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“Mitchell 20” Model Would Make a Difference for Students

February 25, 2012

Today’s guest post comes to us from Patrick Guggino, a National Board Certified Teacher in Charter Oak Unified School District.  Patrick also serves as a support provider for National Board candidates, and has a Ph.D. in Education from U.C. Riverside, where he focused on Curriculum and Instruction.

A couple of Saturdays ago, Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Maximizing Teacher Impact hosted a screening of “Mitchell 20” as well as a panel discussion featuring several National Board Certified Teachers and administrators supportive of them.  I’d been wanting to see the film for some time, having read about it and having heard it referred to as “the anti-Waiting for Superman.”  In addition, this semester I have been granted the opportunity to serve as a master teacher and thought that both the film and discussion following would be a good introduction to the National Board process for my student teacher, who attended as well.

Teachers working on their National Board Certification at Stanford's National Board Resource Center (photo: David B. Cohen)

Although I knew the film was about teachers pursuing National Board Certification, I was surprised at how seeing others going through the National Board process quickly and vibrantly brought back my memories and trepidation of going through it myself, even though it’s been over a decade since I certified (I received word that I had successfully renewed my certification in fall of 2011).  But what I found interesting was the courage and collegiality I saw these dedicated educators display.

“Mitchell 20” begins with a high, sweeping nighttime shot of the Phoenix neighborhood in which Mitchell Elementary sits  as statistics about the unemployment rate (57%), childhood poverty rate (46.5%), and the number of violent crimes, aggravated assaults, and murders are shown along with dynamic shots of the community.  Heck with the top 1% in the news a lot – here may well be the bottom 1%, as Sarah Puglisi recently and poignantly recounted.  As a suburban teacher a working class bedroom community, I like to think that most of my students come from reasonably stable homes, that the student who hasn’t had anything to eat that morning is the aberration, not the norm.  In the Mitchell environment, any such pretense  is impossible.  These are people who are living what Emerson referred to as “lives of quiet desperation.”  They’re trying to get by and hope their kids see a better tomorrow.

The key to that better tomorrow, as all Americans are taught to believe, is education.  The research, as we’ve all heard over and over, is that teachers have the biggest in-school impact on student performance.   I don’t know a parent, teacher, or student who doubts or questions that research in the least.  But what parents and students may not know is how isolated teaching can be.  One of my education professors once noted that schools take the best and brightest, put them in egg-crate buildings with little adult contact or collegial support, and expect them to become great educators alone.  Something goes right?  All the credit is yours.  Something goes wrong?  It’s all your fault.  Not the program.  Not the system.  You.  Alone.  Oh, and find me educators who aren’t their own worst critics with even the best of lessons.

So when Daniela Robles, an NBCT and human sparkplug, convinced, cajoled, and armed-twisted twenty of her colleagues into attempting either National Board Certification or TakeOne! (in which a teacher attempts one of the four portfolio entries of a complete certification), what was perhaps most inspiring was the dialogue that blossomed.  Teachers were regularly talking to each other about specific practices and lessons—what worked, what didn’t work, and what would be best for their students.

A big part of what made the difference at Mitchell was the collegiality.  At my school, there are colleagues of mine who are close friends, whose classrooms I can walk into at any time for any reason and know that I am welcome and will, as often as not, become part of the lesson at hand.  Then, there are the colleagues I don’t know as well, where I approach entering their classes with trepidation, unsure of how my presence will be viewed.  Good, bad, or ugly, I feel the same about others coming into my class.  Friend or foe?  Confidante or gossip?

But the National Board certification process that requires teachers to film, analyze, and reflect on their practice and examine it against very high professional standards quickly breaks down the traditional teacher mindset born from isolation and lack of support that says, “Don’t let anyone see you screw up!”  Rather, teachers take their videos to colleagues they trust, people who can act as sounding boards and friendly critics, in order to have their practice seen.  The excuse is often, “Well, I have to film myself as part of the certification process and I wanted to make sure what I was submitting was good.”  The ramifications are greater.  Teachers can see what other teachers are actually doing.  Often, my professional opinion of my colleagues is based on how friendly they are at faculty meetings and informed by a multitude of comments from students whom I trust about how those teachers treat kids in their classrooms, their grading practices, etc.  Only rarely have I actually seen any of them teach.

The collegiality at Mitchell ever traversed the gulf between administration and teachers.  Was the principal threatened by this teacher-led revolution in their teaching?  Not in the least.  She had seen the positive impact the process of undergoing certification had had on Daniela and her teaching practice and was gung-ho on all of her teachers going for it. (Spoiler alert – her dedication to the process, her staff, and Daniela factors into her downfall by the end of the film.)

Following the movie, the panel discussed a variety of issues facing education today, especially the struggle to get more National Board Certified teachers in our classrooms.  Most of the panel were classroom teachers who’ve earned Board certification, but I was particularly struck by Kiela Bonelli, NBCT, who is currently the principal at Desert Springs Middle School in Palm Springs.  A few years back she was the new principal at Julius Corsini Elementary in Desert Hot Springs, CA, community in which most families live in poverty and, like Mitchell’s community, want the best for their children.  To address the issues of the school at the time, including rock bottom achievement and over 80% teacher turnover each year, Kiela convinced 100 percent of the staff – 43 teachers, one reading coach and two administrators – to undertake National Board Certification or Take One! The result was a complete transformation of the culture at Corsini and the student achievement there.

Corsini’s story is well documented on the internet, but what struck me was the point Bonelli made about the price tag associated with the investment in quality teachers.  A common remark from people just learning about attempting National Board Certification is the “sticker shock” at the $2500 fee for attempting certification, especially when coupled with the fact that completing the process is not a guarantee of certification.  However, when compared with the price tag for “one size fits all” professional development that all teachers have had to sit through and taken little away from, dollar for dollar, National Board Certification is both a bargain and gets you a lot more bang for your buck, both in student learning outcomes and genuine “school turnaround.”  Why spend money on programs that are fleeting at best rather than investing in a tried and true process that changes teachers for the better in the most fundamental ways, whether they certify or not?

Recently, Arne Duncan took to the airwaves and newspapers, promoting the RESPECT program, which is “a $5 billion competitive grant program to encourage states to overhaul the teaching profession… using its Race to the Top school improvement competition as a model.”  While everything Duncan says sounds good, when the rubber meets the road, his programs are often terribly different.  But rather than attempt to address such a new program, I just want to offer one observation – the Education Department is offering up a competitive program to overhaul a profession that ought to rely on collaboration and collegiality to produce quality student learning.  The Accountability Movement has relied on rankings and numbers, all to no avail in improving student learning.  Might that $5 billion be better spent in allowing and encouraging two-million teachers to attempt National Board Certification and really make a difference, in the lives of their students, their own professional lives, and in the culture of their schools?  Just asking.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012 10:03 pm

    I’m a NBC candidate this year and couldn’t agree more. The process, including the Stanford program which I am also a part of, is incredible. When we were told on day 1 of the Stanford program that it would be the best PD we would ever do, I was skeptical. I am now totally convinced that Sandy Dean was right when she told us that. What an idea…that Mr. Duncan put $$ towards encouraging more teachers to do the process. It would completely change how we, collectively, approach teaching.

  2. Cate K. Schroeder NBCT permalink
    February 27, 2012 7:43 pm

    So How do we get this film shown to audiences most able to affect change? I’ll try to be there at Stanford on March 20! but I’d love to see it shown all over California


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