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Challenging tradition, inviting brilliance – An Ever Brighter feature on John Mitsch

Challenging tradition, inviting brilliance – An Ever Brighter feature on John Mitsch

It’s a routine that never fails. John Mitsch, 6th grade math teacher at St. Anthony Middle School, starts each class with levity and fun, cushioned by words of care and support.

“Everyday I give them my promises and tell them why I teach. Of course, there are dad jokes and videos in there which they love. But I keep telling them ‘you can always hold me true to my promises to you this year,’” John said. 

John, who’s been teaching for over 21 years, truly believes that staff can be a positive influence on students’ lives. His relationships with students drive everything, and in these moments he’s able to show that we’re in this together. By shifting our mindset and implementing instructional strategies, John is a shining example of how we can recognize the brilliance of all students to let them be Ever Brighter. 

A beloved math teacher, former math interventionist and Minnesota-native, John has witnessed the rapid changes in the world of Minnesota education. Test scores, state testing and traditional methods of teaching are being challenged as schools rediscover what it means to support and care for the child beyond academics. 

“I’m not just an academic teacher. I now have to be thinking through all the social, emotional and mental aspects of my students daily, too,” John said. 

After working in middle school intervention for five years, John worked with students who were struggling in math in small groups. He listened to them think and problem solve and saw that they were unbelievable in solving complex problems, but that gaps in our teaching system would stop them from reaching their full potential. 

He knew something was wrong after seeing that each student had different needs, and that as a district, we were struggling to ensure students were actually learning, rather than mimicking. 

“What’s crazy is that there are some kids who can pay their parent’s bills but fail every class. I saw then that we were doing something wrong,” John said.  

When he stopped to really reflect on his teaching practice and the system as a whole, he came to the conclusion that the district valued the student who could mimic the teacher, focusing on the deficiencies rather than their strengths.  

Leaning into learning, not mimicry 
The idea of getting students to help other students, which promotes a greater love of learning and relationship-building, is the goal of proficiency-based learning. Families may have already heard our district talk about this new system of learning and grading, but seeing John’s class in action really puts it into perspective. 
John starts his classes by removing himself as the center of attention, shifting it towards the students. Then, in small groups of 2-3 students, they problem solve and make conclusions in fast-paced games or activities. The reward isn’t how fast a group can solve the problem. The reward is if connections to concepts are reached, without feeling the risk of “falling behind” since his class is self-paced. He doesn’t stand up at the front of the classroom and lecture, he lets the students lead their learning. 
“To get rid of the old system feels good because kids aren’t identifying as an “A” student anymore,” John said. “I no longer have questions about how to get my grade up. It’s how do I learn this and how do I do better? Students used to be chasing the grade and not learning. We’re finally getting them to chase the learning,” John said.  

The shift to proficiency based grading began at the middle school four years ago. Superintendent Dr. Renee Corneille formed the Teaching & Learning team shortly afterwards. The goal was to develop a system that evaluated students without the use of letter grades – a system that was already in existence and used widespread across the east coast in Ivy League schools. 

Parents are encouraged to learn more about this new style of learning and grading and what it means for their students. John and other teachers are open to explain how it works and where their student is at in their progressions.

“When explained in a way of students helping other students, parents connect that they’re getting independent learners and that they can problem solve and think and know where they are. That they, the student, can identify their strengths and weaknesses,” John said. 

SANB’s roadmap in bringing the brilliance
Our students are already incredible. In Bringing the Brilliance, our own campaign to introduce proficiency-based grading and its rollout, we acknowledge our students’ strengths encouraging them to thrive and letting them shine. 
But creating these transformational learning experiences for students doesn’t happen overnight. If we expect students to thrive in a world that is not yet fully known, when traditional methods continue to give us the same predictable results, we are failing the full potential of our students. 

This is what proficiency-based grading hopes to address. By 2025, all three schools will transition to this new type of grading and learning and we couldn’t be more excited about it. 

John and his math team made the shift over to proficiency-based grading and also de-tracked math (removed intervention and honors courses) two years ago. He’s already noticing big shifts in student learning and ability. 

“I realized that every kid that comes in here has brilliance and is gifted. It’s my responsibility to help facilitate that and produce abilities that use their brilliance,” John said. 

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