Corps member Brittany Comegna of the CSX Civic Engagement Team had a chance to sit down with National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki during her trip to Washington, DC to accept her award from President Barack Obama.
In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, we offer Ms. Mieliwocki’s insights into how to create a successful classroom environment. Go out and #ThankATeacher this week!
What are the biggest challenges facing teachers?
Having to assume the role of both teacher and parent. I’ve spent more time parenting children, many years, than I have teaching them. There are so many duties parents are obligated to take care of with their children that teachers [no have to]. It’s disheartening because if I could focus on teaching I could do so much more with kids than I am doing now. From feeding and clothing kids who don’t have the resources, to providing school supplies, character education, transportation, health care, discipline, language development, literacy for kids in need, it’s overwhelming.
I think that’s where the morale issues come into play. Teachers have a hard enough time trying to teach their subject matter in such a way that is rigorous, relevant, engaging, and to manage the data they get from their efforts so that they can guide kids to great futures, that trying to piggyback all the parenting issues on top of that would crush even the best, most seasoned, most capable educator. We cannot do it all, but we are asked to on a daily basis.
What do you believe is the most profound influence in a student’s life and eventual success?
Parents. Without them, there’s very little I can do that will have as profound an effect as the foundation good parenting gives a child.
What is one small thing anybody can do right now to contribute to the cause of education?
Touch base with a teacher. If your child is in school in any grade, email the teacher right now. Call. All you have to do is introduce yourself, tell who your child is, let the teacher know you are a parent who cares about his/her child and is working hard at home to support you, the teacher. Say, “You may never see me, I’m very busy at work. I can’t come in to volunteer, and it’s hard for me to get to Open House or Back to School nights, but rest assured, I’m at home looking at the backpack, looking at the binder. I’m helping with homework and I’m present in my child’s life. I support you and please call me whenever you have a question or need me to get involved.”
So many teachers never, ever hear from parents and we feel a powerful sense of isolation that is demoralizing… What we NEED to know is that our students’ parents are aware and involved in their child’s education at home. It’s that simple. One email. One call goes a [very] long way to letting a teacher know [his or her] efforts at school are supported at home.
As a teacher, what is the best advice you have ever received?
[Some of] the great advice I have gotten was from watching another teacher interact with her kids. She would work with them through issues so that both parties “won”. Meaning, when you discipline a child or have to deal with a rough moment, make sure you give the child the chance to “win” in the situation.
…If you softly explain how the two of you are a team, and that I want what’s best for the student, and the student’s behavior is getting in the way of that, then the conversation becomes not about me being the boss, but instead about the student’s improvement, wanting the kid to get back on the right path for his own good, not mine. I find that kind of discipline with dignity and mercy has stopped 99% of the misbehavior in my classes going on 10 years now. I’ll never work with kids any other way than by treating them humanely and by explaining why I need them to get back on task.
What inspires you most when things become difficult?
That tomorrow is another day. It’s a fresh start, another chance to try again to get it right. Kids deserve fresh starts often. So do their teachers. As long as you’re always mindful of the process of improvement and staying on that path, you can’t go very wrong.
What’s your favorite teaching moment?
Seeing the faces of kids when they “get it”. That aha moment of “I can do this…this isn’t so hard” or the “I think I get it” face. When they are looking at me and thinking and then they tear off into the work because they have a burst of understanding or can-do-it ness. I love that.