Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Some background about the writing of No Child Left Alive

(From May 7, 2013)

(The following post is from the March 11, 2010, Turner Report. I began writing No Child Left Alive shortly after my principal was forced out by administration. The accompanying video, taken at a roast for Ron, was the first time I ever talked about the book, which at the time, though it is not mentioned in the video, had the working title of The Smartboard Jungle. Ron Mitchell's removal was the start of a pattern for the Joplin School District, thanks to a rogue element in adminisration. The removal of teachers and principals, often for little or no reason, has become the norm in this district. During the past three years, the elementary schools have become a revolving door for principals.)

From someone else it would sound corny but when Joplin East Middle School Principal Ron Mitchell greets his faculty each year, the message always carries a potent punch: 

“We’re not here to teach math,” the tall, chrome-domed Mitchell says. “We’re not here to teach science or social studies…We’re here to teach children.”

I am about two and a half months from completing my 11th year as a classroom teacher and nine of those years I have had the privilege of working for Ron Mitchell.

He was the only principal willing to give an out-of-work newspaper editor, whose last classroom experience had been as a student teacher 18 years earlier, a break. What he saw in me at that point I will never know, but Ron has always had an unerring instinct for who can succeed in the classroom.

After my first two years at Diamond Missouri Middle School, Ron left to take a job at South Middle School in Joplin. It was a job no one else wanted, as principal in a rundown area of the city, which had a listless faculty and a group of out-of-control students who had no interest whatsoever in learning.

It did not take long for Ron to know who was “teaching children” and who was just there to pick up a paycheck. The teachers who did not care did not stay at South long. Ron cleaned house and began hiring teachers who knew their subject matter and loved the children, no matter how unlovable those children can be at times.

I missed the two years that began the transition of Joplin South Middle School into the best middle school in southwest Missouri.

After those two years, when my job at Diamond Middle School was eliminated due to budget cuts and I was placed on a one-year unpaid leave of absence, I nearly returned to journalism and was one hour away from accepting a position as an investigative reporter and writing coach at a southwest Missouri newspaper, when Ron called and asked if I had any interest in teaching communication arts (English) at South. I jumped at the opportunity.

And for the past seven years, six at South and one at the new East Middle School, where the South faculty moved to in August 2009, I have worked for a principal who has put children first, hired the best teachers, then stepped out of the way and let them teach, offering encouragement and support every step of the way.
During that time, not only did Ron Mitchell offer a safe, inviting home away from home for the sixth through eighth graders who attended our school, some of whom come from homes where drugs, alcohol, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are staples, but he created a second family for his faculty, a group which has worked together as a team and has almost completely avoided the in-fighting and backstabbing that are the hallmarks of so many institutions of learning.

At East Middle School, the teacher’s lounge is just a place we use to heat up lunch or buy a soft drink or snack.

And all the while our school recorded improved test scores in math and reading, sometimes ranking at the top of our area of Missouri.

Sadly, all good things come to an end.

During a faculty meeting in the library after school Wednesday, Ron Mitchell announced his resignation. It had been rumored for quite some time. It was no secret that his leadership style did not mesh with that of new upper-level administrators who had come into the school district within the last few years.

These people had not seen Ron Mitchell transform an 80-year-old school building, which had been dark, dreary and drenched with despair, into a showplace for learning.

Some of us had already heard the news, so when Ron stepped into the library and quietly said, “I will not be principal here next year,” we were not surprised, but we were still not prepared for the emotional impact those words would have.

Being the class act he is, he did not say anything negative about the people who guided him toward this decision. He said only a few more words, his voice breaking, and he quickly left the room. 

We sat there in stunned silence. I don’t believe any of us initially thought about what this development would mean to us. We were all concerned about the man who had supported and encouraged us through all of the high points and low points that happen in any school.

Thankfully, I have two and half more months to be able to work for Ron Mitchell, someone who will leave Joplin East a legacy of teachers who care and who can also get the job done.

Undoubtedly, it will not be long before he is snapped up by another school district. He is young, having just turned 40 a few weeks back, personable, has a proven record of educational achievement, and, above all, he believes in teaching children.

Any forward-looking school district with intelligent leadership would love to have a Ron Mitchell in the driver’s seat.

(Though I began writing No Child Left Alive after the firing of Ron Mitchell as East Middle School principal, it was another event that happened several months later that brought me back to the unfinished book. I will write about that at a later date.)

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