A year ago, we were waiting for Superman, according to the national media. This year, we've been introduced to the realities of the American Teacher--but policymakers are still counting on base economic incentives to entice, then reward, the teaching force we need.
Next year, with any luck, the educational movie du jour--the quintessential story around which our national educational discussion centers--will be The Mitchell 20, a brilliant film that not only uncovers and dissects the challenges of teaching in schools in poverty, but provides a kind of gritty template for defining and attaining effective teaching. The film tells a real, and often heartbreaking, story of one school in Phoenix, twenty teachers, a dedicated principal--and how they collectively decided to improve the one thing they had control over: teaching.
The articulate heart and soul of the film is Daniela Robles, who guides the viewer through her own epiphanies: seeking to improve her practice for the sake of the students whose only hope is a good education, discovering the challenges and exhilaration of analyzing and retro-fitting her own work--then finding her voice as a leader.
Robles speaks passionately about Mitchell School, and Americans who have decided that it's OK if the schools that serve the poor aren't as good as other schools. She worries on camera about the insidious and spreading myth that public education has utterly failed. What's unique, however, is that she makes up her mind to do something about it.
The Mitchell 20 are the twenty teachers Robles persuades to go on a quest to improve their teaching, using the tools of National Board Certification. Hundreds of promotion videos have been made about professional development models--and all of them end the same way: with miraculous bump-ups in test scores and satisfied administrators who testify that they owe it all to The Program.
This movie, however, is not about quick fixes or relentless pursuit of data. It's about real teachers, their dreams and their struggles, and real kids--in a community where adult unemployment is 57%.
It is a vastly better film than Davis Guggenheim's "Superman"--we get to see real teachers teaching (and worrying--and kvetching) and the beautiful faces of the Mitchell kids, accompanied by a marvelous Motown-meets-Matamoros soundtrack. Terrible things happen, too--the school population drops by 200 children when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio institutes immigration sweeps. There are savage budget cuts. And the school narrowly misses making AYP, due to the subgroup of 4th graders whose native language is not English.
In spite of repeated crises, the teachers carry on, stoically. The kids need them.
Unlike the simplistic cartoon heads being filled with facts in "Superman," we get a quick primer on the reality of international comparisons: our advantaged kids can compete favorably, world-wide. It's the other kids--the kids Daniela Robles worries about--who are being left behind. There's also a tutorial, for anyone who hasn't spent time in front of a classroom, on why so much "professional development" for teachers centers on one-shot "trainings" around isolated skills, rather than complex intellectual development and self-analysis.
When Mitchell teachers work together, using common language and lenses, taping and dissecting their own lessons, there is amazing growth. One after another, the Mitchell 20 tell the camera--yes, I'm a better teacher. I've improved. Looking at my students' work, I see clear evidence that I have grown. We see the teachers dissecting their lessons at lunch, overcoming the classic egg-crate isolation to embrace teamwork.
Of course, when teachers joyfully take control of their own learning there are threatening implications: Why didn't we work like this before? Should all teachers be putting their work under a microscope? Why is this initiative being led by teachers--instead of formal leaders?
In quick succession, Robles is involuntarily transferred to another school, and the principal is asked to resign. The superintendent claims he needs to "spread the talent around"--utterly missing the point, which is this: growing your own talent is the only way to improve schools. Arne Duncan makes also an appearance, repeating the fallacious "three teachers in a row" legend--but the Mitchell story rebuts accusations of bad teachers of being the problem. By making themselves vulnerable, the Mitchell teachers show us how their hard work and persistence are the tools that may actually lead to consistently good teachers for all children, in every school.
Bring your hanky. It's a powerful film about ordinary miracles. It deserves a wide audience and a national conversation.