Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a 23 year veteran middle school English teacher. She is the author of Adventures in Teacher Leadership: Pathways, Strategies, and Inspiration for Every Teacher from ASCD and the founder of Girlfriends for Good. She is currently on special assignment with Burbank Unified School District coordinating new teacher induction and secondary educator development. She is happily married, the mom to a terrific college freshman and an adorable puppy. She loves running, reading, and traveling but not necessarily in that order.
We talk with Rebecca about the mastermind groups she started at schools in her district, how these groups have sparked great ideas & projects, and how they have transformed the learning opportunities for students across the district.
“It has transformed both learning opportunities for kids across the city. They have had more fun, more exciting ways to learn, more learning happen. I've also seen those 40 to 60 teachers become alive again..”
— Rebecca Mieliwocki
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Rebecca Mieliwocki. Rebecca is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a 23 year veteran middle school English teacher. She is the author of Adventures in Teacher Leadership: Pathways, Strategies and Inspiration for Every Teacher, from ASCD. And the founder of Girlfriends for Good. She is currently on special assignment with Burbank Unified School District, coordinating new teacher induction and secondary educator development.
- John: She is happily married, the mom to a terrific college freshmen and an adorable puppy. She loves running, reading and traveling, but not necessarily in that order. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Rebecca Mieliwocki.
- John: All right, we are so excited to have Rebecca Mieliwocki on the CharacterStrong podcast with us today. How are you doing today?
- Rebecca: I am great. How are you?
- John: I am excellent and we are so honored to have you with us. You have quite an impressive resume. And what I mean by that more than anything else, is someone who is passionate about the work, who has been in the work, is leading in the work, and you're a thought leader and you're just doing awesome things. And so we're big believers in cut the fluff, get right to this stuff. So let's get to the stuff today and that is-
- Rebecca: Let's do it.
- John: ... talk to me about the work you're doing in your district around this mastermind group for teachers. That sounds really intriguing.
- Rebecca: Yeah. It is intriguing. So I'm a big fan of Jennifer Gonzales's Cult of Pedagogy blog, and she did an article and interviewed somebody from industry who had started a mastermind group for his job in industry. It was all about how he was isolated and sort of siloed in his office, and he didn't have access to creative people with his job title. So he formed this group, and they met once a month over drinks, to talk about the problems of their practice and to brainstorm and to do some blue sky thinking. And so Jen wrote about how, what an amazing idea that would be if we brought it to schools. The minute I read it I said, "I have to do this. This is something I would have wanted." And so that's my job now, is to do for teachers in Burbank what I always wanted myself.
- Rebecca: So I immediately formed a group at every middle school. We have three middle schools in Burbank. Basically the way it works, is you have eight to 10 teachers that you have identified yourself as being crazy for kids, crazy for teaching, they have the enthusiasm, the innovative bug, and the desire to get better constantly. These are people who are confident that they can be a great teacher, but humble enough to say, "I don't know at all. I always love a good idea. I learn from every teacher I meet. I want to work on the edge of my craft."
- Rebecca: So we get together, we talk about what a mastermind group is and what it isn't. And what it is, is a place for you to be safe, to share your craziest ideas and ask for help. What it isn't, is a place to gripe or complain, or to be cynical, or to be angry and to really engage in toxic behaviors that can happen in education.
- Rebecca: So cut to, I'm in year four, our three middle school groups are going gangbusters. They have done ... I mean first of all, they blew my mind in what we accomplished. In the three years we've been together, we've done no less than probably 40 projects. A project can be something as small as, "I am a teacher who is afraid to have a student-centered classroom because I am a control freak and I'm worried that if I let go they won't learn." That idea comes to a mastermind group and gets turned into, "Here are six safe ways to release control and hand it over to kids." From a poster project that they collaborate in, on to a bulletin board idea for starting your novel study, to four corner pop up debates.
- Rebecca: So we took a teacher who was very traditional and made her very nontraditional, all the way to a Pi Day. A whole campus, school wide, eight station rotation, investigation into math and a pie-themed mathematical event. We had 400 pies donated. We had 200 parent volunteers throughout the day. All 2000 kids went through these stations and it was ... I'm telling you, I couldn't have imagined that we could pull off something like that. And by the way, the teacher whose idea that was was a year one teacher.
- John: That is awesome.
- Rebecca: First year teacher.
- Rebecca: So I mean we've done cross content collaborations, we've done community-based learning. We just had the city planner and the transportation director come sit with a sixth grade class, in engineering and a kind of a makerspace class, to talk about the feasibility of creating really fun, functional bike pathways in our city. So these little 11 year olds got to ask questions of the big bosses like, "What is a curb cut and how much does it cost? How the striping that we see over in Venice, California, if we had that here, how much would it cost? How long would it take to do? Could we do it?"
- Rebecca: I mean, I just cannot believe the things that we've accomplished. So I of course went, "If this is great for middle schools, it's going to be great for high schools." And I'll be really honest with you, I am just launching high schools. We are in month three. August, September, October. We invited 10 at each circle and we've gotten maybe four. Four to five at each meeting. It's always the same people who come, but your initial crew is the eight to 10 you start with. I've only been able to get about five to six teachers to come regularly to the high school meeting, and we're experiencing just little bit of a different launch than with the middle school.
- Rebecca: So my mastermind project for myself, is really unlock what's happening at high school. How can I make a space where a high school teacher, who's all about their content and feels enormous pressure to get through it and to make sure kids are college ready or career ready and can pass whatever test is before them, how do I make them understand that a mastermind group is indeed for them,? that there is a space for them to talk about how to re-skill themselves.
- Rebecca: I'm thinking if you're an AP lit teacher who has so much to do with kids, yeah, you could just lecture all day and kill them with PowerPoint. Or you could mix up your teaching and do more station rotations, you could do more flipping. And the only place where they'll get the time and the safe ears just to ask about that, share that with, is in a mastermind group. Because you know what happens when you get in a department meeting, "Oh, we did that before. Oh, we can't do that. Oh, we tried that once."
- John: And they're breaking one of the rules when they do that, of a mastermind group, which is we can't complain.
“...the way it works, is you have eight to 10 teachers that you have identified yourself as being crazy for kids, crazy for teaching, they have the enthusiasm, the innovative bug, and the desire to get better constantly. These are people who are confident that they can be a great teacher, but humble enough to say, "I don't know at all. I always love a good idea. I learn from every teacher I meet. I want to work on the edge of my craft.”
— Rebecca Mieliwocki
- Rebecca: That's right.
- John: It's about sharing ideas.
- Rebecca: We're not complaining. It's about what we can.
- Rebecca: Yeah, so I am thrilled with this. It has transformed both learning opportunities for kids across the city. They have had more fun, more exciting ways to learn, more learning happen. I've also seen those 40 to 60 teachers become alive again. They are on fire. They meet without me. I have a formal meeting with them once a month, but they're meeting on their own all the time. They have remade their entire curriculum. They've changed their whole classroom.
- Rebecca: And one of the middle school groups is going so gangbusters. They, their mastermind project for our group this year, is we need a second group. If it's good for this 10 people, it's good for another 10 on this campus. So what we've done is we've identified a strong, innovative teacher who wasn't in the original circle, and he has joined us for our meetings this semester, and he is going to break away and launch a second group. So we will have 20 of 40 middle school teachers participating actively in mastermind groups at one of the schools. And then of course next year we'll spread to elementary and see how that goes.
- John: That is awesome. That is so powerful. I've been taking notes here as we've been talking, and you've left us with a lot already, but let me zero in, the last couple of things as we even close down this shorter podcast.
- John: One, reminder again, even though you started to talk about it there, but literally it looks like what in action? Like once a month? What's it like? How do you meet? When do you meet? Just give me the practical.
- Rebecca: It's once a month after school. It is eight to 10 hand picked teachers. You can spread it to more later, but it's got to be small so that every teacher feels seen, heard and worked with. So it's got to be small.
- Rebecca: I always bring snacks. As a matter of fact, these things are going so gangbusters, I took a list of our projects with some pictures to my local credit union and I said, "Can you sponsor the snacks for these meetings? Because it's breaking my bank." But it is transforming our district and they are affiliated with our district, so they said yes.
- Rebecca: So you always bring snacks, you meet for one hour, no more. If people want to linger they can, but people are doing this of their own accord. They're doing it after work when they're tired, but it is so exhilarating they stay. And then I keep a Google Classroom where I put the notes from all of our meetings.
- Rebecca: I always come as a facilitator. I always come with news of the world. Sometimes a mastermind group, everybody's kind of jamming and nobody has any news to report or a challenge in front of them, and so I'll bring something that I've learned from my travels around the country or from research I'm doing, and I'll always have something to share just in case the team is kind of, doesn't have a ton on the dock that day.
- Rebecca: You meet all year, and at the end of the year you try to get all of your mastermind groups together. Typically at a brew pub or someplace fun, Starbucks. You relax and everybody shares what they've done. I'm telling you, I've never seen anything like it. It's the cure for what ails so many of us great teachers who are like, "Who are my people? Where are they? I wish I could just hang with that crew and be inspired on the daily." And that's what a mastermind group is.
- John: I love it. I love it. Three things personally that have really stood out in this conversation. One, the idea that mindset is key, and even in the selecting of the right people for the mastermind, if you just threw anybody in there, it may not obviously be getting the same results, and may also be that unlocking piece of the high school level of that mindset and even understanding the value in it. But what happens when that mindset is locked in and solid and positive?
- John: Another one is the idea that experts are right in our own building, and if we had a way of bringing those people together so that they can learn from each other, some really cool, powerful things could happen. I think the thing that probably most stood out to me in this conversation was when you said that teachers are becoming alive again, and if we had teachers who are on fire, reminding them why they do what they do, being innovative, finding a new way to do something. I don't know if there's something that's going to have greater impact because we know that the greatest impact comes from what's happening from that teacher to student level.
- John: And so thank you, Rebecca, for the work you're doing. You can hear it in your own voice, how excited you are because it's actually working and getting people fired up. So how could you not be? And so to end today, how can people connect with you to learn more?
- Rebecca: So I'm really active on Twitter, so you can find me @MrsMieliwocki, and the of my last name is M as in Mary, I-E-L-I-W-O-C-K-I. I also wrote a book called Adventures in Teacher Leadership, available through ASCD on their website. You can go find out more about teacher leaders who do the work like I've described today that I'm doing. You can also email me at [email protected] Can you tell him in English teacher? Spelling always counts.
- John: Love it.
- Rebecca: [email protected] And I would love to connect with anybody who wants to start a mastermind group or just get a list of 30 amazing projects that you could do tomorrow on your school site.
- John: I love it. And I don't know, maybe a followup from this, it'd be fun to do a webinar with you to have you talk about that, to be able to share, maybe even have a teacher that has participated in that because I think obviously, as I'm sure that you would agree, there'd be a lot of people that would be very interested in this and how to do it, and to spread that would be a great joy for us.
- John: So thank you for taking the time to be with us today and I look forward to following up with you on that, to see if there might be a chance to dig deeper into this wonderful idea.
- Rebecca: I love it. Let's keep talking.
- John: Awesome. Thank you very much. Make it a great day.
- John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.
If you enjoyed this episode, please rate review and subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, & Google Play and also please feel free to share this page on social media
The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.