I just got done watching Mitchell 20, and I am just overwhelmed with emotion.

The new film is a documentary about twenty teachers at Mitchell Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona.  Like many urban schools, Mitchell is grappling with high poverty and violence in its neighborhood.  According to one of the film’s teacher-stars, “To be a teacher at Mitchell, you have to be a special person.  You have to get to know the children and the challenges they face every day.”

The storyline of the film is straightforward.  One of the teachers at Mitchell inspires her colleagues to join her in going for National Board Certification. National Board Certification is the gold standard for teaching.  It is a rigorous and demanding process through which teachers reflect on and analyze their instructional practice.  They review video of their teaching to analyze their work.  They write extensively about their practice and how they can improve.  Finally, they sit for a demanding exam to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter that they teach.

The story of these teachers’ journey is rich and compelling.  I plan on organizing showings and discussions of the film and its key takeaways.

One of the more compelling takeaways I found is the power of teacher-driven change.

Traditionally, teacher professional development can be characterized as top-down, spray-and-pray workshops.  Every teacher sits through a one-size-fits-all presentation.  The school or district administrator who seemingly decided that this workshop is the silver bullet to cure what ails the school or district hopes that all of the teachers attending step into their classrooms the next day, follow the workshop recommendations with fidelity, and, voilà, reform the school.  Evidence from the past several decades suggests that this thinking is delusional, yet remains a persistent feature of our top-down education system.  The following clip from the film illustrates this point:

Mitchell 20 Clip – Pyramid from Mitchell 20 on Vimeo.

In contrast, the Mitchell 20 show us that real school reform comes from long-term, sustained, collaborative, rigorous, and teacher-driven efforts.

The teachers at Mitchell chose to seek National Board Certification.  This choice, supported by a team of colleagues, elevated and sustained each teacher’s motivation to engage in this rigorous and demanding process.  This clip from the film shows how empowering teacher-driven change can be and specifically marks the difference between the feeling teachers have when they choose to go for National Board certification…

Mitchell 20 Clip – National Board Certification from Mitchell 20 on Vimeo.

I won’t spoil the end of the Mitchell story.  Simply put: watch this film!  Get your colleagues to watch this film.  Get your principal, district superintendant, and school board to watch this film!

A lot of discussions about school reform over the past year have focused on the need for every child to have an excellent teacher.  Some pundits suggest that all we need to do is rank teachers by the scores their children receive on national and state tests and fire the bottom 5-10%.  Others have argued that there is nothing wrong inside the classroom and that policymakers should shift their focus to ending the poverty and violence that plague the students in our most struggling schools.

I hope my fellow teachers (all of my fellow teachers, be they struggling, good, or great) can agree with me that our instructional practice can be even better next year than it is right now.  If school and policy leaders stop looking for and employing one-size-fits-all solutions and instead get behind and support our more meaningful efforts to improve, our schools and our children will be a lot better off.  Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees…

Mitchell 20 Clip – Arne and Dennis from Mitchell 20 on Vimeo.

What do you think?  Have you gone for your National Board Certification?  If not, what support do you think you would need to do so? 


What teacher-driven change do you think your school needs?

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