Pick a school pretty much anywhere, and you’re bound to find several adequate teachers. The kind who show up without fail, follow their lesson plans, and get the job done. At their best, they help us learn what we need and advance to the next grade level.
But there’s another category of made up of Mr. Miyagi-type teachers from the "Karate Kid." The ones who take lessons that don’t seem to make sense and make things click in ways that change our conception of the world and our place in it.
Rebecca Mieliwocki, who’s just been named National Teacher of the Year, is one of those teachers. Only more in a seventh grade English kind of way than a crane kick to the face kind of way.
Sitting in the principal’s office at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, where she’s been teaching for nine years, she said she’s become a master at re-directing a student’s energy. When confronted with a student who tries to get her off topic she knows just how to keep things on track.
“I allow them to think that they’ve gotten me off topic and what they don’t understand is that I was them one time and I’ve tried those exact same tricks,” she said with a broad smile. “I will let them lead me off only to hit them with some idea or a lesson.”
It’s a tactic that’s won her legions of grateful, smarter students and national recognition as one of the country’s top teachers. The award is sponsored by the non-profit Council of Chief State School Officers. And in a Rose Garden ceremony Mieliwocki will be honored by President Barack Obama, alongside her fellow nominees.
But long before any of that, the petite woman from Napa said that as a seventh grader she was “a hot mess.” Constantly out her seat, socializing when she should have been studying and making frequent trips to the principal’s office. “I just thought I was hilarious … the best thing since sliced bread.”
Her boss, Principal Anita Schackman, said it’s Mieliwocki’s experience as hyperactive and sometimes ill-behaved student that allows her to make deep connections with the kids she introduces to John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Schackman said Mieliwocki can identify “where her students are in their emotional development and what they can handle.” She also knows how far she can joke and tease them, said Schackman.
That’s on full display in the classroom. On a recent rainy day, Mieliwocki ushers in her third period English class. Within a couple of minutes all 30 students are at their desks, notebooks open, pens in hand.
Within 10 minutes, Mieliwocki has relayed a self-deprecating story about running into a few students at a nearby roller-rink over the weekend, she’s made a swoopy-haired boy turn a garnet shade of embarrassed, and has moved on to tips on drawing "Angry Birds."
The key to relating to tweens, said Mieliwocki, is recognizing that kids at this age are not brittle or fragile. It’s just the opposite, she said. “They’re resilient and they excel when the people around them accountable.”
“I feel like it’s a life skills class some days more than it’s an English class,” she said.
But, she said, she tries to meld those together so that “kids realize their learning reading and writing but also learning how to be good humans that know how to solve problems.”
That, Mieliwocki said, is what will help them get up from the proverbial mat when life throws them — just like the "Karate Kid."