Obama Names Teacher of the Year

Obama Names Teacher of the Year

Photo by Jewish Women’s Archive

President Obama honored seventh grade English Teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki (pronounced “Milwaukee”) with the 2012 National Teacher of the Year Award at a White House ceremony on April 24. The National Teacher of the Year Award is the highest professional honor for educators in the United States. Recipients take a year off from classroom duties to travel the world representing and advocating educators, averaging 150 appearances in front of audiences ranging from hundreds to more than 10,000. The teacher’s home district pays salary and benefits during this period.

Mieliwocki’s application for the award described her as “a 12-year-old goofball” at heart, an aspect of her personality which President Obama corroborated. “I have to say she was a little bit goofy”, he said, speaking of a meeting they had prior to the award ceremony. “She was teasing me and asking Arne about our basketball games.” On a more serious note, Obama said, “Rebecca is the definition of above and beyond.” He praised Mieliwocki for setting high expectations, developing unconventional lesson plans, hosting regular family nights, sending parents weekly memos and operating a Facebook page for her class.

While she was a seventh grader herself, Mieliwocki frequently acted the clown and ended up in the principal’s office. “I just thought I was hilarious,” she said. Now she has a different perspective on disruptive students, one that allows her to relate to them while redirecting their energy toward learning. “I allow them to think that they’ve gotten me off topic,” she says, “and what they don’t understand is that I was them one time and I’ve tried those exact same tricks. I will let them lead me off only to hit them with some idea or a lesson.” This quick-witted, dynamic approach has won her legions of loyal students — students who might not have had the same success with another teacher.

But Mieliwocki demonstrated modesty in accepting the award. “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.”

She also touched on the topic of teacher evaluations, which has become controversial because of the seemingly arbitrary measures of performance sometimes have large consequences for a teacher’s career. “Accountability matters to me,” she said. “I have to know I am doing a good job and know what areas I need to improve in. But I need to be looked at through [performance data, student connection, colleague relationships], not just one.”

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