Flanked by her family and colleagues, President Obama today called Burbank Unified teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki — the 2012 national Teacher of the Year — “the definition of ‘above and beyond.’”
Mieliwocki, a Glendale resident who teaches English at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, was given the national prize Monday by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Known for an unconventional teaching style that emphasizes critical thinking, Mieliwocki beat out more than 50 other nominees. She also maintains a Facebook page for her class and keeps in regular contact with the students’ parents.
Mieliwocki was cheered loudly by the audience at the event. Obama pointed out a particularly loud cheering section during his remarks.
“This is Rebecca’s crew right here, who are very proud. Auntie, cousins?” Obama asked the group.
“My boss,” Mieliwocki interjected, to laughs.
“Oh, boss. Even more important,” he said.
Obama spoke about how Mieliwocki was raised by two public-school teachers but took a somewhat roundabout way into the profession.
She first aspired to be a lawyer, then worked in publishing, then floral design and event planning.
“But ultimately, she found herself drawn back to the classroom,” he said. “And her students are so lucky that she did.”
The profession suits her personality as a self-proclaimed “12-year-old goofball dying to get out,” Obama said, adding, “And I have to say, she was a little goofy when I met her.”
He noted that Mieliwocki sets high expectations for her students and herself, developing creative lessons, hosting family nights, sending weekly parent memos and maintaining a Facebook page for her class.
Mieliwocki then spoke from the lectern, calling the winners of state teacher of the year awards gathered behind her as the most “dedicated, intelligent, compassionate, hardworking group of professionals you will never meet.”
“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.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) also released a statement today calling Mieliwocki a “shining example for our community and our children.”
For her part, Mieliwocki has deferred much of the praise to her mentors and parents, themselves public school teachers.
“I carry with me all of their talent, all of their ability, all of their experience; it has made me who I am,” she said in an interview after her award was announced Monday.
Raised in Napa, Mieliwocki has spent nine of her 13-year career with Burbank Unified. After finishing the school year at Luther Burbank Middle School, Mieliwocki will take a one-year sabbatical to act as the spokeswoman for public education and collaborate with national policy makers.
Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa, school board Vice President Debbie Kutka and former Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Anita Schackmann were making their way through Los Angeles International Airport on Monday to catch a flight to Washington D.C. for the White House ceremony when they received the news.
He and his colleagues are ecstatic, said Carrizosa, adding that Mieliwocki exemplifies everything that is right about public education.
“We are so excited that she is going to be a national spokesperson because she will carry with her the core values of our school district, Carrizosa said. “We believe in our school district and our system, and we are happy she is going to be the ambassador for that.”
Next week, Mieliwocki will return to Luther Burbank Middle School, where district officials have scheduled a homecoming celebration.
“We are some of the hardest working people in America,” Mieliwocki said. “We do a very difficult job and we love that job. We are so passionate about that. We are intelligent, reasonable people. We welcome thoughtful discourse about education and how to change it.”
She is still getting a feel for her new role, but among her priorities will be to ensure that teachers feel appreciated and supported, Mieliwocki said.
“It is very important to me that educators feel empowered, that they feel comfortable in their role as educators, that they feel validated,” she said.
Stephen Ceasar at the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.