Special Report
School & District Management Q&A

National Teacher of the Year: Give Us a Career Path

By Liana Loewus — October 17, 2012 11 min read
Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, receives congratulations from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony in April 2012.
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Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, is on a mission to give her profession a facelift. When she received her award in April, the 7th grade science teacher from Burbank, Calif., said she planned to use her yearlong platform to help restore “dignity and admiration to teachers.” She has also been outspoken about her support for tiered career ladders—coupled with differentiated pay—as a way to give teachers more career-advancement opportunities.

In the months since being named NTOY, Mieliwocki has had no shortage of influential audiences. She has given speeches at several large, national conferences, discussed education policy with governors, and sat down for a two-hour meeting with arguably the country’s most influential education funder, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

We caught up with Mieliwocki recently to ask her about her visions for the teaching profession and how she sees some of the most pressing education issues playing out for teachers across the country.

What are your strengths as a teacher? What would your students say makes you different from other teachers?

I feel a tremendous responsibility to provide an education that’s relevant to kids’ lives. I refuse to be the teacher that pulls out from the shelf the dusty book and peels off another dated worksheet and tries to make kids fill in the blanks. I just don’t think that’s the world they live in. So it’s trying to combine an intense delivery system that gives them both information and knowledge that at the same time is lively and engaging and relevant and real to their lives, which are very media-saturated, crazy wired and connected, vivid and psychedelic.

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I’m also very attuned to what kids are going through. There’s not enough language being devoted to helping kids navigate emotional terrain—and I teach middle school, it’s all emotional terrain. For example, if there’s some misunderstanding and you get some name-calling and shutting down and anger, a lot of teachers would move on with the lesson. But right then, what’s more important is these two kids solving this beef. Because one way or another it’s going to ripple somewhere else. If I don’t handle it now in English 7, it’s going to flare up again in algebra. Or tonight on the Internet, on Facebook, a flame war is going to start. So instead of letting that happen, why don’t I take just one minute right now and talk about the solution then move on?

What would be your definition of a teacher leader? Do you consider yourself one? How?

Mieliwocki, who has spoken widely on the issues facing schools, believes teachers need more opportunity for career growth.

First of all, teacher leaders see themselves as an important and vital part of something bigger than themselves. A teacher leader doesn’t just see his or her class of 30 or 150 or seven, they see themselves as embedded in the fabric of an entire school and believe that every kid is their kid. They see themselves as on a quest to learn and improve. A teacher leader is somebody that has thrown open the door to the classroom, has invited in as many people as possible, and has asked for feedback.

And a teacher leader expertly and elegantly finds ways to speak difficult truths to the people that need to hear them. Not in a negative way. A teacher leader holds another teacher on the shoulder and says, “When I hear you talk about your kids, it’s very negative. The standard that you verbalize you’ve set for them is very low. I would like to hear you talk about how your kids can do anything. When we give little people a reason to reach, they will.” That conversation is a very difficult one for professionals to have. But true leaders are not afraid of that conversation because they’ve opened themselves up to it in their own careers.

Tell me about your meeting with Bill Gates.

The thing that struck me the most was that, No. 1, he listened far more than he talked. I think he listened 95 percent of the time and he scribbled furiously and he talked about 5 percent of the time. And the second thing that I noticed was that he’s fully engaged in the process, and he shows it, by listening, by looking, making eye contact, smiling, and just seeking to understand how we can be better, do better.

As you know, many teachers are critical of his involvement in education, especially his support for teacher evaluation systems that rely on student test scores. How do you respond to that?

What I say is that I’m first and foremost a teacher and I experience the same struggle and disappointment and frustration with my profession that they do. And if we as teachers had the ability to transform education ourselves collectively, and to get to a place where all of us feel we need to be, it would have happened by now. But for whatever reason, we haven’t gained the traction that unfortunately a gazillionaire can get. It’s interesting that when teachers say we need to improve schools, it floats dreamily to the ground. But when Bill Gates says we need teacher reform, and when Bill Gates says, “I’d like us to have an effective, high-quality teacher in every classroom, and learn how to create that in every teacher we already have,” people listen.

So I understand that people are skeptical. I understand they want to know his agenda and his motives, but for right now he gets us the traction that we don’t have on our own. And I’ll take that traction. He doesn’t have as much expertise as teachers do but he has an open ear, I hope an open mind, and a lot of money and resources and smart people to bring to the table. We shouldn’t back away from that table, we should be right there beside him.

The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher this year said that teacher satisfaction has hit a low point. Is that what you’re seeing? If so, what can we do to improve morale?

It’s such an oft-touted statistic. But when we talk about morale, I’m not sure we’re talking about the joy that teachers get out of the job they do. I’d say that’s a really strong number. I think the lack of morale comes in the frustration that the average, singular educator feels because the problems we face are so enormous, and they are being solved by people who are so desperate for a magic bullet that they’ll throw anything at the wall to see what sticks. They throw this policy, that policy, this legislation, that legislation, this reading program, that reading program. And nobody follows through, nobody calibrates the system or returns to these programs to see if any of them are working. No one actually gives us a faithful and honest shot.

Everybody’s reform measures are very well-intentioned. Because everybody does want the same thing. It’s just that we teachers hunger for a solution that is crafted out of what we know works, that gives us the best shot at succeeding, and that happens over time and with great and careful stewardship. It is a process that should involve teachers every step of the way.

But a lot of teachers aren’t staying in their jobs long enough to figure out what works either—they’re leaving within three years or five years. How do you propose we retain effective teachers?

One way is to legitimize the profession by giving teachers a career path. So a teacher could enter as a novice and earn an income that’s sustainable for their lives. And then as they develop skills, as they develop talent, as they deliver results for kids and schools, they could move into another lane, where they could have a different job title—maybe a mentor teacher—and make a new salary that’s inclusive of their new responsibilities, such as to train new teachers and to enact ideas at a school site. And then after a few more years of building skills and getting even more results, they could move into a master-teacher role or a veteran-teacher role and make more money that would be commensurate with more responsibility, such as acting more administratively, enabling large-scale programs at a school or district to happen, writing curriculum, teaching other teachers, and leading professional development opportunities. This lattice or ladder or tiered system would ensure that a teacher actually has somewhere to go if they’re ambitious, if they’re a results-getter, if they’re admired by their peers.

Right now, the way virtually 90 percent of school systems are run, it’s just a step-and-column model. You get to the end just by entering and you get to the top of the pay scale by living longest. That has to go away. That is such a dinosaur. It doesn’t honor ambition, it doesn’t attract talent. It just attracts longevity.

Also, if I’m a really good teacher, I don’t want to have to eject from my classroom into administration. Because right now that’s the only place I can go. And I don’t know how you strengthen the profession by asking all the good ones to leave it.

Some of your views—on differentiated pay, for example—put you at odds with the teachers’ unions. Have you gotten pushback on this?

I think the union wants what I want. We want opportunities for great teachers, we want excellence for every child, we want great teachers in every classroom. And where they’re situated is in the right place, which is intelligent concern over how we get that. So we’re simpatico in that way.

The message that the union, fairly or unfairly, gets known for is that teachers don’t want accountability, or we don’t want results to be any part of an evaluation system. I’m not afraid of evaluation. No teacher is. I’m afraid of the limited ruler by which some communities want to measure me. Some would like to simply use test scores. That ruler is too small, and that’s where the union is rightfully concerned. We don’t differ on that.

Teacher effectiveness very ambiguous; it’s very hard to measure. You need to look at what the kids say about whether the teacher is effective in helping them understand material. You need to ask parents, how do you feel about this teacher? Are they engaged with the kids? Do you feel like the assignments are relevant to kids’ lives? Do you feel like they’re going the extra mile? What does the principal say about them after a lot of classroom observations? What do their peers think about them? Do they reach out or do they close the door? Do they work on projects that better their school or are they a lone wolf? Do they come in at 7:45 and leave at 3:15 or are they in it for the long haul? Do they work to plant the garden at the school? Do they run a club? Do they teach other teachers? Then finally, what do the test scores say? If you put all of that together, you have a really nice picture of a teacher.

What are your thoughts on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards? Are teachers ready for them?

I recently heard [common-core standards architect] David Coleman talk about how we’ve tried for too long to do a million things well and we’ve done all of them at a mediocre level. Common core asks us to focus very narrowly on a few skills in math and science and social studies and English at each level, and to become virtuosos in them. We teachers are going to narrow our focus and drill deep. That’s a relief to hear; it’s a breath of fresh air. The standards that I currently have to teach kids number over 200. There were 186 school days in my calendar. I don’t understand how you attain mastery when every day you’re doing a different dance.

Where teachers express fear and trepidation about the common core is the implementation piece. We have to be very careful about this not being presented as “the next new thing.” It has to be different, and there have to be legions of leaders investing everything into how we implement it. It’s like we’ve been fishing and we’ve caught a marlin. Common core is the marlin that’s been out to sea and we’ve been reeling it in and reeling it in and it’s almost here. It’s just beside the boat—it’s huge, it’s beautiful, it has a lot of power. But how we bring it on board, how we handle that will require incredible skill, patience, vision, and expertise. Because if we get that wrong and the fish starts flopping around, it has the power to destroy everything. It’s a pivotal time to get this right. That means very clear instruction for teachers, very clear professional development, a sense of urgency about doing it right but not about speed in rolling it out. You have to go slow and steady, one foot in front of the other, stop and correct course when needed, train your teachers, coach them, get them talking to one another.

What do you hope to use your platform for this year? What issues will you be advocating for?

I’m very concerned about the profession. My parents were teachers, they loved their jobs, they did it for a long time. I’m a teacher, I love it, I hope to do it for as long as I can. I’m so crestfallen by what I see as the absolute destruction of the American public school teacher under this system, which batters them day in and day out. How much longer can you sustain that model where the job itself is incredibly difficult and we’re beaten up about it every day? We’re now, for the first time, being called names—lazy, greedy, self-entitled, unwilling to face accountability. So I want to get out there and talk to other teachers. I want to inspire them and motivate them to remember why they’re doing this job, how incredibly vital their power is to transform not just a child’s life but their entire school by being a teacher leader, by staying positive, by having the courage to not teach to the test but beyond it. So I want to be motivational, to bring some realism to the conversation, and to do it in a positive way that motivates us to go forward.

What would you like to say to those people who claim you’re lazy, greedy, and selfish?

Come watch. Come watch. You’ve never seen a tax dollar work harder. It’s the best bargain—and when I show you my paystub, oh, it’s a bargain. It’s the best bargain you’ll ever get out of your tax dollars.


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