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New Documentary Seeks to Change the Conversation on Teacher Quality

Cameras followed 20 educators in Phoenix for three years as they sought to improve the quality of their teaching and their students' performance.

For the past three years, cameras have followed 20 teachers at Mitchell Elementary—a school in a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood of Phoenix—as they set out to improve the one thing they had the most control over: the quality of their teaching. The result is Mitchell 20, an inspiring documentary that shows how, despite budget cuts and outlandish politics, teachers made themselves better at their jobs and their students higher achievers.

The movie traces the path of the teachers as they study to earn National Board Certification, one of the most comprehensive professional development tracks available to educators. Executive producer Kathy Weibke, the executive director of a teacher development nonprofit in Arizona, says the documentary was catalyzed by Mitchell teacher Daniela Robles, who became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2007. Robles noticed the lack of minority educators who had earned the certification, and decided to do something about it. She reached out to Weibke in the spring of 2008 and told her she knew 20 teachers who wanted to go through the NBCT process. "I thought she had 20 teachers in her district, but it was 20 out of 34 teachers at her school," says Weibke. All but three of the educators were non-white, and nearly half were born outside of the United States. "They mirror the community of students they serve," Weibke says.

Impressed by the teachers' personal stories and their commitment to improving their work, Weibke concluded that "if we could tell the stories of the teachers at Mitchell and their desire to be the best they could be, we’d be telling the stories of teachers from all across America." As filming went on, the filmmakers realized that the core of the movie is about the challenges teachers face. "They let us in on some personal moments in their professional lives," she says. "They're not always successful at what they're doing, just as we all have our moments where we're not successful at our own jobs."

The world premiere for Mitchell 20 takes place October 12 in Phoenix and official screenings will take place in several cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Half of all profits from the documentary and its soundtrack will go to a scholarship fund for teachers.

Weibke hopes the documentary can help change the conversation about teacher quality in America. "Right now there's too much finger-pointing at teachers, or administrators, or policy makers," she says. "We all need to get on the same page." And, she adds, teachers need to be the dominant voice in the conversation instead of "people who've never been in the classroom." While input from politicians and policy makers is well-intentioned, "we miss a huge opportunity when we don't listen to teachers."

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