It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teen or pre-teen in possession of a good mind, must be in want of a master teacher. (With apologies to Jane Austen and her legendary opening line of Pride and Prejudice.) According to Rebecca Mieliwocki, two universally acknowledged truths of teaching are these: First, understand the enormous responsibility that I, as the teacher, have to make sure that students learn — to “push their greatness out of them.” And second, know that the students are human beings — they’re children. The teacher “must come at that with as much love and humanity as possible,” she says.
Jane Austen was part of the literary vanguard for intelligent, creative young women of Britain’s Regency period (and well ahead of her time — unfortunately, she died young before she could enjoy her ultimate fame). Centuries later, Mieliwocki ’95 (Single Subject Teaching Credential), M.A. ’15 (Education) also emits an aura of wisdom and eloquence. When she speaks, middle school students listen. Parents listen. Her fellow teachers listen. Even President Barack Obama listened (and applauded).
In 2012, Mieliwocki, a longtime English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, traveled to the White House to accept the National Teacher of the Year award from then-President Obama. She spoke passionately about her profession and gave shouts out to all finalists for the annual award — all classroom teachers. Not long after, Mieliwocki gave a Commencement address (her first) at her alma mater, California State University, Northridge, to the newly minted graduates of the Michael D. Eisner College of Education. “Fifteen years ago, when I walked off this campus with my credential and into my classroom, that felt like home,” Mieliwocki told her fellow educators and Matadors. “Being in my classroom is home for me. The central truth of my life — and probably yours — is that I am a teacher. It’s my passion, it’s my calling — it’s what I am supposed to be doing. It is a deeply challenging and ultimately so satisfying swirl. “Speaking of swirls, teaching is in many ways the educational and emotional equivalent of whitewater rafting,” she said. “Periods of calm are occasionally interrupted with frantic bursts of turbulence. Boredom mixes with excitement. Beauty and reflection mix with doubt, disappointment and hesitation. Some days you’re going to confidently navigate the treacherous rapids, but others — the entire boat capsizes.
You are going to get tossed and tumbled about by the experience. “That river, well, it spits you out at the end — exhausted, crawling on your hands and knees up that shore, kissing every blessed rock and realizing that you’re so grateful to be alive,” Mieliwocki continued. “You swear to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again!’ But you know what? The next day dawns, and you say, anything that’s really that good or any good at all deserves another go. So you go back to the river. This is teaching. To be more specific, that’s the first DAY of teaching.” After earning the National Teacher of the Year award in 2012 for her exemplary work teaching English at Luther Burbank Middle School, Mieliwocki went on to complete a master’s in education at CSUN. In 2015, the Burbank School District tapped her to teach teachers — in education parlance, she’s called a “teacher on special assignment,” supervising teacher induction at the middle and high school level. When teachers earn their credential from the state of California — including the hundreds each year who earn their credential through CSUN — they receive a “preliminary” teacher credential. They can take a job with a public or private school district, with the stipulation that they “clear” their credential within five years, by completing a school-district induction program.
In this way, new teachers work with experienced mentor teachers to guide them through the rocky and treacherous waters of those first few years in the classroom. “Hiring and growing mentor teachers is my job,” she said. “We have 98 people in the [Burbank] program — about one-third are the mentors, the rest are the new teachers.” Mieliwocki earned her bachelor’s degree in communications. Before she could jump into teaching, she earned her credential at CSUN. Looking back, she praised Bonnie Ericson, her methods professor in the credential program. “She really asked us to think deeply about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it,” Mieliwocki said. “If those are two questions you can hang on to for your whole career — if the answers do not pass muster, you need to rethink what you’re doing. I will never forget that.” CSUN’s Eisner College also stood out for its ability to pair student-teachers with incredible master teachers, she said. “Linda at Poly High (John H. Francis Polytechnic High School) in Sun Valley showed me how to be incredibly tough, but fun-loving,” Mieliwocki said. “My middle-school [mentor] teacher, Daniela Dormizzi, was at Byrd Middle School. Her particular Yoda wisdom for me was, ‘You walk through the door with a particular authority that is yours to give away.
You can be a person of mercy, but you have real work to do.’ I followed the tips and the tricks that she taught me. The professors [CSUN] put in front of us and the teachers they sent me to [as a student-teacher] did a masterful job of teaching and preparing us.” In her CSUN Commencement address, Mieliwocki emphasized the importance of collaboration, support and mentors for the newly minted teachers assembled on the Delmar T. Oviatt Library Lawn: “Whatever you do, once you shove off, you all have to row together — or you’re not going to get anywhere very fast,” Mieliwocki advised the Class of 2012. “Talk to one another. Help your colleagues. Listen to each other. Make each other look good. It helps on this journey if you bring an experienced guide — someone who’s been down this road before. Find them, they’re waiting for you. “See the hope, the pride, the expectation in the faces of the children that you teach,” she said. “Take it in. Marvel at the power and the responsibility that you have as an educator. Each child, each lesson, each day that you spend in the service of educating another human being is your opportunity to change the world — to create the better world we all want to live in, and to form the futures we leave our children, and theirs. This is your life’s work — this is the river you return to.”
Ms. Rood has the full attention of the third-grade class. It’s 9:30 on a sunny, winter Wednesday morning, and the 8- and 9-year-olds are singing at the top of their lungs — singing along to the bouncy, silly soundtrack of a musical. About grammar. “We’re practicing for our big musical performance, to learn about the parts of speech,” says Erica Rood ’15 (M.A., Elementary Curriculum and Instruction). “We’re pirates!” Sitting at short desks, grouped in “pods” of four around the bright classroom, the kids bust into the next song: The Grammar Curse (subject-verb disagreement, shudder!) and fits of giggles ensue around the room. Is grammar … fun? It is in room 16, the domain of Erica Rood and her co-teacher, Ms. LaFirenza.
This is the CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School, a K-8 charter school that serves as a demonstration and teacher-training site for California State University, Northridge. It’s also a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)-affiliated charter school that grew out of CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education in 1990. The school is tucked into a quiet, residential neighborhood above Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills. It occupies a former LAUSD school property across from a historic orange grove. It would be a peaceful, quiet site if it weren’t for the hundreds of young bundles of energy, bounding around the playground, spilling out of the new library space and science lab, and working on projects in the school garden and outdoor classroom — basically, the mini dynamos that are today’s American elementary- and middle-school-aged children.
CHIME is tremendously popular and thus, a very tough place to win a space. For 100 spots (called “seats,” in current K-12 parlance) for the 2016-17 school year, 1,500 people entered the lottery last year — from all over Los Angeles County and beyond. More on that later. For all of the local, state and national accolades this school has earned — and there have been many — Rood is the young teacher who has danced and hopped her way to national recognition. On Aug. 22, 2016, then-President Barack Obama named one elementary teacher from the state of California as the science recipient for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching: Erica Rood. Also a part-time faculty member in CSUN’s Department of Elementary Education, she has taught third grade at CHIME for nine years. At just 33, Rood is already a star in the classroom. “I’m a girl with some ambition,” she says. “[And] teaching kids is my hobby. It excites me. It relaxes me. It’s my life. And I am a born teacher.” White House-Worthy On Sept. 8, 2016, she visited the White House to accept the award from the outgoing president. “I was just overwhelmed,” Rood says. “Just overwhelmed. I was so excited to be receiving an award for something I’m very passionate about. It’s such an important thing to teach kids, and I was really ecstatic to be making news about science.” What sets her apart from other teachers, says CHIME Executive Director Erin Studer, are the methods Rood uses to reach her students.
Though she is a general education teacher, she has a strong passion for science and has combined her other passions — theater and dance — to help students get a better understanding and joy from the complicated subject. “She’s a renaissance teacher in so many ways,” Studer says. “She uses all her talents in her lessons. I think that’s what makes her such a gifted teacher. She sees all the connections.” The process for the presidential award began in 2013 when Wendy Murawski, executive director and Eisner Endowed Chair of CSUN’s Center for Teaching and Learning, nominated Rood for the honor. (Rood had taught Murawski’s son.) Rood had to submit a 30-page paper explaining her background and a video of one of her lessons, with a written reflection of that lesson. In the video, Rood explained the difference between soil and dirt, and how plants use dirt and soil to survive. She dressed up in a lab coat with goggles and had her students incorporate poetry and art. Rood, who has a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, says it was a typical way that she reaches her students. Studer vouches for that. “Erica has such a knowledge of how a well-run classroom should work, how to capture students’ attention with routines and songs,” he says. “It’s kind of a theatrical masterpiece how she orchestrates the running of a classroom, because it’s such a well-designed learning environment. Kids are ready and present to engage.”
These methods set her apart. But like most teachers in the U.S. — and in many nations around the world — Rood rises at 5:30 a.m., dresses, commutes to her school and stands, ready to greet her students with a smile by 8:30 a.m. (Without coffee!) Nope; there’s no coffee mug on this teacher’s desk. She’s devoted to her water bottle and is very health conscious. Rood dances ballet in her free time as a release from the busy, physically taxing job of classroom teaching. During a brief visit to her classroom, the objects and details that stand out are the colorful, attractive bulletin boards — a real tangible skill, as any veteran primary school teacher will attest — and the artwork by her students. This winter, in science, the third-graders were learning about climates around the world, temperature and weather. In math, they were tackling fractions, numerators and denominators. Matador Pride Rood elicits pride and admiration among the faculty and staff at CSUN’s Eisner College of Education, and the feeling is mutual. CSUN helped her make and sustain an immediate impact in the classroom, Rood says. She was part of the CSUN Elementary STEM Master’s Degree Program — a partnership with NASA and Teachers College at Columbia University focused on science, technology, engineering and math education. “CSUN is unique, in the sense that no one else was offering the program,” Rood says. “Just by offering the option, it found a pulse in my heart I felt strongly about.
“The faculty at CSUN have been so wonderful, to help me grow, to mentor me through the application and have been so supportive of increasing the professional development with graduates and faculty members,” she adds. “All my teaching philosophies have come from [CSUN’s education] program. They’re good about sharing best practices in the classroom.” At CHIME, Rood also has served as a coordinator for Odyssey of the Mind, a critical-thinking and problem-solving competition that involves students from across the country and around the world. She is a teacher-consultant for the Writing Project, a statewide effort to improve student writing and learning by improving the teaching of writing, and a participant in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Elevation and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching initiative. “We here in the Eisner College are dedicated to six core principles, one of which is that we prepare ethical and caring professionals,” says Michael Spagna, dean of the Eisner College. “Erica is an example of an ethical and caring professional who is obviously a very, very good teacher. We hold her up as an example for others. “Erica really embodies both the CHIME philosophy and the connections we have here at the College of Education with CHIME,” he says. “She represents a caring adult who is knowledgeable about child development and takes on as a personal responsibility the welfare of all children.”