By Rebecca Mieliwocki
On a clear day in April 2012, I stood beside President Barack Obama at the White House preparing to receive the crystal apple, a symbolic prize given to the National Teacher of the Year. When I asked him to tell me about his favorite teacher, without hesitation, he gushed about Mabel Hefty, his 5th grade teacher at Punahou Elementary School in Hawaii.
He spoke candidly about spending his youngest years feeling like an outsider, until Mabel Hefty came into his life. As she did for generations of youngsters just like him, Miss Hefty called on the tools great teachers like her seem to be made of—empathy, optimism, kindness, and an indomitable belief in the potential strengthening inside each child. She made our president believe he was important, special, and would go on to greatness.
I am hanging on to this memory in what I will freely admit has been a dark and deeply upsetting time.
I watched this most recent election with a mix of incredulity and disgust. Like every educator, I tried to make sense of it enough to figure out how to talk to my colleagues, to parents and to children about it. Just when you thought the rhetoric and the political machinations could not get any worse, they did. At some point, I just went numbly silent. Whether out of the exhaustion of having to counter every false, derogatory, immoral or unethical statement made or from the emotional strain of panicking for our students of different faiths, skin colors or ethnicities, I think I went into shock. And I worried. A lot.
I’m still worried.
Whenever my students don’t know what to do next, I tell them to do what seems like the next right thing. Even one small step forward counts as progress. It’s time for me to take my own advice.
I’ve been silent too long, worrying too terribly, and imagining the worst. It’s time to do the next right thing, and the next right thing is to remember what great teachers do that cannot be undone by an election. No matter who occupies the White House or runs the Department of Education, no matter what policies or mandates come rolling down the halls of congress, no matter how sharp or painful the national dialogue becomes, standing inside millions of classrooms across this country are teachers who are hard at work being inspirers-in-chief.
Immune mostly to the outside forces tugging at our democracy, classrooms remain refuges and incubators. At the heart of each one is a teacher who devotes his or her entire life to putting children from all walks of life securely onto their own personal paths to greatness. One day at a time, one lesson at a time, one kid at a time, we devote every fiber of our beings to making the world a better place. It’s what teachers do. Teachers just like Mabel Hefty who welcomed students into her classroom to learn, to grow, to think, and to be amazing.
On a clear day in April, the president reminded me that good teachers change history.
I’m going to remember that and get to work.
Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, California, district.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.