Rooting for the underdog

Alternative school instructor Miranda Cipkowski is this Itawamba County School District’s Teacher of the Year for 2012. Cipkowski has worked with special needs students for a decade and exhibits a real passion for this specialized form of teaching. “I feel like this is where I’m most needed,” she said. (Photo by Adam Armour)

This story is about underdogs. It begins with Miranda Cipkowski …

Every single day, Cipkowski — an instructor at Itawamba County Alternative School — tells her students something amusing. Most days, it’s an embarrassing personal anecdote — something ridiculous or dumb she’s done recently … a flub; a gaff; a mistake.

“I think it makes me more accessible,” Cipkowski explained of this ritual. “It let’s them know I’m human, just like them.”

If there’s one thing Cipkowski knows, it’s that being human isn’t always easy. It’s full of challenges and pitfalls; obstacles to overcome; failures and errors. Over the years, she’s  seen her fair share of all of these things. They are what make her human.

They don’t, however, define her. Or anyone, for that matter.

Cipkowski was recently named the county’s Teacher of the Year for 2012 — an honor that comes as, perhaps, a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve the honor; it just wasn’t expected.

She is, after all, an underdog.

Since 2002, Cipkowski has been teaching at the county’s alternative school — primarily known as the school for children with behavioral and/or academic problems. At any given time, she’s working with a group of 10 or so students, who range in age from elementary to high school, who have been booted from the regular classroom for any number of reasons.

It’s not the job she necessarily planned on doing.  After all, most aspiring teachers don’t dream of spending their lives working with students with disciplinary problems.

“When you’re in college, it’s not what you think you’re going to be doing,” she said. “But, I have a knack for it. I think I’m effective here. I feel like this is where I’m most needed … I just connect with these kids, and I do my best to provide the richest educational experience possible while they’re here.”

Once at the alternative school, students may stay a few days or upwards of a year depending on their needs. Teachers like Cipkowski work with a small group of them at any given time, working on whatever problems they may be having either academically or behaviorally. Usually, it’s some combination of the two.

It’s a challenging style of classroom Cipkowski commands. Many of her students have problems with authority or working in a group setting; but Cipkowski said she rarely has trouble with the kids under her tutelage.

She said instilling trust and never betraying it is a large part of keeping things in order.

“I do what I say I’m going to do, and a lot of these kids may not have had that [stability],” she said. “They know what every day is going to be like with me. I’m never going to be something I wasn’t the day before.”

That said, having such a diverse group of students in one room keeps her on her toes. She may be working on second grade math one minute, high school social studies the next. Kids come and go in sporadic increments, meaning the classroom is always shifting.

“The environmental dynamic of that room changes all the time,” she said. “I have to be able to switch gears at a moment’s notice, and I’ve definitely had to learn how to roll with the punches.”

But that’s good, she said. She likes facing a challenge. It’s part of being human. Like many of her students, Cipkowski had a tough time growing up. She knows a bit about what it’s like to be an underdog.

“As a child, no one expected anything from me,” she said, stumbling a bit over the words. “A lot of these kids don’t think they can do anything better with their lives. Part of my job is to teach them that they can be better.

“I’ve learned something of the human spirit here … about myself,” she added.

Like her, most of Cipkowski’s students are underdogs — kids struggling with school and embittered toward authority for one reason or another. In many cases, they have no support system … no one to tell them they can do better.

“Some come to me with no hope,” she said. “It can be very sad. If I don’t do anything else, I try to instill hope … the possibility of something better.”

Cipkowski believes that just because a given path has been cleared doesn’t mean it has to be taken.

“You don’t have to go in a certain direction just because bad things have happened to you,” she said. “Even though your experiences define who you are … bad things don’t have to make you who you are.”

Cipkowski is living proof of that; her recent honor just solidifies it.

“Things have just come full circle for me,” she said with a tearful smile. “I’m here to honor what is possible.”

And with a little help, that could be anything … even for those kids no one expects anything from. At this point in her life, Cipkowski knows she wouldn’t want to work with anyone else.

“I’m always rooting for the underdog,” she said.

About Adam Armour

Adam Armour has been writing and taking photographs for "The Itawamba County Times" since 2005. His words and pictures have earned 18 Mississippi Press Association Awards, including several "Best of" category recognitions. He has written and independently published one novel and is currently working on a second.