Even in Alternative Educational Roles, the Teaching and Learning Never Stop

Program Director and EdCo Member, Amy Nystrand recently ‘’sat down” virtually with EdCo Member Mike Mitchell. Mike serves primarily as the Arts Director for Mt. Pleasant schools, as well as a resource for teachers across the county. Hearing Mike’s story is a quick reminder that the work of teaching and learning never stops, even after leaving a traditional classroom teacher role.

Where do you teach? What did you teach? How did you get into teaching?

Mike: I am the arts director at Mt. Pleasant schools in Maury County, Tennessee. I work with the art, music, dance, theater, and audio visual teachers, at the elementary school in Mt. Pleasant, the middle school, the visual performing arts in Mt. Pleasant and then the Mt. Pleasant high school. I collaborate across all of those platforms with teachers, and then I also, pretty often, actually go in and co-teach with those teachers. I’m also available to all teachers across all three schools to help integrate arts into their programs. Across all of those schools we got our STEM model status from TSIN and the Department of Education last year, so I helped with a lot of the PBLs at all three schools.

My K-12 certification is in art and visual art. I got into teaching on a transitional license. I was in Nashville after having moved back from Florida where I ran a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant that places can apply for; it serves a school, but it can be on-site or off-site. So I ran one of those grants in Florida at a little after-school program, I say little after-school program, we had 100 kids on our roster and we served 60 kids a day, and we were open 50 weeks out of the year. They would leave the Southwest Elementary school in Hastings, Florida, which was a little town of about 600 people, and they would come to our after school program. We would do homework and tutoring, and then we would have a whole host of art classes, so you could take creative writing, poetry, ballet, ceramics, music, martial arts, and all of these different things. We also had wrap-around services with mental health and we had a USDA food bank and clothing pantry, so I really got involved in teaching because I ran that food bank and clothing pantry for a year that primarily served migrant farm workers in that little town of Florida. Then my boss and I applied for this grant, and she asked me what I wanted it to look like, and I said, “Can it be art?” So we wrote that whole after-school grant to be an arts based after-school program that would serve a Title-1 school in a kind of a historically underestimated area in Florida. So I’d kind of been piecing together teaching, and I thought I could do K-12, but I had this Master’s degree that actually did not position me to be a licensed K-12 teacher. If I had to go back and do it again, I would have just done Art Ed and gotten my BSA and gotten my certification. Anyway, I found a really lucky situation, somebody hired me in Metro and I did the transitional license. I taught at Neely’s Bend Elementary School for 3 years in a portable; art with no running water. 470 kids. Super fun.

How do you stay on top of all the projects that you start and make sure all the teachers have what they need?

Mike: So I do work with Kids on Stage, a non-profit that’s really involved in the arts, and so they have an expectation that I’m a resource to every school in Maury County. So I’m the art director for Mt. Pleasant schools, and then there’s an expectation that I serve as a resource for all of Maury County schools. So one of the things that I’m doing is helping with the move to google classrooms for all K-8 in Maury county, and thinking about that organization. So I built a google shared classroom for all the music teachers in Maury County, that way I can start dropping resources in it if we find ourselves in a situation where we need to go remote. So one of the things I’ve started doing, because by nature I’m not a super organized person, is creating an overall project kind of page, whether that’s in a document, or whether that’s in my calendar, and I say here’s a project that I need to land, when do I need to land it, like who’s involved, and so on. Some particular projects are real easy and straightforward, but if you’re managing 12 of those, I could try to hold all that in my head, but you can’t really do that well. I’ve really started utilizing those business class strategies, really, kind of the same way with what we’ve found ourselves doing with the Educators’ Cooperative. There are definitely parts of corporate environments that aren’t my favorite things, but there are some parts that are kind of right on the nose. They help you get the most out of everyone, and you help you be efficient. They help you to be respectful, help you to not overstep your bounds and not step on anyone else. That’s been helpful to me to be moving into that direction.

A strength I have is generating ideas, a strength I have is connecting with people, you know I have no problems just cold-calling a teacher. So that part for me is the exciting part, like oh, Tony Fan teachers at the elementary school, she works with students with special needs, but she does our after school theater program, so I connected Tony and a woman in Chattanooga, but I was really conscientious. What I did differently, and it sounds so easy and almost silly that I would not have done it before, I said hey Tony, I tell you what, I’m going to create a calendar invite for you. So now I know I will talk to Tony Fan about connections, and now that exists. I never would have done that before, I would have tried to keep it in my head, but I can be pulled in a bunch of different directions. So what it really has come down to is making myself adopt those business class strategies where they’re needed. And I did that, just because I wanted to be mindful of this teacher in Chattanooga, thinking about what the Educators Cooperative does, and trying to support teachers. I wonder what opportunity is there for someone that I know to help her, and then she’ll help them because it’s impossible to find yourself in a collaboration where you don’t get something back from it. I feel like the Educators’ Cooperative for me, like at the teacher level, has reminded me to do the improvisation, instead of saying it has nothing to do with me, it makes me ask, what does it have to do with me? She emailed back today and she sent an all caps THANK YOU. It feels good when people even try, it feels good when you’re a teacher and you feel like you don’t have anyone around, and it turns out they’re just 2 and a half hours west of you. Also, it made Tony, you could tell she kind of lit up.

It’s helped it not be overwhelming and be much more enjoyable, and it’s helped me be able to identify very specific small victories so that at the end of the day I can go, oh I did that today, I have proof of that thing that I did, and the other stuff, I’ll worry about that later, as opposed to just kind of being overwhelmed and not having anything else. My life can still feel a little chaotic, but I’m getting better and better at adding in structure where it needs so that I can be myself most of the rest of the time.

The Educators’ Cooperative is a non-profit organization that provides a professional learning community for K-12 teachers. Created for teachers by teachers in 2016, EdCo provides professional development and support for educators to collaborate across sectors, disciplines, and career stages. EdCo aims to revolutionize teacher development and leadership by focusing on the essential agency, autonomy, and common ground all teachers share. EdCo is based in Nashville, Tennessee with a reach far beyond that physical location and potential for replication in communities throughout the nation. When educators collaborate, the future of education is greater than the sum of its parts.

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