Q&A with National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 26, 2013 

Since she posed with President Barack Obama 11 months ago after being named the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, Rebecca Mieliwocki has given approximately 200 speeches in 27 states and seven nations.

Tuesday morning, she was at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, where she spoke to the Muscogee County School District 2013 Teacher of the Year nominees. After the recognition breakfast, the Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Mieliwocki to discuss a range of topics about education, including accountability systems, teacher recruitment and retention, and even her favorite books for students and parents.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

As the National Teacher of the Year, you have a larger sphere of influence than usual. What is the most significant idea you are trying to promote or accomplish?

It's a couple of things. This came to me at a time when teachers had really been battered about pretty intensely for well on five years, and it was hard to stomach that, because I was working so hard and getting really good results, and my school was doing incredible things, and I know people in other cities who were having similar experiences. So to be the architect of and responsible for so much good and growth, but to listen to the stories in the newspaper and the media that were very anti-teacher and very negative was so demoralizing and upsetting, … I thought I could do something about that. I could just remind them that what they're doing matters, that we are making incredible change in the lives of kids. So I could give them that pat on the back.

Another part of my mission is to remind teachers that we have a very important job, and it's vital that we do it well, that we conduct ourselves as professionals all the time. So I really kind of wanted to give them a little kick in the rear, a little incentive to step it up a little bit. That teacher-bashing culture came at time when it seemed that a lot of money had been poured into education without a result that was satisfying to the American public. So I understood the reaction, but I wanted to remind teachers that whatever we can do to help change that impression or perception that somehow we're not getting results I think we need to do. So that might mean we need to act a little differently, change our messaging a little bit, understand what people are talking about when they're talking about accountability from teachers and how to talk about that with parents and community members. So I wanted to embrace teachers and thank them for their incredible work. At the same time, I wanted to compel them to do even more, to be better, to go farther and to learn how to talk about their successes with the community so that you could change that mentality of teacher bashing.

And then the final thing that I wanted to do this year was to advocate for teacher leadership. I came from business, and I came into a world where you got a raise every year just if you outlasted other teachers. It had nothing to do with the results you got with kids, and that's hard for me. I'm ambitious, and I'm good. So to know that I could be a teacher and not be good and get the same money or more, that was troubling to me. To know that it was going to be very, very hard to let go of me if I was a bad teacher, that troubled me because, in business, you need your best people. The cream rises to the top, and you get rid of whoever else isn't cutting it. … And then the fact that there was nowhere for a great teacher to go. If you wanted to lead as a teacher, if you wanted to write curriculum, if you wanted to coach other teachers, if you wanted to be a master or mentor teacher, if you wanted to do anything above and beyond the ordinary, you were never going to make any more money for doing it. It was just doing to be added onto your original day. You were never going to get another title or you wouldn't have other opportunities. If you wanted to really grow your salary or grow your skill set, you had to leave the classroom completely, and I thought that's a terrible cost, a tremendous cost that I don't think education can afford, to scoot all of the best people into principalships. What we really need are strong teachers everywhere. I mean, everyone says every child deserves a great teacher in every classroom, but how will you get that if the only place for ambitious ones to go is out of the classroom. So I wanted to talk to leaders and policy-makers about re-imagining the American school. You could be an entry-level teacher working a set number of hours, making a set kind of salary with a set sort of responsibilities, but if at some point you wanted to switch lanes and add on to your year, add on to your responsibilities and add on to your salary, you should have that opportunity. It would not only empower and catalyze your teacher corps to do incredible things for kids; it would take some of the stress off the administration level because they can't do it all. You're finding that nobody wants to be a principal anymore. I do a million things, but they do 10 million things, and they're all stressful and hard, and they can't do it all well. So why not shift some of it onto teachers who want it, who really want it, and free (the principals) up to be the kind of visionary leaders they need to be? When you're a principal, it's about managing your staff and making sure you have a safe, engaging, rigorous learning environment. But you also have to connect to the community. You have to outreach to universities. You have to find sponsors for interesting projects. … You don't have time to do that well and be a curriculum specialist and to run professional development and to evaluate teachers. There's too much work concentrated into the hands of the few, but you have a teaching corps that wants some of that and wants to keep teaching while they do it.

So that's my message: empower and share my gratitude for teachers; goose them a little bit to step it up if we really want to be seen as professionals; and to advocate for a leadership strata for teachers and different career avenues and lanes.

Accountability has been such a trendy buzzword in public education, but that means many different things to many different people. What is your ideal accountability system to measure teacher and school performance?

An ideal accountability system is one that looks at the whole spectrum of what a teacher is and what they do. … Teachers empower kids and give them things that go beyond the curriculum. We give them hope. We give them inspiration. Sometimes we're their lifeline, keep them from actually killing themselves. So teachers have an obligation to help kids navigate all of that, not just getting a good grade in my class or being able to pass a state test. The kind of kids you want me to send out my door are way more than a test score. A test score is part of them. It's a part we have to look at. It's a part that gives us information. It's like taking your temperature if you go to the doctor's office. It's a vital sign, but it doesn't tell us everything we need to know about that kid's health or skill set or knowledge base, how well they are able to collaborate or communicate or even do the kinds of things that today's workplaces call for.

So accountability to me means that I'm delivering a high quality academic program to kids, the grades that my kids earn and their test scores and what they can do on demand. I want feedback from parents and students on how they think I'm doing. I need feedback from my colleagues on what kind of professional I am in this school setting. I need my principal to watch me teach, and I would need lead teachers to watch me teach, to bring observation data back to me so that I can grow and develop. Then the kinds of things you would put on a resume, what you are doing to improve yourself as a professional. All of that mix gives you a really nice view of how strong your teachers are.

Is that something you think can be standardized on the state level?

Yes, I'm seeing some really nice changes. The movement on teacher evaluation has been pretty swift in the last year or so. A lot of big names are putting a lot of money into understanding what makes great teachers, like the Gates Foundation and other organizations, and how we can replicate that everywhere. So you're seeing now evaluations and rubrics and metrics that look at a lot of different things. The issue now is it's very time-consuming. It's not a number. A number is easy. It's fast. It's tidy. Like I said, it's your temperature. If you start making decisions about your health based on only your temperature, if we decide to operate or remove a limb or open up your chest cavity just because you have a fever, that is so damaging to you. We'd probably lose you.

So you think test scores should be part of teacher and school accountability but not the sole indicator?

It's an opening act. You could look at (test scores) if you want to move to a neighborhood if the school's scores are high, but you'd want to look at other things too. If you had a child and you were thinking about enrolling that child in a school, and you asked for a list of teachers by test scores, their aggregate scores maybe for many years, would you have enough information to decide if your precious daughter should be in Ms. Harding's class? No. You'd need to meet the teacher. You'd need to come on the campus. You'd need to look at her classroom. You'd need to hear what other parents said about that teachers. That's the reconnaissance you're gathering anyway, so why can't that be a formalized part of what we look at when we look at schools and teachers?

Is the trend moving toward such a system?

Yes, but it's encountering a lot of resistance from legislators who really need numbers fast and right now, so there's a tension there. But as I've come out of the classroom and I've had the opportunity to be at the table where these big conversations are happening, I'm understanding the desire for people to find a lever they can push to enact the greatest change. So I think many school districts and legislatures are deciding to do things like rate teachers with letter grades or to give schools letter grades or to eliminate tenure and force teachers to have to earn their keep every year. All of them have the goal of improving education, but a lot of them are misguided. You might end up tightening up the teaching corps for a year, but you'll find out that no one has entered a teacher preparation program -- because who would want to? Then you'd have a teacher shortage and you'd have to ease restrictions to get people to come back. So I think we can be smarter about this.

In 2013, in the United State of America, we have the brain power and the wisdom and the passion to know what we want out of schools. If we're brave enough to say it, what do we want from our schools? What do we think is the best path for getting there? Grabbing teachers by the hand and saying, "You have to build this with us," and then going forward. We've got too many different groups working piecemeal, doing things in kind of a hysterical manner to make good change, right now, fast, because their constituency or whoever is demanding it. So it seems a little schizophrenic. I would like us to get more sophisticated, a little more nuanced and elegant about it. Most teachers … we hunger for more vision, real, courageous vision, and that requires people in charge to say, "People are more than just test scores. Teachers and school are more than just teaching factories. We want kids to exit schools with a deep knowledge base in rigorous subjects of study. We want the them to go to college if they are able to handle college, if they so choose, but if they don't, we have built in so many beautiful pathways for career and technical education and vocational training, so it doesn't matter how you go but that you have a place to go, that they have a moral character that is something to be proud of, and that they are excellent communicators who are leaders and problem solvers."

If we could just articulate in every city and every county and every state that's our priority, and give schools the freedom, liberate them from all this silliness and say, "You know where we want you to go, but you get in the driver's seat and drive. This is the amount of money you get. Design it how you want. Check it how you want. Calibrate it how you want. You build it. Make it happen." If that could happen, I mean, I know that idea of liberating people from all these rules and regulations is scary, really scary, but from trust comes quality, from trust comes accountability.

… Before any of this happened, my principal treated me like the National Teacher of the Year. She would greet me every day and say, "How are you doing? What are you doing? How can I help you?" The simple fact of her asking me what I needed meant, "OK, she's thinking about me. She thinks I'm doing amazing things. She's willing to help. I had better be who she thinks I am when I go back to my classroom." She's got us working at such high levels by simple phrases, and her attitude toward us is, "You're a pro. You're incredible. You are so powerful in the life of a child. Here I am on the outside, ready to help you. Whatever you need, let me know."

It's not like we had a wish list a mile long. Almost nobody ever asked her for anything. As you become humbled by that, you think, "She doesn't want to hear me complaining about the coffee. She doesn't want to hear me ranting and raving about George doesn't like Marcia, Marcia doesn't like Jeff, and we all hate Tina. This is big-league tough. This is professional. This is how professionals conduct themselves. We all have enormously high expectations, and we rose. That's what teachers do for kids.

"This is hard, Mrs. Mieliwocki."

"Yes, it is, but I have seen you do hard things before, and I have too. It's a matter of time, effort and energy, so let's get to work."

I love that.

You are the daughter of teachers, but you were reluctant to become a teacher and didn’t do it until you shifted your career. What made you change your mind, and how can we attract and retain more teachers to the profession?

I didn't want to be a teacher because I wanted to do something different from what my parents did. I tried a few things (textbook publishing and floral design), and I was good at them and I enjoyed them, but there was something missing. There was some ripple effect that I needed my job to have. … So my husband forced me to sit down and do one of those inventories where you say al the things you want to do the rest of your life and all the things you never want to do ever again. When we looked at the list, he said, "I know you don't want to hear this, but it really looks like you're supposed to be a teacher," and at that point, at that stage in my journey, I knew he was right. And as soon as I started my student-teaching and course work, it was so home to me. It was second nature. I loved the good days and bad days, even the faculty meetings. I just loved all of it, and I still love it. I just have that joy, and it's infectious.

So I use that joy and that enthusiasm and that ripple-effect metaphor to encourage people in the profession, reminding them that even when you feel that you've been treated badly, underappreciated and certainly underpaid, you have a job that changes lives, and a lot of people don't have that."

Then how do we inspire more folks to become teachers and continue?

You can inspire them with the promise of changing lives, the promise of being a hero in the life of a child. … That's enough of a hook. The you share with them the funny stories, the fact that no day is like the next, that you get to make a thousand decisions, and while that's stressful at first, you get really, really good at being decisive fast.

You never know what's going to happen. A kid is going to barf, a dog is going to run into the classroom, a fire alarm is going to go off, one of your students may die -- I mean, you're just going to see all of it, and there's not a lot of jobs that give you that. So the pageant of humanity is on display, and kids are fun. They are fun people to hang out with. They are challenging, but I find that fun.

And then there's the part where I'm trying to advocate for leadership streams for ambitious college graduates who want to make a lot of money and want to have jobs of power and prestige. They won't come to teaching if it's a cul-de-sac. If you enter as a teacher and exit as a teacher, they won't come. But if you can enter as a teacher and become a master teacher and then a mentor teacher and then an expert teacher and then a teacher leader -- you can rise -- that's the best. You get all the glory of being a teacher, that heroic elements, but you also get some status and some money, and that's what all the real possessions offer.

What's your favorite book for a child to get excited about reading?

Well, I teach middle school, and there's one book that gets checked out over and over again. I can't keep it in stock. The kids take it, and it disappears, so I've bought probably over 30 copies. It's by Sherman Alexie, and it's called "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." … Kids have to get permission to read it because there's some language and subject matter in there that's uniquely adolescent and teen boy. It's about an Indian who is bright but living on a reservation where no one is allowed to be smart without getting picked on. But his teacher sees something in him and encourages him to go off the reservation to the white-kids school. And it's a story about how he gets along there and how he finds himself, the struggles of having to say goodbye to friends and family. He has to walk to school 13 miles. And it's about pimples and girls and the basketball team and people dying. You laugh your head off, and you need a whole box of Kleenex. It's so real, very real, and it gets kids who hate to read loving reading."

What's your favorite book for parents?

There's a book called "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish). It is very helpful for parents dealing with those preteen and teenage years, how to stay calm and how to engage with children who suddenly clam up and don't want to share with you, how to find more opportunities to converse with them and letting (parents) know it's OK to back away from the dominant, authoritarian role. To let your child grow up a little bit, you have to grow down a little bit, and a lot of parents don't want to do that. They either go to one extreme or the other. They let go completely … Are you nuts? You just let them loose on the freeway! Stay near, do not abandon them, and this book helps parents navigate those conversations.REBECCA MIELIWOCKI

Age: 44

Experience: Seventh-grade English teacher, Luther Burbank Middle School, Burbank, Calif.; 16 years teaching overall.

Education: Bachelor's degree, speech communication, California Polytechnic State University; professional clear credential, secondary English education, California State University Northridge.

Honors: 2012 National Teacher of the Year, Council of Chief State School Officers; 2009 PTA Honorary Service Award; 2005 California League of Middle Schools Educator of the Year for Southern California.

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