In a light-hearted White House ceremony this morning, President Obama presented Rebecca Mieliwocki, a 7th grade English teacher from Burbank, Calif., with the 2012 National Teacher of the Year award.
Mieliwocki stood with the 53 other State Teachers of the Year—the pool from which she was chosen as the recipient—and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for the short ceremony. Several of her colleagues and family members, including her son and husband, sat in the front row to cheer her on.
In introducing Mieliwocki, Obama explained that “when she was 18, the last thing she wanted to be was a teacher.” The daughter of two public school teachers, Mieliwocki rebelled by studying to become a lawyer. She eventually went on to try a few different careers—in publishing, floral design, and event planning—before yielding to what Obama said seems to be “in Rebecca’s DNA.”
“She found herself drawn back to the classroom,” the president said, “and her students are so lucky that she did.”
The 14-year veteran teacher has had students film adaptations of an O. Henry story and write five-minute plays for professional actors to perform, Obama noted. According to her application for the award, she has also organized family quiz nights and Elizabethan festivals at her school and taken students on a variety of field trips, from the Long Beach Aquarium to the La Brea Tarpits. “Rebecca is the definition of above and beyond,” said Obama.
In a humble yet self-assured speech, Mieliwocki told the audience of several hundred educators and policymakers, “I’m not the best teacher in America—there isn’t one.” But like other successful teachers, “I have a warm and welcoming heart for all students,” she said. “And I have the unshakeable understanding that students can do anything they put their minds to.”
In her application, Mieliwocki noted that she also sees herself as “a 12-year-old goofball” on the inside. “While I am always a consummate professional, there’s nothing in the playbook that says teachers need to be stuffy or staid or that learning has to be dry and dull,” she wrote. The president picked up on this aspect of Mieliwocki’s personality when the two met prior to the ceremony. In an off-script moment during his speech, he quipped, “I have to say, she was a little goofy,” turning to the awardee with a grin. “She was teasing me and asking Arne about our basketball games.”
Mieliwocki also wrote in her application that it’s a difficult time to be a teacher. In his speech, Obama said he agreed, especially in light of the recent recession, which has cut education budgets around the country. “We’re particularly responsible as politicians … instead of bashing teachers to support them,” he said.
In an interview at the White House after the ceremony, Meiliwocki said that “it’s been easy to pick teachers up and make them into a political football.” The media have contributed to the damaging rhetoric, she added, by running so many negative stories. “But go into any classroom on any day and your faith will be restored within five minutes.”
When asked about her thoughts on the recent MetLife survey finding that teacher satisfaction is at its lowest point in two decades, Mieliwocki said she loves her job but knows that many teachers are frustrated by “being asked to do so much more with so little.”
“It’s feeling like you’re saving children’s lives with education … but you might not be able to do it,” she said. “If you don’t have the desks, you don’t have the books, you don’t have the technology, you might not be able to do it. That would give anyone low morale, not just teachers.”
The solution to increasing satisfaction among teachers is not simply to raise their pay, Mieliwocki emphasized. “If you pay me $100,000 a year, the job isn’t easier. I don’t suddenly have the resources I need,” she said. In fact, teachers might spend much of that extra compensation on bettering their classrooms, Mieliwocki said. “More money is not the answer. It’s more [leadership] responsibility, better training, better PD.”
Mieliwocki said she’s enthusiastic about the use of tiered career ladders, in which teachers begin as novices and move on to become master teachers who work on curriculum and teacher training in addition to their classroom teaching—and are paid slightly more. “That could be the key to uprooting the current system that is keeping us from working to our optimum potential,” she asserted.
As for how she’ll use her platform while traveling around the country this year, Meiliwocki said, “I want to spend my time restoring dignity and admiration to teachers. … I’m simply not going to let teachers get kicked around.”