Addressing each student’s unique needs is her calling

Drop by Holly Mickler’s classroom at Pasco Middle School in Dade City, and ask her students a few questions about their teacher, and you’ll hear some interesting answers.

Does she truly deserve to be Pasco County Schools’ teacher of the year?


The class emphatically responds.

How would you describe her to someone who doesn’t know her?

First, they offer succinct responses: Wonderful. Amazing. Funny. Hardworking.

Then, they begin to elaborate.

“She wants the best for her students,” one says.

“She’s like your school mom,” says another.

Holly Mickler, Pasco County Schools’ teacher of the year, helps her students prepare for college and life. (B.C. Manion)

“She’s not only there for her students, but she’s there for her students’ families. My dad was sick, and she and the tutors brought over food for us,” still another responds.

“I had a problem with a different teacher, and she was the first one that I went to about it,” another student says, with appreciation.

“When I was in the hospital, she actually took the time to get my work from my other teachers and give it to me,” another shares.

It sounds like Mickler may have some of the very characteristics she admired in the woman who inspired her to become a teacher.

That woman was her kindergarten teacher, Dawn Brown, in Statesville, North Carolina.

Mickler was just 5 years old when she decided to become a teacher.

Her kindergarten teacher took a personal interest in her students, Mickler explained.

“I would see that love that she had for us,” Mickler said.

She cared beyond the classroom walls.

“She invited me to her house and I would play with her daughters, who were high schoolers at the time. We would sit down and play school,” she added.

It was a different time, and place, Mickler wrote, in an essay contained in her teacher of the year packet.

But, just like then, Mickler said, every student is unique and has individual needs.

“I like the challenge of trying to figure out where they need the assistance, and the best way to get it for them. Sometimes you have to get creative.

“I had a kid the other day who walked in and said, ‘I just need a hug,’ ” she said.

She said one of the main things she tells her students is: “Keep your opportunities open. Don’t start closing doors by the choices you are making now.”

Mickler, who has been at Pasco Middle School in Dade City for 14 years, is the teacher and coordinator in the school’s AVID program. The acronym stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination.

She built that program at her middle school from the ground up.

It’s an elective college prep and life skills course aimed at students who typically find themselves in the middle, with some slightly above average and others slightly below, she said.

“They have what it takes to go to college,” she said, but they may need a little extra support in some areas.

The course is about helping students advance through individual determination — and that means knowing more than just how to analyze a piece of writing or solve a mathematics problem, Mickler said.

It also requires knowing how to advocate for yourself, how to resolve conflicts and how to prioritize the importance — and order of tasks — that need to be done, she said.

Mickler calls that mastering the soft skills needed to navigate the “hidden curriculum” of school.

The teacher said she’s lucky because her job gives her the luxury of flexibility not found in typical classrooms.

Most classrooms are tightly regulated by the amount of material that must be covered and the emphasis on performance.

Performance is important, she said, but so is flexibility.

Her program is an elective, and she has a greater opportunity to really get to know her students and identify their needs.

AVID, she said, has made her a better educator.

“Intentionally planned flexibility is what turns good teachers into great teachers,” Mickler believes.

Early on, AVID emphasizes team-building with the goal of creating a family atmosphere in the class.

“It is never ‘my classroom.’ It is ‘our classroom,’ ” Mickler said.

Mickler never expected to be selected as Pasco’s teacher of the year.

She was helping to judge science projects in the school’s media center, when a contingent of district officials showed up to let her know.

“I was in shock. It was so completely unexpected.

“It made me feel incredibly special,” Mickler said.

And, she wasn’t just happy for herself.

She thinks the honor will help boost morale at a school which contends with a poor image — that Mickler said is inaccurate and unfair.

“People think it’s a rough school, a rough clientele, and it’s not. We have amazing kids. We have an incredible staff of teachers.

“It’s not without its problems. Every place has problems,” she said.

But, she’s a big believer in Pasco Middle — so much so that she commutes daily from Wesley Chapel.

“It’s about a 35-minute drive, but it’s worth it.”

“I cannot picture myself anywhere else. I’m a pirate,” Mickler said.

Published January 2, 2019

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