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June 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 9

Make Your Own Grass Greener

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To thrive in their work, educators must resist the naysayers, says the 2012 National Teacher of the Year.

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School Culture
In 2012, after 16 years surrounded by 12-year-olds as a middle school English teacher, I was named the National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama. After celebrating at the White House with the other state teachers of the year, I took a small break from my classroom in Burbank, California, to travel around the world as a representative for U.S. teachers and all that is right and good about American education.
At the time, teachers were having a rough spell. Looking back, I feel like it is easier to say what teachers were not being blamed for. We weren't responsible for Hurricane Sandy, the NHL strike and lockout, the end of the world on the Mayan calendar, or Whitney Houston's untimely, tragic death. What were we to blame for? Just about everything else. The struggling economy, unacceptable student-achievement growth, the "everyone gets a trophy" entitled-kid mindset, poor rankings on international-comparison tests, high remediation and low graduation rates at colleges across the country, failing schools. You name it, teachers in some measure got the brunt of society's blame for it.
So my duties as National Teacher of the Year seemed particularly important. My plan was to share with the world all the amazing classroom stories I had so I could restore admiration for the profession and public schools I loved so dearly. I believed, as did so many of my colleagues, that teachers were a huge part of the solution to whatever might be happening in our country, not part of the problem. Day after day, we wore ourselves out for other people's children, providing meaningful, relevant, and challenging learning experiences for them, only to hear a steady drumbeat of blame and negativity coming at our profession from all sides. I would provide a counter-narrative.
But I also planned to watch and learn. My itinerary would take me to China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, The Netherlands, and Russia. I'd soak up every possible thing they were doing to make their systems better than ours and secret those tricks back to the U.S. to share with every teacher I knew. I felt great about my plan, and I was certain it was going to work.
I was not at all prepared for what happened next.
On my very first trip, to China, and on virtually every international trip I took after that, I was met with the following questions from passionate educators just like me: "How do you inspire so much creativity in your American classrooms? How do you get your students to communicate and collaborate so much? How does it feel to have the freedom to design lessons, projects, and curriculums for the children you teach? How do you help so many and so diverse a group of kids every year?"
Everywhere I went, we were the envy of others. They wanted to know about our schools, our classes, what texts we read, what trips we went on. They wanted to know about cooperative learning and makerspaces, art and dance programs, and how our students prepared for college. They also expressed concern about us and how hard we worked in the face of what seemed like insurmountable challenges, such as widespread child poverty and large class sizes. I went in trying to learn from them, and all anyone wanted to talk about was us.
American teachers had been pummeled into believing that the grass is greener everywhere else, that other systems and other countries had successes we could never match, that we somehow were doing it all wrong and were to blame for everything.
This was not true—and it still isn't.

Figure

el201806_mieliwocki_fig1.jpg
2012 National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki teaches a room of 7th graders in California in 2011. With decades of experience behind her, Mieliwocki's advice to stressed-out teachers is to always remember the passion they feel for their job and their students.
Photo credit: Andy Holzman/LA Daily News

Beyond the Echo Chamber

In my travels outside the United States, I got to see that our own grass is a unique and highly coveted shade of green all its own. Our schools are seen as inspiring, consummately capable, and extremely altruistic for attempting to educate all children no matter their circumstances. We—our teachers, our schools, our ideals, and our hard work—are the envy of everyone else. I think it's important that my education colleagues know this. This knowledge, more than anything else, helped steel and inspire me for the work that lay ahead when I returned to my classroom.
Six years later, here in 2018, things feel very different for educators. Two related things have happened in the intervening years that have been absolute game changers when it comes to the narratives swirling around teachers and education. The information age expanded its reach, and social media has allowed us to connect more easily and see and hear about one another's work.
In 2012, other people and other players were telling the story of public education. The anti-Common Core movement was gathering steam, and in post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans, the entire school system was handed over to a charter concern in a great experiment that could have effectively put a nail in the coffin for public education. The narratives were predominantly negative, and their purpose was to weaken public education or possibly create a perceived crisis that for-profit players and privatizers could use to their financial advantage. Absent from virtually all of the pivotal conversations being had was teacher voice. We simply were not allowed to decide our fate. There was no real way to combat this or compete with the prevailing narratives, because the news about successes or gains being seen in schools across the country could rarely make it past those schools' own city limits. If we had any voice at all, it was small compared to the louder, larger, more organized entities.
That changed mightily as more and more of us gained access to the platforms of modern media and communication. Today, armed with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other tools, we not only have quick, easy access to accurate information about the state of our schools, we all can help to control the narrative of our experiences in education. Schools are sending out steady streams of information about their successes, the opportunities they provide for kids, and the challenges they face. Parents and the public can see for themselves what's really happening in schools. They can see in real time the great work being done by everyone in the system, how teachers and administrators are addressing their school's unique challenges, and how they are providing opportunities and enrichment for kids.
Teachers have grabbed the reins of the debate to debunk skewed information with proactive, informed, and collaborative Twitter feeds and chats like #edchat, #tlap, and #satchat. There are exceptional teacher leaders whose Twitter feeds draw thousands for inspiration and guidance, such as George Couros, Pernille Ripp, or Larry Ferlazzo. Teachers build and sustain websites for their classrooms that are full of rich content. They publish student work on YouTube, Teen Ink, Etsy, and other authentic spaces that are seen by people outside education circles. They network furiously in digital spaces, building communities of support and practice that have strengthened our profession. In addition, more Americans are aware of teachers' struggles for resources, and how time-consuming, challenging, and exceptional our work is.

Advice for Staying Afloat

Even though society's attitudes about teachers and teaching have softened, the reality is that it's still pretty hairy out there. The job of the present-day teacher is nearly unrecognizable to the role I filled when I began in 1995. I am a coach and facilitator. I work with tools that didn't exist then (supercomputers in the palms of our hands). I teach roughly three different lesson plans per period to differentiate for the diverse learners in the room. The time I spend communicating with other colleagues, students, and parents has exploded. The sun may go down, but the work is never, ever done.
Teaching and leading in education is one of the toughest things you can undertake. No matter how good you are at your job, each of us can suffer from some form of deep-fried distress that crisps us around the edges. If not addressed intentionally and seriously, it can threaten to burn us through.
There are whole volumes written on how to avoid teacher burnout, and many of them contain smart tips for how to keep ourselves humming along in our jobs. You know the basic points: don't take work home, give people the benefit of the doubt because they're doing the best they can, only touch student papers once, and hang out with marigold teachers, not walnut trees (that gem comes from Jennifer Gonzales's Cult of Pedagogy website. You're following her, right?).
You know and hopefully do these things daily. However, I'd like to share a few more personal stories about how I've managed to stay sane, alive, and well in this profession. Maybe I had these beliefs as a newbie entering teaching, or maybe they've come from 20 years spent doing the work. Whichever it is, I now see how vital they are to keeping me afloat.
Fall in love and stay in love. You became a teacher because something about it called to you. Whether it was the kids, the kind of work you get to do, or the nobler aspects like influencing the future and changing the world for the better. For me, it was to pay forward the incredible classroom experiences I was given as a child. I entered the classroom wanting to do for my own students what had been done for me. As the world and the nature of work changed, it became imperative for me to figure out how to craft a classroom where they could imagine, create, debate, think, and grow so they could be ready for jobs that don't even exist yet. It takes everything I have to build this kind of learning space for kids. Every day is a challenge, but it is work worth doing. I am in love with it.
Trust your gut. The teachers we remember were memorable for a reason. The science teacher who presented chemical reactions as if she was a magician performing tricks. The history teacher who wrote silly songs about key events all while strumming along on his guitar. The principal with genuinely caring interpersonal bonds with kids. They followed their instincts about what makes class lively and important for kids.
You need to do the same. In a sea of average teachers, you need to be uniquely you. Be different. Be creative. Take risks. Have fun. The best resource for learning to be this kind of inspired, slightly crazy educator is Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate (Dave Burgess Consulting, 2012). My favorite line is on page 9: "Light yourself on fire with excitement for what you're doing, and people will come from miles around just to watch you burn." Being this kind of teacher is the very best antidote for burnout that I've ever found.
Tell the story of your work. A whole lot of wonderful is happening inside our classrooms every single day. At the heart of it is you and your students. The work you do to help them find their path to greatness—the joy, the laughter, the struggles, the tears—deserves to be known outside the walls of your classroom. Whether you start a student-led Twitter feed for your class, or a blog that goes out to parents weekly, find an outlet for that story and tell a little bit of it every day.
Practice positive self-talk. When the turkeys are trying to get you down, you have to practice positive self-talk because it's too easy to start believing the naysayers. If you're given 10 compliments and one tiny suggestion for improvement, guess what you will perseverate on? Yep, the negative. So, it's vital that you get inside your own head and shout down the Negative Nellie that's renting space there.
Here's what you ask yourself: Is there anyone working harder than you are right now? Is there anyone who cares more about the work you're doing or how it's going right now than you? Do you seek out answers or guidance when you don't know the answer to something? Is there anyone out there who could possibly be doing better? Once you've answered those questions (here's the answer key: no, no, yes, no!) you remind yourself that you are the very best person for the work and you are doing the best job you possibly can. Take a deep breath and tell that mean voice inside your head to shove off once and for all.
Create "you" time. Amazing teachers take on too much. We say "yes" too often. We're allergic to the word "no." I can't iron that wrinkle out of you, but I will offer a piece of advice. Keep one thing, just one, that you do just for you. If it's running, keep running. Quilting? Wood working? Travel? Keep doing it. You must continue to do the things that make you a well-rounded, interesting person to learn from.
The best teachers have interesting lives and unique perspectives. They don't get that way by working 24–7. They get that way by balancing work and play. To be great at your work, you've also got to be great at play. Put the plan book down, shut off your computer, and go be you.

Rebecca Mieliwocki has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She is currently a teacher on special assignment with the Burbank Unified School District, where she coordinates secondary professional development and new teacher induction and oversees secondary-level instructional leadership teams.

Mieliwocki holds a bachelor of arts in speech communication from California Polytechnic State University and a master's degree in secondary English curriculum and instruction from the California State University, Northridge. She is the 2005 California League of Middle Schools Educator of the Year for Southern California and a 2009 and 2013 PTA Honorary Service Award Recipient. 

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