My high school science teacher, Mr. Lovelady, was the first educator to help me understand my potential. It was the first time I realized that I genuinely loved science and was capable of learning and excelling at tough material. Mr. Lovelady believed in me and it helped me to start to believe in myself. He set a high bar for education, advocating for the future of each of his students and writing grant proposals to bring the latest innovations in science into the classroom with the idea that no technology was too good for his students. Ours was a public high school and the education I got in that class far exceeded that of the science classes I would take in college. I believe in the power of public education. I believe in the power of an education system that helps every student, regardless of their background, understand their value.
So when I met and got to know Ms. Mika Twietmeyer over the years at my yoga studio I loved hearing that she was a high school science teacher at a local public high school, Riverside in Durham, North Carolina. I began to learn about the state of public education in North Carolina. With few resources, constant political attacks, and the challenges of serving students in poor communities, being a teacher in North Carolina is a kind of public service like no other. Reminiscent to the Peace Corps, except it is a career path.
Teaching science is only one part of her work. She spends enormous amount of time advocating for public education, meeting with elected officials, working with communities, demonstrating to people the value of the work teachers do.
So Mika would show up for yoga to recharge in various states of fatigue, anger, and exhilaration from her battles. We would hear about more attacks on teachers, more attacks on funding and see Mika show up day in and day out and continue her fight.
I came to see her as a sort of Heroine of Public Education. Courageously, and indefatigably fighting for what’s right no matter what is thrown her way. Always kind, always humble but no less yielding.
So I got to sit down with her and learn more about what she has been fighting for. Since the start of the summer she has driven 8 hours to visit a student of hers in Stewart Detention Center apprehended in January of 2016 by ICE, one semester before graduating (her open letter to President Obama was published here). He has been at the detention center for more than 6 months now.
She has marched 23 miles to the State Capitol with 50 educators, parents, students and community leaders to demand that Governor Pat McCrory do more for education. In April she helped organize a week-long set of activities to highlight the value and needs of public education, inviting community members into the local schools, having teachers grade papers in public places (see photo below of "Grade In") and drawing awareness to the need for more resources in public education. She has to bravely stand her ground when school officials push back against her activism.
Mika is entering her 9th year as an educator and I was really curious how she does it day after day in spite of the fact that each year there are less resources and more challenges.
She responded that her students inspire her. She explained to me that her students know that there are not enough resources, not enough school buses, that teachers are leaving. It makes her angry. She feels strongly that students should not be used to not having enough resources.
When she is at school she is entirely with the students. She sees it as part of her job to bring positivity to her school building. Help keep morale high among the students and her fellow teachers.
Then, outside of school, she channels her anger into activism and writing in the form of letters to the editor. She recharges through staying active and healthy and by surrounding herself with others who are advocating for change. AND by the support and encouragement she gets from friends, supporters, and community members for her heroic work.
AND I should mention here that her and her gang of educator/activists have won a fair number of victories for education. School workers such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers were able to secure a 3% raise. Teachers were able to successfully block a policy that would coerce teachers into forgoing tenure to receive a raise. A free speech clause was passed through the school board to protect the free speech of teachers.
It struck me what she said about students knowing that there are not enough resources. That perhaps the greatest gift from my public education was learning that if I apply myself that I can achieve great things. That I have value. That lesson affects the rest of your life. Every student deserves that lesson.
Thank you to Mika Twietmeyer, Skip Lovelady and all the other wonderful teachers out there for your heroic work to help students realize their value in this world.
Follow Mika's activism on Twitter or Instagram @mikajhunter
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Riding Jacket is a blog series profiling courageous women who are changing the world.