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Three Teachers Have Different Takes on their Teacher-of-the-Year Honors

By The Room 241 Team August 31, 2012

As K-12 schools across the country continue to motivate teachers with bonuses and awards, administrators may wonder what special skills winning teachers possess beyond their peers. A look at three teacher-of-the-year winners from California, Virginia and Texas offers insight into their distinguished classroom acumen and work ethic.

Rebecca Mieliwocki

Mieliwocki teaches seventh-grade English at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, California. She was named teacher-of-the-year in a national competition earlier this year and was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House.

The daughter of career teachers, Mieliwocki (pronounced Milwaukee) has developed some unconventional methods over her 13-year career  to keep her students attentive and to enhance their retention. These include playing music in class, creating contests and competitions to make learning fun and even using a deck of cards to determine who answers classroom questions.

“Underneath all of the engaging strategies — being creative, being lively, being a modern teacher — is the understanding that I need to build skills in these kids,” she said in subsequent interviews.

Mieliwocki is also an advocate of teacher accountability and believes strongly in performance evaluations. “I want to be evaluated so I can get better,” she said. “Every teacher I know is on a quest to get better. To do that I need to look at how I’m doing right now, not just on state assessment tests, but how well my students are doing socially and emotionally.” Only through assessments can schools determine a teacher’s true effectiveness, she contends. “How am I handling (my students) morally, their character? How do I contribute to my school and community? How do I reach out to parents to pull them in?”

Julia James, award winning instructor

Julia James

James is an online instructor at Concordia University-Portland and fourth-grade elementary school teacher in Suffolk, Virginia. She won a teacher-of-the-year award at a very difficult time in her school’s evaluation process.

“Our school had been through a reconstitution where all of the staff had to go through and reinterview and reapply for positions,” she said in a recent phone interview. “All of the teachers at the time had opted to be transferred to other schools, so there was a brand new staff. Because of the academic standing of the school at that time, we had a lot of pressure on us.”

“The teacher-of-the-year award was very surprising to me,” James said. “The principal at the school said my name ended up on the ballot and I said, ‘I’m not going to win that. These people don’t really like me because they think I’m so serious.’ So the next day we had a faculty meeting and the principal said, ‘I’m going to announce the 2010 teacher-of-the-year-award, and this person really didn’t think that you all liked her.’ She announced my name and everyone stood up, and I was literally in tears because for me to be recognized among my peers, it meant the most.”

James considered the award such an honor because it meant that her peers recognized her skills as a teacher, and that it wasn’t all just a popularity contest. “It’s because you’re capable of doing a job, they see the hard work that you do, they notice that you are committed to the students, to the staff, to the school, to the community. It made a difference for me,” she added. “And it made me work even harder.”

Beth Hubbard

Hubbard is an elementary school teacher-of-the-year (2011) in Plano, Texas. She brings an unorthodox teaching philosophy into her third- and fourth-grade classrooms, and compares her approach to something she saw in the movie “Seabiscuit”.

“After first seeing the movie ‘Seabiscuit’, I was immediately struck by the strong messages in the movie,” she wrote in a blog post. “Seabiscuit, an unsuccessful racing horse, was trained to lose races, in order to build the confidence of the other horses. He continued down this path until a team, consisting of a jockey, a trainer and a businessman, believed he could do better. Once he was given the time, energy and expectation to win, he rose to the challenge.”

“As a teacher,” she continues, “I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the expectations I set for my students and those set for Seabiscuit. Students need a support system in order to nurture their learning. Teachers must build successful students in the same manner. Parents, teachers, administrators, specialist teachers and all other campus staff help children reach their full potential. I help my students find their talents and encourage them to develop all of their talents. I make it a point to find out my students’ interests outside of school. I have attended sporting events and dance recitals to show my students that I care about their interests.”

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