession. According to a National Education Association press release, Mieliwocki was chosen for “her unconventional teaching practices and her deep commitment to helping students succeed.”
Mieliwocki, the daughter of two public school teachers, came to the profession by a circuitous route that started with aspirations to be a lawyer and ended 14 years ago with a credential in Secondary English Education from California State University, Northridge.
Her talk focused on the value of teachers beyond test scores, beginning with a lessons learned from her parents: “Kids need the guiding hand of a loving adult.”
Her perspective on standardized test scores received applause from those in attendance. “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in what we’re doing,” she said, “that we don’t see what’s really going on. We’re too wrapped up in standardized tests. The test is too small. It doesn’t get what these kids know.” Mieliwocki acknowledged that “people need to be reassured that our schools are working,” but “when we push the scores, kids get a warped and weird education. We turn our backs on a child’s unique abilities. Students are more than a number on a test. I am more than the cumulative test scores.”
The balance of her talk centered on examples of her teaching mantra: “Learn everything you can about your students, so you can use it against them.” Some of the stories were models of unconventional teaching, others illustrated the deeper value teachers can have in their students’ lives.
Mieliwocki told the story of Michael, the kid who was all about guitars, chicks and nothing about school. The students’ English assignment was to write an essay convincing parents to get them something for Christmas the students knew was an impossibility. Michael wanted a Mohawk and Mieliwocki taught him the power of a persuasive argument. Michael walked into class after the holiday break with a Mohawk and Mieliwocki knew she’d hooked him. “Students will learn if they realize it’s relevant to their lives,” she said. “You show them that, then push them outside of their comfort zone.”
“Sometimes our job is to help kids navigate social issues,” she said about Andy, an openly gay seventh-grader in her class. “Sometimes we’re a safe place to be.” For Andy, Mieliwocki was that safe place. She took it one step farther, taking him to her husband’s workplace: the set of the popular TV show “Glee,” where he worked as a cameraman and which chronicles the struggles and triumphs of a group of talented high school outcasts. It was the ideal example of how being different gets better with age.
Next came Charley whom Mieliwocki described as “a frequent flyer in detention … a wall of sound” with an “awful academic life.” She found out he not only had no role model at home, but no food either. By the end of a semester of patience and feeding, Charley made the honor roll, a milestone in a teacher’s career where “we often water the garden to have it bloom somewhere else.”
Finally: Max, a “festival of misbehavior” whose mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “He was mad at the world,” said Mieliwocki. “He tried to get me to quit on him. Sometimes it’s the love that matters most.”
“Tests matter,” she said bring her talk full circle. “I get accountability. But to narrow our work to the test scores is to miss everything else we do for kids.”