GWEN IFILL: Now, to another of our American Graduate reports.
This week, the NewsHour is offering a series of stories and interviews about the nation's high school dropout crisis.
Ray Suarez talks with the nation's top teacher.
RAY SUAREZ: How do you engage children, reduce the chances they will drop out and increase their chances of success?
Tonight, we put some of those questions to the Council of Chief State School Officers' 2012 teacher of the year, Rebecca Mieliwocki. She joins me now from Burbank, California, where she teaches seventh grade English at Luther Burbank Middle School.
And, Rebecca, is this something you can feel yourself getting better at the longer you do it? Do you know when you're finally getting it in the classroom?
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI, 2012 Teacher of the Year: Oh. Oh, absolutely.
That's one of the brilliant things about this career is the learning curve is enormous. You start out, and it's such a struggle and you really feel like you're finding your way every day.
And at the end of the day, you know 100 percent more than you knew at the start, and at the end of the year the feeling of accomplishment is tremendous, but the sense also that you learned so much in that year that you will directly apply to September, when that year starts anew.
And that just builds on itself. So about five years in, you start to hit your stride and feel really confident about what you do. And I have been at it 15 years now and I know two things. I'm far better than I was when I started and I have a lot still to learn.
But, yes, I feel like I'm finally getting ahold of this interesting, fascinating thing I do called teaching.
RAY SUAREZ: I have heard teachers talk about middle school-ers as being particularly tough to teach. What's going on in kids these age intellectually, physically, socially that makes them a tough group?
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: Oh, my gosh.
They're a party coming and going. I can't imagine a funner—funner? A teacher said funner—a more fun group of kids to teach. They have so much just native energy and enthusiasm about the world around them.
They live in such a media-rich and digitally-rich and experience-rich environments now that it's—it's made my job in some ways easier because what they bring into the classroom is really complex and interesting.
And it's my job to kind of harness that energy and that enthusiasm and direct it toward the things that I need them to learn as far as being 21st century communicators and thinkers and problem-solvers.
RAY SUAREZ: You often hear that teachers can tell who's going to have trouble in high school early on, in the earlier grades. Do you agree with that? And is there anything else teachers can be doing in those early grades to help those kids out?
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: I think what the best teachers are, are seekers.
We are given a family's child to teach. We're given their most precious resource, their child.
And our job is to send them out better than when they walk through the door. And better doesn't necessarily mean that they can ace a standardized test.
Better means that I have seen deep within each child what his or her unique potential is.
And so great teachers give assignments that are seeking to find that resource within each child. So, we will give activities that require, you know, debating skills one day.
And the next day, it will be a research skill, and the next day it will be artistic or musical because we're looking for what each child's native talent and capacity is, so that we can provide the education that that child needs and help him or her find her best path to success.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned standardized testing.
They're a big part of the debate over education right now. Well, you're the teacher of the year. If I looked at the results of standardized tests from your students, could I tell? Is there something measurable in numbers about what you're doing in a classroom?
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: Well, you know what? The numbers tell a picture. They—the numbers tell a story, but it's part of the story.
It's like that beginning or just the middle or just the end. It definitely doesn't tell you the whole of what great teachers do with kids.
It would be like going to the doctor and having your temperature taken, and the temperature telling us everything we need to know about you. It doesn't.
It gives us one number on one day, and it tells us your health and wellness at that one moment. But it's not really that useful a piece of information taken in isolation.
You know, if you looked at my test scores, I have taught every kind of kid imaginable. I have had gifted and talented. I have had English learners. I have had students who have special needs who have been mainstreamed.
And if you look at their test scores, you will just see a whole host of numbers and information that tell you, with some kids, I'm enormously effective just based numerically on their test scores.
You will see other kids, maybe the gifted or talented kids, who very often are already at the peak of their academic performance and maybe come down a little bit.
But what I have done with those kids and for kids really can't be measured on such a narrow set of questions and information and parameters. That doesn't show you the whole picture of me and it certainly doesn't show you the whole of each child.
RAY SUAREZ: Well you have been teaching 15 years, and you say you're really getting good at it now.
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: I hope so.
RAY SUAREZ: But are there things that you know how to do, things that you have learned, tips, techniques that other people...
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: Yes. Oh, absolutely.
RAY SUAREZ: ... don't have to learn by doing, that can make it out of your classroom and into other English classrooms without them having to wait 15 years?
Is there a way to get what you have learned into other classrooms?
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: Well, you know what?
Those core components of what teachers who have been teaching one year or five years or 25 years have are just such an infectious enthusiasm for children right from the get-go, is you have got to love kids with all your heart.
You have got to love your subject matter with all your heart. You have to be flexible about how best to teach kids and really be open to new ideas.
And if you have taught something one way, and it didn't get through to six or seven kids, then teach it a second different way.
And if that way didn't get through to a few kids, then put somebody else in charge of the learning. Let peers teach the kids what they have learned. And if that doesn't work, change the child's actual location.
Move them to a different teacher, another whole person. There are so many things you can do to really help kids learn. And that kind of flexibility and that nimbleness in the classroom are something new teachers I hope are coming into the classrooms with.
RAY SUAREZ: Rebecca Mieliwocki, congratulations. Thanks for joining us.
REBECCA MIELIWOCKI: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
GWEN IFILL: Our next American Graduate story looks at the growing pains for North Dakota schools brought on by the oil boom.
And you can find more stories on the dropout crisis on our website.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.