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“Mitchell 20” Honors the Challenge to Give Ourselves to Teaching

October 21, 2011

Daniela Robles (image from "Mitchell 20")

In 2007, Daniela Robles was feeling the frustration shared by many teachers in the United States.  Having followed in the steps of her parents who were also educators, and more than a decade into her career, Daniela was lost, confused, bewildered: “I didn’t know who I was anymore.”  The deleterious effects of No Child Left Behind were then, as they still are now, setting up public school for failure by expecting continual growth for every student sub-group in both tested skill sets, every year, until every single student’s test scores show proficiency, every year.  Trying to stay a step ahead of the avalanche that will, unaltered, bury us all, schools have adopted all sorts of misguided policies, narrowed or scripted curriculum, hoping somehow to stave off “program improvement” status for one more year.

Daniela decided to find herself again as a teacher by pursuing National Board Certification, which is a voluntary and rigorous advanced certification for teachers.  The certification is administered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), which has developed the clearest and most detailed standards for highly accomplished teaching practices at for each age group and almost every subject area in K-12 education. In 2007, Daniela became a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT).  The certification means that the teacher has submitted clear and convincing evidence of students’ learning as a result of teaching, along with evidence of the teacher’s own learning, leadership, and collaboration with peers, parents, and the community.

Daniela’s story took an unusual turn in 2008, when she convinced twenty of her twenty-three colleagues at Mitchell Elemntary School in Phoenix, AZ, to collectively take on the challenge of National Board Certification.  It was an inspired, but not unprecedented idea.  Here in California, an elementary school principal who is also an NBCT, Kiela Bonelli, proved the potential effectiveness of National Board Certification as a school improvement strategy at Julius Corsini Elementary School, in the town of Desert Hot Springs.  In Daniela’s case, her efforts caught the attention of the Arizona K12 Center, and the story of her school and her colleagues, whom she refers to as “my Mitchell family,” became the subject of a wonderful new documentary film, Mitchell 20.

In a little less than eighty minutes, this film manages to capture the best and the worst of public education in the United States right now.  On the positive side, we see dedicated and hard-working teachers who embrace their work in a high-needs school and district, who are there because they want to be there and they have a commitment to the children and the community.  Undermining the efforts of these teachers, higher-level administrators and politicians make decisions that have little to do with supporting children or teachers, with tragic results.

It is worth noting that most of the teachers among the Mitchell 20 are non-white, and several are themselves immigrants and former English-language-learners.  The connection matters, as one of the teachers, Zenaida Estrada, observes: “I am that student who comes into the classroom without knowing English.  I am that student who’s feeling anxiety, not knowing what’s in front of them.  I am that student who doesn’t understand, doesn’t know why the teacher is talking to them.” The teachers know, and the film’s producers assert quite directly, that poverty matters very much in education – but that’s not presented as an excuse.  Rather, they suggest that poverty makes the need for change and improvement that much more urgent – and they argue convincingly that teacher growth and teacher leadership, especially through National Board Certification, can make a substantial improvement in schools.

So, despite the challenges embedded in the job they were already doing, these teachers took on another challenge in pursuing National Board Certification.  As the film points out, the complete process can take 300-400 hours of work, usually on top of everything else teachers are doing.  As any teacher who’s done it can tell you, this experience is daunting, and intimidating.  One of the teachers, Benito Jimenez, remarks, “I want to give 110% to my classroom – and then there’s National Boards.  It’s like juggling an apple and watermelon.”  The process is so challenging that three of the Mitchell 20 had to withdraw before submitting their work, due to various combinations of work overload and health reasons.

One other factor working in favor of the Mitchell teachers was Principal Linda Crawford, who recognized the value of the extra work these teachers took upon themselves, and provided all of the time and financial support she could move in their direction.  I’m sure it helped, but we see in the film that teachers are still putting in their hours in the public library after work, or meeting in each other’s homes to review videotapes of their teaching.  Crawford saw a significant change in Daneila Robles, however, stating that it was “like a metamorphosis” leading Daniela to ask, “what can I do now to help my co-workers become the best that they can be?”  In another section of the film, Crawford’s comments convey great confidence in the value of the work, and the value of doing it together:  “This group will make other teachers see that this is possible.  Working together as a group we can really impact students’ lives, our teachers’ lives. We’re going to see a lot of leaders come out of this group of teachers – strong leaders.”  However, Crawford’s willingness to hand over so much control to her staff may have come with a high cost, as the film suggests her approach was not viewed favorably by district leadership, and was a factor in her being forced to resign.

Mitchell 20 also notes that professional development and collaboration are vastly under-utilized in the United States.  Though we spend $3-billion annually on professional development, we allow teachers in this country an average of under three hours per week to work outside of the classroom’s intructional hours.  Other leading nations provide ten to twenty hours per week for teachers to do essential non-teaching work such as collaboration, planning, and learning with peers.  Linda Darling-Hammond, speaking in the film, notes that effective professional development is long in duration, connected to classroom practices, collaborative, and inquiry-based, while most current professional development for American teachers takes the form of “one shot, drive-by, spray-and-pray workshops” where teachers are talked at for a couple hours and then we just hope they change and apply new information.  Contrast that with National Board Certification: Nancy Flanagan says in the film the beauty of the process is that “it’s not prescriptive.  It gets to the heart of teaching: to cause learning.”  One of the Mitchell teachers, Rueben, describes the process as “fine tuning. I take what I’m doing now and go to the next step.”

It is a commitment that takes its toll, however.  One of the teachers speaks into a camera at the end of a school day and laments that the nature of the job, plus the pursuit of certification, means that “I’m always behind, no matter how organized I am.”  She then leaves school for the day, but only to continue doing her job while she’s at home.  Another teacher confides, “Last night I had a melt-down” as she faced the difficult dimensions of the work.  That was a moment I could relate to, and I will confess I had my own melt-down one morning as I neared the end of my certification process.  Like some of these teachers, I was trying to balance a difficult job, a family with two young children, and the tail end of an incredibly challenging process with a hard deadline looming.  My frustration built to the point where I had to step outside of my house, and as I searched for a target upon which to vent my frustration, I selected poorly and punched the backboard of my sons’ Fisher-Price mini-basketball hoop.  The resulting cut on my knuckle did nothing, of course, to expidite my certification.

There are no reality-television-style moments of explosive tempers in Mitchell 20, no profanities uttered (at least none that made the final cut).  To non-teachers, it might be hard to understand the piece that’s most exciting to some of us teachers who will see the film.  Daniela Robles observed that the most exciting piece was walking into the teachers’ lounge and seeing people engaged at all times in analysis and reflection on teaching and learning.  The closest the film comes to drama are the moments, one in 2009 and one in 2010, when teachers find out whether or not they achieved certification (or a satisfactory mark on a partial certification program called Take One).  I won’t spoil the moments, but it’s worth keeping in mind whether you see the film or not that about half of all NBCT candidates do not certify.  However, as a testament to the quality of the program, Lee Shulman notes in the film that even teachers who do certify say that the process is worthwhile, and many of them continue on as advanced candidates.  Prinicpal Linda Crawford also recognized the value of the process itself, saying of her teachers even before the results were known, “These are my kids, I’m proud of what they’ve done.”


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses the 2011 NBPTS Conference (photo by the author)

Around this point in the film, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a longtime supporter of National Board Certification, says of the Mitchell staff, “if they stick together you’ll see that school get dramatically better.”  It’s a set-up, however, as the film then details how the district broke up the team that was starting some significant changes at Mitchell.  Daniela Robles was reassigned within the district, only to leave it shortly thereafter.  She comments in the film that she felt “put in my place” by the manipulation she experienced.  Jeff Smith, the superintendent in her new district, also appears in the film, and describes the desire to achieve a “critical mass” – to develop a cadre of teachers who can build real and lasting change not just in one school but throughout the district.

As the film approaches its conclusion, the question arises: how does this story help us make sense of the current landscape of American public education?  We’ve seen in the film not only the great potential of dedicated teachers, but also the negative impact of budget cuts, politics (especially anti-immigrant sentiments and actions in Arizona), and clumsy administration.  Unchecked, current trends will mean that each year teachers have fewer resources, less control, and more fear.  Daniela Robles and the filmmakers share the opinion that teacher-led reform will make a significant improvement in school quality and student learning.  Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality states in the film that the teacher quality issues in America are “not because of the fact we don’t have enough smart people teaching, but we don’t treat them well enough or support them well enough.”

National Board Certification is a process that can focus our efforts and discussion on what matters most in classrooms – the development and refinement of teaching practices that are most applicable and most effective in supporting the learning of our students, in our classroom, here and now.  The National Board, as noted in the film, is trying to infuse that conversation throughout schools, rather than taking an approach focused on individual teachers.  Still, a school-wide transformation will rest on the shoulders of individuals, and for me, the moment in the film that illustrated the power of this process for the individual teacher came from Amy Coyle, who states, “I know how I want to impact my students, but it’s not showing yet.  I need to continue pulling that out of myself, make myself change… and completely give myself to teaching.”

Amy Coyle is not unique among teachers.  She’s giving voice to something most teachers want to do, and can do, if supported with the time and resources to reach this reflective state, analyze our practices effectively, and to continue learning and perfecting our practice.  She knows she can do better, and that improvement will be measured by effects for students.  She’s not waiting for a trainer or a workshop, but working to pull something from inside herself.  That is the essence of education, especially if we consider the Latin root educare – which means to pull something out.  (If you saw Waiting for Superman, maybe you thought teachers are supposed to put information into children).  Coyle will be that much more effective in her teaching by going through this process of learning, of extracting change rather than having change “done” to her.  She knows that continual learning is the essence of giving ourselves to teaching.  This journey transforms teachers and encourages leadership, and as Daniela Robles confidently asserts near the end of Mitchell 20, the improvements we need in public education will come about more readily as more teachers develop their pedagogical and professional authority.

EDIT: Mitchell 20 is showing in screenings around the country.  Go to their website for more information.  Southern California, take note of this screening near L.A. – opening tonight!

Mitchell 20 trailer

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Miraglia permalink
    October 22, 2011 2:06 pm

    The process is daunting and I am a person who has not even attempted it. What is evident than there are many among of us who are NBCT and those that are not who spend countless hours in collaboration that is not part of our contract day, but we know that the only way that our teaching will improve is through this process. I have been fortunate to participate in a Teaching American History grant that spanned 3 years and it changed the way I teach. I continue today to promote the collaborative process at my site as I can attest first hand to its benefits. However, with the destructive budget cuts that our districts have sustained in California, this collaborative process is at its crossroads. We are no longer afforded release time for our department to plan and review our teaching. I only hope that our politicians we listen to us as we continue to speak in loud volumes about the cuts. It is not about more money for us, but the desire to improve ourselves as educators, thus improving our classrooms.


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