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Burbank educator wins top award, praise from Obama

Rebecca Mieliwocki, a seventh-grade instructor, was honored as National Teacher of the Year by the president at the White House.

April 25, 2012|Stephen Ceasar
  • Rebecca Mieliwocki teaches her seventh-grade students during her English class at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank. She was honored Tuesday by President Obama as the National Teacher of the Year.
Rebecca Mieliwocki teaches her seventh-grade students during her English… (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los…)

For her work in a Burbank classroom, Rebecca Mieliwocki earned a trip to the White House.

Mieliwocki, a seventh-grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School, was recognized Tuesday by President Obama as the National Teacher of the Year.

She was cheered loudly at the event, which also honored the winners of each state's teacher of the year awards. Obama pointed out a particularly boisterous group.

"This is Rebecca's crew right here, who are very proud. Auntie, cousins?" Obama asked the group.

"My boss," Mieliwocki interjected, to laughs.

"Oh, boss. Even more important," the president said.

Obama spoke about how Mieliwocki was raised by two public schoolteachers but took a somewhat roundabout way into the profession.

She first aspired to be a lawyer, then worked in publishing, then floral design and event planning.

"But ultimately, she found herself drawn back to the classroom," he said. "And her students are so lucky that she did."

The profession suits her personality as a self-proclaimed "12-year-old goofball dying to get out," Obama said, adding, "And I have to say, she was a little goofy when I met her."

He noted that in her 14 years of teaching, Mieliwocki has set high expectations for her students. She develops creative lessons, hosts family nights, sends weekly parent memos and maintains a Facebook page for her class.

"Rebecca is the definition of above and beyond," he said.

In her speech, Mieliwocki called the winners of the states' teacher of the year awards gathered behind her the most "dedicated, intelligent, compassionate, hardworking group of professionals you will never meet."

"I am not the best teacher in America -- there isn't one," she said. "All across this nation there are millions of teachers who do the work that I do and many do it better."

In an interview Monday, Mieliwocki said the award is particularly special because it comes at a difficult time for California public schools.

"It is a tremendous testament to how resourceful California educators can be in the face of really crazy budget cuts," she said. "Public education does so much to provide kids with the highest quality education possible but with so much less."

Aside from state funding cuts, teachers also face pressure stemming from calls for revamped teacher evaluations.

Some districts are using student test scores as one measure of those performance reviews, and others are pursuing that approach.

Mieliwocki said teachers must be evaluated from a variety of perspectives, including data, to get a true picture of their effectiveness. Teachers' connections with their students, colleagues and community, as well as student writing scores and test scores, should all be weighed together, she said.

"Accountability matters to me. I have to know I am doing a good job and know what areas I need to improve in," she told The Times. "But I need to be looked at through every one of those lenses, not just one."

Mieliwocki was named the Los Angeles County teacher of the year in October. A month later, she was named as one of five California teachers of the year by California Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. As teacher of the year, she will spend a year as a national spokeswoman for public education.

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stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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