Grace and joy go hand in hand

2013-14 TCTA President Grace Mueller finds the fun in teaching

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2013

“Grace,” the name chosen by her parents — her father being a Lutheran pastor — is definitely befitting TCTA’s 2013-14 statewide president Grace Mueller. But “joy” is the word that comes to mind again and again when she talks about her work and her students, her family and home, or just about anything else in her life.

Whether she’s welcoming family and friends onto the back porch of her home on Lake McQueeney near Seguin or chatting about the hottest new book for young adults with one of her eighth-grade students, Mueller (pronounced Miller, like the name of the middle school where she teaches), seeks out opportunities to connect with other people and to just plain have fun.

The joy in teaching

Mueller has taught in San Marcos CISD for 28 years — her entire teaching career — all at the middle-school level. “People say I’m crazy for that, but I say, ‘Oh, you have no idea. It keeps me young and makes me laugh,” she says.

To her, joy in the classroom is a must. “With teaching, you have to enjoy kids. Part of the fun is what they do and say,” she says. “When you stop having fun, you have to evaluate what’s going on — whether you’re burned out and need to try something else or just a different position within the school. But you can’t teach and not enjoy it; it just doesn’t work. The kids can tell. They’re very perceptive.”

Mueller’s first goal as an educator is to connect with her students. “If I can develop relationships with students, and they feel safe and respected in the classroom, then the content goes with it. They’re more open to it,” she says. “If they feel animosity, they shut down no matter how interesting it can be.”

The challenge of exciting eighth-graders

While the first 19 years of her career were in special education, Mueller now teaches English/language arts: one AP class, a co-teach class and a regular academic class. She also teaches journalism and has served as the English department chair for her campus for the past nine years.

On top of her teaching duties, Mueller is her school’s yearbook and National Junior Honor Society sponsor. With that workload, it’s no surprise Mueller gets to school by 7 a.m. each day. But she says it’s the challenge, not her long list of to-dos, that motivates her to jump out of bed so early.

“Challenges fire me up,” she says. “If something’s not working right or a kid’s not doing well on an assignment, that just makes me dig in a little deeper, reevaluate and say ‘What do I need to do next?’”

Her biggest challenge, she says, is getting her students excited about learning. One way she does that is by making an effort to find out what interests her students.

“If you can find their interest, then you can grab them,” she says. “It is a challenge, especially when they walk in saying, ‘I don’t read. I have never read a book before, and you can’t make me read.’ But I can usually get most kids motivated to learn.”

Mueller is able to find just the right book for each student because she is a voracious reader of teen books herself. “I kind of get bored with adult books now because I have so much fun with young adult literature,” she says. “I have an extensive classroom library because our school library can’t always keep up with the new books. … I do spend a lot of money buying books, but I read them, then the kids check them out. They say, ‘You’ve got the best library, Ms. Mueller!’ The trick is finding ones for those struggling readers.”

The value of collaboration

Mueller also values her connections with colleagues. Several years ago, she worked with a fellow teacher to co-author a curriculum for the San Antonio Memorial Holocaust Museum — a heart-wrenching project that took them four years to complete. (See TCTA's Grace Mueller co-authors Holocaust curriculum.)

But collaboration with colleagues is also part of her daily routine. During their conference periods, she and her fellow English/language arts teachers collaborate to create lesson plans.

“We are not individual teachers anymore. We work together,” she says. “I think that has been one of the most wonderful changes from when I started, when every teacher was their own island and did their own thing. I think the kids benefit from having three or four heads together rather than just one teacher’s ideas. We are different in our styles and delivery but all kids get the best lessons.”

Yet another way Mueller has found collaboration with colleagues rewarding is through her involvement with TCTA. She was invited to join by her mentor teacher during her first year of teaching, and she has been a member — and an advocate for her colleagues — ever since.

The importance of involvement

At TCTA’s Capitol Visit in January 2013, it was clear that President-Elect Mueller was experienced at lobbying legislators. Appointments prescheduled, she went from office to office discussing issues including school funding and testing with lawmakers and their aides.

Advocacy is an important part of a teacher’s job these days, according to Mueller. “Teachers often say, ‘I can’t do this because I’m all consumed with my classroom.’ And yes, it’s true. It’s very difficult to make that time,” she says. “But, we also are notorious for complaining about things that the Legislature does, so everyone has to get the mindset that if you complain, then you need to do something about it. You have to be part of the solution. If all the teachers in Texas advocated for themselves, we would be a pretty powerful force.”

A top concern of Mueller’s is what she calls the “perception and deception” problem. “For some reason, people have the perception that public schools — and teachers — are not doing their jobs,” she explains. “The deception is that it takes only one or two poor-performing school districts to make it generalized to the whole public education system or to all teachers.”

This generalization, she says, has resulted in legislators calling for private school vouchers and other “school choice” options. “Yes, there are a few places where help is needed,” she says, “but public education really is a good process.”

The benefit of being treated as a professional

A side effect of public schools’ “perception and deception” problem is that teachers don’t get the respect they deserve as professionals. Mueller counteracts that by staying actively involved in her professional association.

“Attending any TCTA event, you always feel like you’re the CEO,” she says. “You’re the professional and you know what you’re doing.” She credits the staff, some of whom she’s known for nearly 30 years. “Knowing they’re professional in their own right has given me confidence to trust them with what we [teachers] need to have done.”

Mueller has served TCTA at the statewide level on the Executive Board as Communications/Public Relations Committee chair, Curriculum & Instruction Committee chair and District 13 director. She also is active in the San Marcos local affiliate, having served in roles including president, vice-president/treasurer and faculty representative for 25 years.

“Just being at the conventions would fire me up to where I wanted to do something more,” she says of her progressive involvement with TCTA. “That’s how I got into being a committee member, then committee chair and then onward to being president. I wanted to affect more teachers and more decisions by getting into leadership roles.”

The fun (and work) of the year ahead

In addition to advocating for teachers at a higher level, Mueller says what she looks forward to most about serving as TCTA’s 2013-14 president is that “it’s going to be lots of fun” to visit local affiliates across the state and meet many more Texas educators. Connecting with others is what she does.

But the leader also sees challenges ahead. “We are going to have to work really hard to get our younger teachers involved,” she says. “For some reason many of them think they’re immune to situations in which they might need legal assistance or liability insurance, many of them not realizing they need coverage until it’s too late.” (Read Mueller's summer 2013 President's Message for more information.)

Mueller says TCTA needs younger teachers not only on the membership roll, but also in the association’s volunteer leadership, especially as faculty representatives. “They need to be trained, strong advocates for TCTA. Having that foundation is going to be our success.”

Read Fun facts about Grace Mueller