Seventh-grade teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki won’t be in her English classroom at California’s Luther Burbank Middle School next year. Instead, she’ll be piling up the frequent-flier miles as the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, visiting schools and speaking on behalf of teachers around the country. Perhaps no one is more surprised by the award than Mieliwocki herself. She took the long way around to the profession, working for a number of years as a floral designer in Burbank—even doing the flowers for Oscar parties and Elizabeth Taylor’s private jet. 

“After a while,” she says, “I wanted to think and talk about other things besides whether the client liked the centerpieces. I wanted to do work that was meaningful to me and made a difference for others.”
It looks like Mieliwocki has achieved that goal. We were lucky enough to talk with her this summer over early morning coffee and learn from her fresh, energetic, and passionate approach to teaching. 

What made you decide to become a teacher?
Rebecca Mieliwocki: I decided I wanted to do something different, and I made a list of what I really wanted and needed in a job. I wanted to do work I wouldn’t forget about at the end of the day. I wanted to be around children; I feel as bubbly as a twelve-year-old. I love to be creative, and I like to write and communicate. I’m not afraid to talk in front of people, and I’m adventurous. When I made that list, it was really obvious that I was supposed to be a teacher. 

The plan was to teach high school?
Absolutely. For five years, I taught high school English and that’s where I intended to stay. But I took time off when my son was born, and when I went back, the only position open was middle school. I thought, Forget it. There’s no way I’m doing middle school. But my husband pointed out our bank balance. He said, “Look at those zeros. You’ve got to teach whatever grade they give you.” 

So you reluctantly headed off? 
I was so prepared to hate it, and I was blown away by my first day. I was gobsmacked. I came home like I was in a cartoon—birds and stars circling my head. I think my husband was ready for me to say I had quit on the spot. And I looked at him and said, “I have fallen head over heels in love. It’s day one and I love them.” That was nine years ago. I’m never leaving seventh grade. 

What is it that you like about seventh graders?
Middle schoolers are power plants of energy and enthusiasm. They have incredible curiosity and are wonderful questioners of the status quo. They’re affectionate and funny. They want to know where they fit in in the world. If you harness that energy, they will work incredibly hard for you.

Middle school is billed as the toughest age to teach. Wrong?
RM: They absolutely test every limit. Emotionally, adolescents are a hot mess. Their brains and common sense are still “under construction.” They’re taking in all kinds of media images and peer expectations. They want to be a jock one day and they want to be a goth the next. They’re emotional and quiet, and then they’re exuberant and acting like kindergartners. It takes patience and a deep well of goodwill to allow them to do that exploring and not be intimidated or frustrated by it. 

So what’s the secret?
RM: There are ways for teachers to harness kids’ energy that can take them far beyond the curriculum. You have to be subversive with middle schoolers. When they think you’re going to zig, zag. I sometimes think of my teaching as a hopscotch grid. First step, second step, third step—and then branch out and go a little crazy. Lots of variety means they’re never bored. 

How do you keep their energy flowing in the right direction?
RM: Classroom management expert Rick Morris said that kids need four things: freedom, choice, safety, and fun. If you fail to provide any one of these in your classroom, you’re going to have to struggle to get kids to buy in. So every day, I first make sure that my class is a safe place to learn. I have really high standards for personal behavior. I tell my students, “The learning that we’re going to do here is one thing, but how you are as a human being on planet Earth is almost more important to me.” And so they already know, We’re safe here. 

What happens if a teacher doesn’t provide the fun? 
RM: If you don’t provide some measure of fun, they’ll bring their own fun to the party. And it won’t be the kind of fun that’s helpful or educational.

How do you give kids choice?
We have these spiral assignment sheets filled with resources and possible final products. And I’ll say, “Pick which way works best for you to show me you’ve learned.” And then we look at the rubric. And I’ll ask, “How will we know if it’s an A? How will we know it’s a B? You tell me.” The student might say, “Okay, I think it’ll be an A if I have done this, this, and this.” We work it out. When kids have control, it sort of undoes any hostility or grumpiness over having to do the work.

What advice would you give a new teacher? 
RM: Don’t isolate yourself. Find somebody who will help you when things go wrong, who will cheer for you when things go perfectly right, and who has a bottomless well of ideas for when you hit a bump in the road. And that shouldn’t end after your first year. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years, and after every class I walk out my door and head to Nicole’s or Stephanie’s room and say, “Here’s what we did. What do you think about it?” 

What if that’s not your school environment?
RM: Create it by modeling it. Put yourself out there as somebody who’s curious, who doesn’t have all the answers but has a good idea or two. And you listen, you listen to what others have to say, and then you filter it through your own needs and perspective. 

You see teaching as a team sport? 
RM: Absolutely. I’m here doing my job with this group of kids. But I’m part of a school whose goal is to support, educate, celebrate, and move forward a thousand people. And forty-five of those thousand people are the teachers. We are like-minded souls and we’re in the same boat. We’ve chosen to go on a teaching journey together. That means we can’t just row on our own. We need to row together in the direction of something bigger. I have to talk to you, I have to learn from you, I have to listen to you, I have to say difficult truths to you at times, and you to me. 

A lot of recent press about teachers has been negative. What do you wish people understood?
RM: It’s hard when you’re very pumped and positive about the impact you’re having on kids’ lives and then you pick up a newspaper or turn on a television and hear nothing but attack after attack. 
I’d like to see some admiration return to teachers, to say to the public, “A schoolteacher is the best tax-dollar bargain you will ever get. If you want to see tax dollars hard at work, come into a classroom and see what’s going on.”

There’s a lot of public dialogue about the future of education. Where do teachers fit in?
RM: If the teacher’s voice isn’t leading that conversation, or isn’t the voice that gets the most respect and is listened to, it won’t be the right change. Teachers know better than anybody else what we need. We need to use our voices. We need to tell those stories.