Professional Educators

The Mitchell Twenty

By Kathy Wiebke, PhD, Executive Director of the Arizona K12 Center and National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT)

“In every school and in every classroom, every student deserves to be taught by an accomplished teacher. In ‘those schools’ they deserve to be the same as any other school around the Valley and we must demonstrate equity and acknowledge that excellence is not attributed to a zip code; that knowledge is not linked to the color of a teacher’s skin; that excellence is everywhere and it’s at Mitchell Elementary School.”  – Daniela Robles

“If one-fourth of my staff display the growth I observed in Daniela, then this will all be worth it.” These were the words of Linda Crawford, the principal at Mitchell Elementary School, as she explained why she was supporting 20 teachers at her school as they pursued National Board Certification or its single entry alternative, Take One. This was the first time I had seen a principal devote a significant portion of Title I funds and school time to a professional development endeavor. More importantly, I had never seen one teacher recruit 20 teachers at her school to engage in what she called the “Pathways to Accomplished Teaching.” She told the teachers, “You select your path and I will support you.”

This all happened in a very unlikely locale. Mitchell Elementary School is in one of the poorest communities in downtown Phoenix. It has one of the highest crime rates in the city of Phoenix. Most of their students come to school speaking a language other than English. Most of the teachers grew up in communities similar to Mitchell. They understand the challenges that come from growing up Latino and poor. Couple this with new state laws around how children who are not proficient in English are taught, an economy that is in a downwards spiral, a district in corrective action, and immigration raids that are splitting up families and one wonders why teachers would voluntarily take on either pathway for professional improvement when it appears that their plates were already full.

It turns out that the answer was a fairly simple one. The person asking them to do it was a much admired and respected colleague. Secondly, and one suspects equally important, it was their choice whether to embark on this journey. This was not a district mandate but rather their choice alone. In fact, when one teacher inquired if they “had to do it” the minute she was told no, she said, “sign me up.” It was almost as if there was a hunger for something they could call their own. There are so many mandates that fill the lives of these educators it is mind-numbing to fully comprehend that the decisions most teachers take for granted are not within their grasp. Every response is analyzed, and daily routines are questioned to such a degree that these teachers found themselves throwing their hands up and doing as they were told.

“So you’ll do the numbing thing, then you go the route of being compliant, and then you get to the point where you say, ‘There’s more and I do matter.’ And, I think when I look at Mitchell, that’s where we are. ‘There’s more to this and ‘I am important.’ ‘I need to work on my practice because I choose to’ and that’s why I think the lines have been blurred and we’re all in the same place.”  – Daniela Robles

The 20 teachers are unique in that their range of experience is from 2 to 23 years. Of the 20 teachers, all but three are minority educators. Teaching at Mitchell is a choice as many drive long distances and through many different school districts to get to work. Of the 20 teachers, ten chose the route of Take One and the other ten chose full candidacy. And, while they were each on their own path, they were making this journey as a single cohort.

These teachers have lived remarkable lives. There is Zenaida, a second grade teacher, who grew up in an indigenous village in Central Mexico where “girls are taught their childhood ends around age six or seven and by age 13 they are married.” Benny who grew up in South Central Los Angeles knew there were only two ways out of his neighborhood, drugs or education. He opted for an education. And, there is Marcia who was introduced to the possibility of a higher education from her high school English teacher and spent 10 years working her way through college because this teacher told her she could and would go to college. These teachers at Mitchell took full advantage of America’s public education system as well as the opportunities of pursuing higher education. Many of these teachers grew up in poverty and are first-generation college graduates. It is the teachers in their lives that made a difference and in turn they want the same opportunities for the students in their classrooms.

While spending time at Mitchell understanding their collective story and individual stories, I learned what it is like to teach in a school that is part of a district in corrective action. Choices many teachers in wealthier communities take for granted are just not afforded in this school. I learned first-hand the impact of the state’s new English Language Development laws where some classrooms have less than 20 students and others have well over thirty. These are classrooms where so much time is devoted to learning English at the expense of science and social studies. I heard the stories of children coming to school in fear their parents would not be there at the end of the day as a result of an overzealous county sheriff and his well-publicized raids in search of immigrants without proper papers. And, I heard about the effects of the state’s budget problems as this staff wrestles with the fact it no longer has a librarian, all day kindergarten is no longer available, and school nurses at every building will be missing.

In the spring of 2008, Daniela Robles approached the Arizona K12 Center, a professional development center out of Northern Arizona University, for funding assistance and support for this group of 20 teachers. We quickly got to know the teachers and were inspired.

As a result, we approached Randy Murray Productions, a local production company, about the feasibility of telling their story through a documentary. Strong supporters of public education, there was no hesitation on their part…they wanted to help tell this story. Randy Murray Productions and the Arizona K12 Center teamed together to tell the inspiring story of The Mitchell 20. For the past three years and with funding from the National Education Association, we have been chronicling their journey through National Board Certification and Take One. As one might suspect, this story takes many twists and turns. While this is a story about 20 teachers challenging teaching’s most rigorous standards, it is also a story of America’s public education system, where those farthest from the classroom have the greatest power. Through all of this it is also a story about the Latino community and equity. Why is this important? Why must we listen to the voices of these teachers?

I think there’s a move to eradicate public education. I think this move has momentum because it’s so easy to point a finger and to say, ‘Not there.’ They’re not doing it there because their kids can’t do it. Their kids speak another language. Those schools, they don’t have everything that other schools have, so how can they do it. Those are the stories that are out there. That’s the way the world thinks and a lot of people don’t want to admit that. They don’t want to act like it’s true. They don’t want to act like there are inequities when it comes to schools. They also want to say that the best teachers don’t go to those schools; the best teachers aren’t at a school like Mitchell. And, this simply is not true.

Stay tuned for information on the documentary that is set to be released in the Fall of 2011.

Mitchell 20 from Arizona K12 Center on Vimeo.


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