A few weeks ago Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year spoke with I’m a New Teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and found her answers incredibly inspiring.
She talks about the importance of balance, taking breaks, how to stay passionate and wanting to resign. I have posted the article in two parts, I hope that you take the time to view both.
Mathew: Welcome Rebecca, Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. If you could, please give a sort of a quick summary of your teaching journey.
Rebecca: And both of my parents are teachers. And so, I had kind of fled from that idea as a possibility because I think kids want to go different directions than their parents go. Some do. And I was resistant to the idea of teaching until after I had tried those other careers. And when I finally realized that that would combine all of the skills I had and make an impact on the world, I decided to give it a shot.
I think I’ve done everything you can do as a teacher. I’ve taught every grade from 6 to all the way up to college. I’ve been a Master Teacher to new teachers in training. I’ve been a mentor teacher to veteran teachers. I’ve written curriculum. I’ve been the faculty chairperson. I’ve presented in front of the faculty and now as National Teacher of the Year, had the opportunity to represent all teachers and travel the world on behalf of our craft and profession. So I’ve really done, it feels like almost everything, but at the same time I’m nowhere near done or knowledgeable enough to say that I’m really a pro yet. I think all teachers really are a work in progress.
Mathew: Do you feel like you know more or less about the profession after having teaching so long?
Rebecca: No, every year you teach, the learning curve is spectacular. And you learn things right away that you didn’t know the year before, and some parts get quite a lot easier. And some parts become infinitely more challenging. I think the better you get at teaching, the more you realize how closely and carefully you need to look at individual kids and what their needs are, and how to differentiate for them. And that in itself is a universe to understand.
And every kid is different so every year is different. So it’s like a game whose rules kind of keeps changing but you’re really enamored with the game so you want to keep playing it and keep learning it. So, I feel really comfortable about certain parts of teaching that I know now work. I keep those parts, but like little Legos, you know I detach parts that didn’t work and add in new stuff that I want to try, so. Now it’s always a learning game.
Mathew: What did it mean to receive the 2012 National Teacher of the Year Award?
Rebecca: Well I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe it at first. I mean every step of the way, from first the pride of having your colleagues nominate you for just your local school title. That meant the most to me because they work with me everyday and they know what I’m about. They were the ones in the position to know and recognize that I was doing things that were above and beyond the call of duty. My husband kept saying why not you. Why, you know I’m proud of the work you’re doing and wouldn’t you want your son to have a lifetime’s worth of teachers with your enthusiasm and your zest for doing exciting things with kids and for caring about teachers, and schools, and communities? Why not you? You know. And so, that was helpful to have somebody kind of talking me down off the ledge of disbelief.
And then, you know the thing that really allowed it to settle in was people, and oft people said to me that when you talk about education, Rebecca, I feel hopeful, and I feel happy. And I feel like I could listen to you for hours talk about kids in your classroom. I feel like it’s a wonderful thing as opposed to how the media portrays teachers and our profession, the bad raps that we tend to get and so much of the negative conversational tone. They said when with you it’s the complete opposite.
Mathew: That’s really cool. This is a little bit of an aside, but what was it like to meet President Obama?
Rebecca: Oh, incredible! Amazing! I mean first of all as the… our country’s first black president. And so, the historic nature of him being the president that would give me this award, you know, threatened to kind of not overshadow if for me, but in personal terms that was really, really important for me. And I had heard that he was just a really genuine person who felt very real.
Mathew: Who are the people that you really look up to?
Rebecca: My partner teacher Karen Berkland who was at the end of her career when I met with her and began teaching with her. And she just had that kind of the calm of a ninja. Like, she just had a sense of mercy and calm at her center. That was what guided her decision-making. She never let anything stand between her and the delivery of her lesson even… and what I meant by that was it wasn’t that kids couldn’t take a conversation in an interesting direction. That’s not what I meant. But she wouldn’t ever let kid misbehavior slow her down. She wouldn’t let kids who came without supplies and materials stop her from getting the job done. She would just keep going. She was unstoppable.
Mathew: What advice would you give to your first year teacher self if you could talk to her?
Rebecca: I would say first, maintain that enthusiasm. You are a power plant of excitement and enthusiasm and don’t ever let that go. Find a way to tap into that. After 20 years, 30 years, just keep close to the energy and the enthusiasm. So whatever you have to keep out of your teaching life so that you can maintain and preserve that, do that. That’s a wise investment. So that means, avoid toxic people. Avoid what we call the cave dwellers, the teachers who are consistently against virtually everything. The cave dwellers. Stay away from them. Stay fresh and new and focused. Try to learn something new every single year.
Mathew: Do you think we could do more to prepare teachers for their profession?
Rebecca: I think that we can do, we can always do more. And time is changing so quickly and there’s such innovation in the sector that we have to really look at how we’re training teachers, because right now, I mean education of children is shifting away from me being the purveyor and owner of all the knowledge to instead me facilitating learning opportunities for kids where they learn to possess the skills to solve new problems and challenges with the knowledge that I’ve taught them.
Mathew: Was there ever a time that you wanted to resign from the profession?
Rebecca: Well I haven’t ever felt that kind of exhaustion. I’ve certainly had, I’ve had challenges with… You know sometimes situations come up in the classroom that you’ve never encountered before and you don’t really know quite how to handle it and you do everything your training tells you to do up until the point where you’re now off road completely.
Here is Part 2