By Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012 National Teacher of the Year
I’ve envied people who had whirlwind lives, traveled, and were big decision makers in their fields. I had that kind of year since I was named the National Teacher of the Year by President Obama in the White House, and it’s been nothing short of an incredible experience. I’ve traveled to nearly every state in the union, participated in conversations at the highest levels of power, listened to great thinkers in education, and spoken to nearly every kind of group there is. It’s been the journey of a lifetime, and I appreciate sharing my big takeaways.
Rankings mean very little if the race isn’t one we care to win anyway.
Part of my year involves international travel to see the classrooms in the countries that routinely best us on international assessments. I toured the top schools in Russia, Beijing and Shanghai, China, Japan, and Singapore. I went to see their greener grass; what I saw shocked me.
I was always told these nations simply teach to the test, but I thought that answer to be simplistic. Sure enough, I witnessed drill-and-kill instruction, teacher-centered rote learning and memorization activities. I didn’t see art, music, sports, field trips, robust technologies, or anything, really, that is the hallmark of a full and enriching education.
In meetings with students, teachers, professors and parents, it was clear that while they were proud to be No. 1, they were not happy, and they knew that simply acing tests does not set their children up to succeed in this world.
I was treated like royalty and asked how we do what we do. How do we teach so creatively, and how do we teach kids to be creative? How do we use team structures and collaboration in our classrooms so well? How do we make such nimble thinkers of our students, capable of handling abstract thought, divergent thinking, and multiple solutions to problems? These are all 21st century competencies, and they know their students don’t have them.
Ours do. And yet, we stand at 15th on international rankings. Do we really want to be No. 1 if it means we abandon all that we offer our kids? That’s not a race I care to win.
Can we shore up our schools, raise learning standards, and push our academic programs to be even better? Absolutely.
I went looking for greener grass and came home prouder than ever that our own grass, the way we educate children here at home, is a spectacular, unique, and highly coveted shade all its own.
American teachers are amazing.
I met incredible teachers from Seattle to Sanibel Island and I’ll tell you this: We are in such good shape! If you thought things were as dire as folks tell you, they are not. Teams of educators are teaching dynamically, using technology in ways that amaze me and frankly, boggle my mind. Teachers are asking more of their kids, having them reach out across the planet and do good work.
I am blown away by the passion, the purpose, the professionalism and the urgency I see in the work done by American teachers. Before this year, I was sure there were lots of good teachers in this country. Now I know it for a fact. We might not have a perfect system and perfect teachers everywhere, but the great teaching out there cannot be denied. This makes me so proud.
The wounds of a decade of teacher bashing are painfully visible.
There’s a moment in my speeches where I get a tad sappy about my love for my job and for teachers in general. I admit to the pain and the struggle of it all, the worry I’m not doing it right, the exhilaration of a lesson gone right, the joy of a child who succeeds.
I share how heartbreaking it is to be the focus of anger and blame and frustration from the media and some of my fellow Americans. I end my speeches positively, always, and afterward there is always a long line of teachers, young and old, who wait for me and just fall into my arms crying. The pain of going through what we have, on top of the tremendously challenging work itself, has pushed so many to despair that it’s visible on the outside.
Whether a teacher stops speaking up and instead isolates, or whether they cry out and rally with colleagues, or whether they just keep on keeping on, every teacher, even the most optimistic among us, has the scars to show for a decade of blame and teacher bashing.
I’m thunderstruck by our resilience, our stalwartness, and our refusal to be who they expect us to be. It may take a while to turn the conversation around, but we are getting there.
I saw action on teacher evaluation, some of it encouraging, some of it downright frightening.
A recent MetLife study indicates the single greatest impact on learning is the presence of a highly effective teacher. It made a huge ripple in education circles, and everyone is creating evaluation frameworks or rubrics to use that will identify and hopefully grow better teachers in the profession.
Most of these efforts are smart and are honestly selecting key criteria that teachers need to meet to be considered effective. Most if not all of these rubrics include statistical data on our students’ performance on standardized tests, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. But we all know that using test scores to tell if teachers are exceptional, or awful, is stretching the scientific truth and needs more investigation before it can be trusted as an accurate measure.
I saw state superintendents working with legislatures to grade and rate schools, just like we do students, in the hopes that the pressure of being given a poor grade will miraculously improve the school. For the most part, however, I saw the idea of using multiple measures to evaluate teachers gain a strong foothold.
The president and the secretary of education care.
From personal experience I can tell you: President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are genuine, committed people. A strong American education got these men where they are, and they are not shy about telling you that.
We can debate the merits of how they are going about education reform, but in a time when Congress is content to do little but watch generation after generation of teachers be children left alone, here are two men and countless others who work with them, determined to do better for all of us. I see that as a win.
Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy.
A stereotype has emerged of the American teacher that is unflattering, and while this saddens me, it’s something we must fight. For any number of reasons, we teachers are seen as accountability-fleeing, incompetent job-keepers with cushy pensions that threaten the very safety of the American economy.
This is not me, nor is it anyone I know who teaches young people. Fight that stereotype every chance you get, with every word you utter.
We cannot, and should not, position ourselves as victims. It’s hard to gather momentum and empowerment when you see yourself as someone always at the mercy of thoughtless, faceless others.
We can absolutely continue to engage in open, honest discussions about the challenges we face, but we should do that from the driver’s seat as an empowered teacher corps poised to make the great changes in education we all want and need.
The time for action is now.
Teaching has always been a rewarding profession. For too long, we’ve toiled in isolation waiting for others to train us, prepare us, protect us, develop us, evaluate us, lead us, and fight for us. For a time, I was content to let that happen.
But decisions were made that I did not agree with and that directly affected my students. I’m no longer willing to sit in the backseat with others at the wheel of my destiny. I’m ready to lead and to act, to be a voice and a force for teachers.
I’m struck by the differences between the life I live and play in and the one we educate kids in. The classroom, the schools, the teaching methods in many places look like they’ve looked for a hundred years. The world kids live and will work in is completely, utterly different. We must change if education is to remain relevant.
Let’s build new ways of educating kids that honor where they’re are at now and prepare them for the lives they’ll lead tomorrow. It’s scary, certainly, but we should never cease to act due to fear. We should make creative leaps because we have vision, passion and courage.
That’s how I’d like to be remembered.
We need to make sure our voices are heard and our wishes are respected. And we can do that through CTA. Let’s write those amazing lessons, allow creativity and collaboration in our classes, demand time to meet with colleagues, and create the professional learning communities that will grow us to greatness. Let’s fight back against every misguided decision, vote in every election, call every congressman, and brag about every success to anyone who will listen and especially to those who won’t.
It’s an exciting time of opportunity in education. Will we be bold enough to seize it? I hope so.