Every student deserves a Ms. Mitchell

Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent than he will ever be again in his schooling—or, unless he is very unusual and very lucky, for the rest of his life. ~John Holt

I have been a student, a teacher and a parent of a school-aged child. And out of my experience, I believe that public schools have failed our children.

We originally designed our public schools to prepare students to graduate into factory work. We taught them to stand in line, sit still, memorize and regurgitate their lessons, and color within the lines. Now we’re teaching our kids to take standardized tests and to compete for the highest scores. Where is the room in this for our children to explore, to discover, to create? When students are uptight and afraid of failure, how can they discern who they really are and what kind of life they want to live? We may not be training our kids to take their place on the assembly line, but I believe we are constricting their natural authenticity and vitality and replacing these with our agreed upon beliefs about who they should be and how they should live.

I recall my own time in school—excruciating boredom usually interrupted only by recess. I had no desire to sit in an uncomfortable chair all day reading stuff that held little interest for me and had minimal connection with my real world. At least by the time I got to high school I had learned to play the game of “school,” making good grades with nominal effort while majoring in practical jokes, football, and girls.

Frances Mitchell Painter

Most of my teachers have faded into a nameless, faceless blur. However, there was one savior in the midst of my 12-year confinement. Ms. Mitchell came to Bel-Aire Elementary (Tullahoma, Tennessee) fresh from the University of Tennessee. She was full of life and vigor and wit, and she really cared about what she was doing. More than that, she really cared about us. She encouraged our natural curiosity, punished us justly for our juvenile pranks, rooted for us on the ball field, and treated us with respect. Perhaps this was the greatest thing—she saw something in me, perhaps in each of us, that was precious to her, and she endeavored to draw that out so that we could see it, so that others could see it as well.

As time passed, I saw less and less of Ms. Mitchell. After I left my hometown for college, I rarely saw her at all. But before I left, on the night of my high school graduation, our paths crossed one more time. As the final notes of our alma mater played, I was overcome with emotion and fled from the auditorium. Tears streaming down my face, I burst into the hallway, into the arms of Ms. Mitchell. She said a few comforting words, that it was OK, but terrified that my friends would see my tears, I dashed to nearest rest room. Until now, I have never admitted how grateful I was for her presence on that June evening in 1961.

I hope our public schools can be transformed to serve the needs of each individual child, or that more private schools will emerge to fill that gap. I hope that we will find a way to nurture each child’s unique gifts. But in the meantime, may each child have at least one savior during his or her school experience. May each child have at least one Ms. Mitchell.


My essay was first published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on August 19, 2000. A paragraph from it appeared in a Tullahoma News article about Frances Mitchell Painter upon her death at the age of 89 in 2015.

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