By Rebecca Mieliwocki
Seventh Grade English Teacher
at Luther Burbank Middle School
National Teacher of the Year, 2012
Alumna of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and CSU Northridge
The central premise of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is “learn by doing.” This principle permeates every academic course and every student activity. It has also become my motto in life.
In high school, I wanted to attend Cal Poly to become an architect. That program was highly impacted, so I went into Speech Communication instead. It turns out that was a perfect major for me and I loved the program. I went from earning a Speech Communication bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly to completing a credential program at CSU Northridge.
As many do, I found a different path forward in life than what I planned as a child. I am thankful that the education I received in those early years and at the university prepared me to go in many different directions. I try to keep that in mind when I’m preparing my own students.
The compelling thing about teaching is that your soul has “ripples.” I’m sure this is true in many professions, but in teaching you get to see those ripples in the life of a student you taught when she was just twelve years old. That life you helped shape causes it own ripples as the next generation takes hold. Given the amazing impact and talent of my peers, I was awestruck when I was informed about being selected as National Teacher of the Year.
Part of the responsibility of the National Teacher of the Year is to travel both within and outside the United States studying educational best practices. Traveling to many places throughout the world with high-scoring education systems, I hoped to catch a little lightning in a bottle – something that could be brought back to the US and improve our own student outcomes.
What I learned both surprised me and reinforced some suspicions about testing. While many systems are great at training students to perform well on tests, few provide students with the ability to think through new challenges and innovate non-textbook solutions. What really surprised me is that the US education system is still the envy of many of those countries that out-test us.
Those critical characteristics of American students – capable, confident, creative, collaborative and courageous – are strengths to build upon. I believe that learning can be improved and skill gaps addressed without losing the distinctiveness of a system based on individualism. In fact, I believe we need more individual empowerment – especially for our teachers.
Teachers should have an opportunity to rise in the profession without leaving the classroom. Teachers should also be encouraged to explore new practices and learn from the best methods employed by their colleagues. Teaching is a team sport and we should facilitate teamwork.
I very often suspect that though I am the tallest person in the classroom, I am also the one with the most to learn. Teaching and learning are not passive and they are not static. Education at all levels is best when it is a dynamic, active experience. Cal Poly SLO and CSU Northridge taught me that lesson – a lesson I will never forget.
Video from Mieliwocki’s presentation to the CSU Board of Trustees on March 20, 2013, is available here.