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Patt Morrison Asks

The National Teacher of the Year on what makes a great teacher

Luther Burbank Middle School's National Teacher of the Year talks about what makes a great teacher -- and it's not teaching to the test.

May 16, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki is welcomed back to Luther Burbank Middle School a week after being feted at the White House.
National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki is welcomed back to Luther… (Los Angeles Times )

The class clown from Mr. Gadberry's high school art class has made good — and how. Rebecca Mieliwocki teaches seventh-grade English at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank — but not next year. Instead, she'll be on the road as the National Teacher of the Year. It took her a long time to get to the classroom — she once worked as a floral designer, doing the flowers for Elizabeth Taylor's private jet — and eventually to the White House, where a fellow teacher, President Obama, crowned her as a national teaching treasure. Before she takes off, Mieliwocki is speaking at commencement at her teaching alma mater, Cal State Northridge — and right here.

With all the tests kids face, some parents and teachers say there's only room to "teach to the test."

I really disagree. Those tests are so narrow that if you tried to teach kids just those things, they'd have a warped and weird education. The tests are a target I hope kids can hit, but I need to teach the whole back-story, everything they need to know: how to communicate, how to write clearly, how to stand up and sound intelligent, how to think critically. The test — my kids say, "I can do that."

But do some teachers teach differently since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?

I see the narrowing, staying so close to that test and the skills in that test. I think administrators do teachers a grave disservice when they make them feel that's what they should be doing. It is a little piece of the picture.

My best teachers might not get hired today. They were great, but they had some unorthodox teaching techniques.

You look at the new legislation, you listen to all the people who don't work with kids and are telling you what to do, and you nod and then you go to your classroom and dream up something amazing for kids that has very little to do with what you were just told you better do or else. That's what great teachers do: They're revolutionary. If we change to fit what somebody else says kids need and that person works in an office and hasn't seen a kid since 1992, we would not be giving kids what great teachers know they need.

Teachers are getting hammered politically.

I feel very battered. There's so much pressure on teachers to rescue what everyone paints as a sinking ship. We must be the ones who either caused it or have to fix it. Just doing the job is hard enough. But then to be blamed for everything that's wrong with education — it's upsetting, it's disheartening. Why would anybody enter a profession where the job is going to take everything out of you, the news media will be against you, parents may be against you, politicians may be against you? I worry about the future of the profession.

When a child has been sullen and disconnected and you find out mom and dad split up and you walk that kid to the counselor, do another hour of consoling, then go home and read an article calling teachers lazy, poorly prepared, unprofessional — it breaks my heart. I think, how can I be the problem?

How did that happen?

I think people need reassurance that their tax dollars aren't getting wasted, that something good is happening [at school] that can be measured. I understand that ferocious need, coupled with falling test scores, with the difficulty in removing teachers who aren't performing and the unions' unwillingness for a long time to look at how to change things — all those things made us ripe for the picking. Or the kicking.

Kids come to school from broken homes, not knowing left from right, not having a place to do homework, and teachers are forced to act as parents.

The priority has to be on learning. I have 52 minutes with kids every day. I think good teaches are almost like Zen masters: They just swat away distractions. But do I spend my lunches helping kids with their homework? Yes. Do I make sure kids have a ride home? Yes. Do I have a kid who's worn the same sweater for three weeks and it's dirty and I take it home and launder it? Yes. I'm seeing more hungry, hungry kids; it's troubling. I'm already spending half my paycheck on teaching supplies. Now the rest of it is going to sandwiches and granola bars and lunch money for kids who are hungry. That statistic that the average teacher spends $400 a year [on students] — I laughed. It's much closer to $2,000, $3,000. I keep track.

Your parents were both teachers, but you resisted.

I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo thinking I'd go on to law school. Once I got [through] college, I felt some obligation to get off my parents' gravy train. The idea of three more years of [law school] — I wasn't going to ask them to pay for that.

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