Rebecca Mieliwocki, a 7th-grade English teacher in California's Luther Burbank Middle School, got an exciting message in early March: She had been chosen to be 2012's National Teacher of the Year.
But she had to keep it to herself. She couldn’t even tell her son until two weeks ago. "I had to keep it extremely under wraps," she says.
On Monday, the Council of Chief State School Officers, which organizes the competition, broke Mieliwocki's news to the world with an announcement early in the day. A few hours later, Mieliwocki joined the Teacher of the Year finalists at a reception with Jill Biden.
Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, greeted the 62nd annual National Teacher of the Year finalists Monday in the Vice President's Residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.
Biden, who teaches at a community college, began her address by reflecting on her life as an instructor and public servant. After the election, she said, "I said to Joe, 'I'm going to continue to teach because I have to do what I love.'" So four days after the inauguration, she said, "I was in the classroom."
The finalists will meet with President Barack Obama in the White House Tuesday. "Tomorrow when you're at the White House, I will be in the classroom," Biden said.
This is the fourth year Biden has hosted the finalists of the competition. "I want to say thank you for all that you do, because you are the best of the best," Biden said.
Mieliwocki took a slightly different perspective. "I'm not the best teacher in America," Mieliwocki said in an interview. "I'm one of so many."
Biden told the teachers about Joining Forces, an initiative she's spearheading with Michelle Obama that aims to raise awareness of military families. Biden's stepson, Beau, spent a year deployed in Iraq. His daughter, Natalie, was 4 years old at the time.
Natalie's teacher, Biden said, hung a picture of Beau above the classroom door, "so that every day all the kids that walked in and out of the classroom would know that Natalie's daddy is fighting a war." Natalie's teacher's sensitivity, Biden said, meant a lot to the family.
When visiting Iraq, though, Biden found a different story. A general told her about a girl in his daughter's class who broke into tears when the school played "Ave Maria" during the Christmas play. When the teacher asked why she was crying, the girl responded, "That's the song they played at my daddy's funeral." The teacher was shocked. She didn’t even know the girl was a military child.
Biden said the episode made her think that, "as educators, we can do better." That's why, as part of Joining Forces, she and Obama are working with schools that prepare teachers to include a unit on military families in their curricula.
Following Biden's speech, the teachers lined up to greet Biden and take pictures. "Just tell me something about you," Biden said.
Mieliwocki, who has been teaching for 14 years, said she wanted to thank Biden for representing teachers at the national level. "I'm so proud of her for putting a strong, beautiful, feminine face on teachers," she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated that Mieliwocki teaches at Luther Burbank High School. She teaches at Luther Burbank Middle School.