by Sami Saltzman, Director, Innocent Classroom Movement

Mitchell Lee is a Special Education Emotional Support Teacher at Abington Middle School in Abington, Pennsylvania, and an exemplary member of the Innocent Community.

I had the joy of sitting down with Mitchell for a conversation over the summer about his Practice of Innocence – why he added it to his toolbox, how it aligns with his philosophy and approach to teaching, and how it helps him reach his goals as an educator. Read (and watch!) on in this hybrid format interview to hear some of the highlights from our conversation. I hope his infectious enthusiasm and keen insights inspire and activate your approach to at least one person in your life today, like they did for me.

First, meet Mitchell:

Next, the context for this awesome person:

Mitchell has been working in education for 22 years, 14 of which he’s spent in the Abington School District in Abington, Pennsylvania. He’s currently working at Abington Middle School – a 1000 student Middle School with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders filtering in from 6 district elementary schools.

Mitchell became an Educator for Innocence in the 2021-2022 school year when participated in an Innocent Classroom workshop series for individual educators put on in partnership between ASCD and Innocent Technologies. Since then, he’s been a prominent presence in the Innocent Community – attending conferences and events, and sharing his insights, ideas, and positivity to push the Movement forward.

The top 3 goals Innocence helps Mitchell Meet are:

  1. Increased positivity and connection with students
  2. Improved student attendance
  3. Improved educator morale

And now, the highlights from our conversation:

Sami Saltzman: Mitchell, you’ve always prioritized connections with students and leveraging those strong relationships to advocate for your students. Why add Innocence to your practice of building relationships? What does that do for you?

SS: You work in a school with 1000 students. How do you make sure you’re focused on these relationships that build Innocence when there are so many students who need something from you?

ML: To me, Innocence is about understanding & truly noting that [student behavior] is the students reaching out for help – they do want to be successful, and it’s hard to see that in the midst of chaos, fighting, profanity, and everything else.

The way education has been historically, it hasn’t been a place for personal business. For students today, the personal is what’s most important. I have the pleasure and honor of working with what some people call “at risk students” – they often need help or support to become positive citizens. If you have kids that live in chaos at school, the first thing you need to do is make sure they understand they’re in a safe place. That’s what’s missed in education as a whole, and that’s what Innocence is built on.

We’re trained [as educators] to not be personal and to take care of business – but that’s the furthest thing from what we need to do to help our students. It boils down to them being in a place where they’re ready to share and be positive – they’ll make you earn that because they’re used to so many people letting them down for so many years and over so many moments. So it takes awhile to earn that trust because they don’t know any different at school.

But at the very end of the day, Innocence puts you in a mindset to truly understand why you’re here. The smallest bit that can go the longest way is when you can show the student that they’re in a nonjudgmental place, that they’re safe to say how they feel, and when you do that enough, eventually you can get to the why they’re feeling that way.

SS: Let’s zoom in on how you “earn it” with a student – earning that trust and belief can be really challenging, especially in middle school. How do you go about earning a child’s trust?

ML: I’m an ex-athlete and a big football fan. (Go birds!) I grew up playing football, played football in college, and was blessed enough to receive a scholarship. It played an important part in my life at one time. So for me, it’s the neon Deion Sanders routine. He’s so famous now, but I’ve been a fan since he was at Florida State. He’s looked at as such a great player, he has so much personality and everything, and when you watch his highlights it looks like every single play he’s all over the place doing all these amazing things. But if you watch his whole career, it wasn’t all positive. It wasn’t all highlights or fun. He got burnt many more plays than he made plays. But he came back after missing a tackle, after getting scored on, and he lined right back up and went after it again as if it didn’t even happen.

You have to have that same type of attitude if you want to be effective with students. Students are so used to being let down that when they see they can press your buttons it’s like anything else in life – if they see you’ll be one of those people who gives up on them, they’ll push you toward that. They’ll help you make that decision a little faster. You have to let them know you’re going to line back up and hang in there with them through the good days, the bad days, and the in between days, and that you’re going to work with them to make the best of it.

The Innocence part comes from the fact that these kids can have gone through more in their 11-year-old lives than I’ve been through in my 40-something life. Unless I’ve built up a relationship to understand those dynamics, I can’t realistically expect things to go like I want them to go. Until you’re all in toward understanding that sometimes the behavior isn’t right and it’s not ok, but what matters and where your focus should be is why they’re doing it, you’re missing that mindshift. You have to have personal skin in this to win them over, to be successful. They’re so used to negativity that it’s hard to see anything but that.

Unless you can line back up and line back up to show them you actually care, it’s not going to be as effective as you want it to be.

SS: One philosophy in education is that world can be hard, and that we as educators need to teach our students how the world is – to prepare them for it. Based on what you’ve been saying, it sounds like you have a different philosophy. What do you think about your role in preparing students for the world?

ML: During my first job I worked at a Christian-based alternative school. I was supposed to be there 1-2 years but I stayed for 8. The thing they said that made the most sense to me is that it’s much easier to take criticism than compliments. A lot of programs in education built their ideologies around the fact that it’s easier to be negative than positive because that’s what the students understand. But when you break that down and look at what we want to get done and how we want to do it, it takes a mindshift from the kids because they’re not used to hearing anything positive about who they are or what they do.

Students are hearing so much negativity about who they are that we have to start somewhere in showing them this is attainable, this is achievable for them.

The first thing we need to put on the table is being an Innocent Child. Understanding that they don’t hear many positives about their lives – it’s hard coming from that, but once you recognize it, it’s easy to put that energy toward being positive even when there’s not much to be positive about in that specific moment.

From the beginning, it seems very complicated but it’s never been complicated to me. It’s as simple as listening to the students. If the students are talking about you at home, to their friends, having positive things to say then you’re on the right road. The proof is in the pudding. When students want to be in your presence, you’re doing something right. It can’t be at the expense of being challenged. Most students want to be challenged and show what they have and can do but nobody spends enough time with them to get through those layers of the onion – especially the top tough layers at the beginning.

SS: What advice do you have for educators who know there’s a student who doesn’t speak positively about them, but they know they need to build that sort of relationship to get through to the student? Where should they start?

ML: I wish I was approached more about this over the years. When I joined the Innocence Movement what stuck out most to me is empathy versus sympathy. Caring can easily come off as sympathy, and students do not appreciate sympathy at all. We don’t give students enough credit for how intelligent they are. Sympathy can look not-genuine.

So, pick out one single thing – one thing you can talk to them about before you get into the work or the academics, it can be as simple as who’s your top 5 favorite artists, celebrities, sports players. I bait them into starting a positive conversation (which might sometimes look like an argument), but I try to strike up a conversation about anything fun because this school stuff can get so thick so fast with what hasn’t been done.

Sometimes even if I agree with them, I pick the opposite answer they do just to get the conversation going and lighten things up. We have to promote citizenship and positive connection before we promote academics. First, you pick out one little thing you can do or talk about that’s totally off the books or the lesson plan to make sure you’ve got some buy in. They also have to know you know what you’re talking about – it doesn’t matter what the topic is but as long as you know and have reasons for why you have a different outlook on whatever the question is, that’s when they lighten up and say “maybe he’s not one of these whack teachers.”

For me, I’ll ask about their favorite rappers or musicians at the beginning of the day and tell them that at the end of the class I’ll ask them to play the clean version of a song they want to hear and then I’ll play the clean version of the song I want to hear, and we’ll talk about it and see which one we like the most. Next thing you know, we have something to look forward to. Everyone’s willing to put out some type of effort to do what we’re supposed to be doing. But you’ve got to start with some type of buy in to get anything done. It’s easy to sit in negativity, and students will wait you out – they won’t give in. You’ve gotta get ‘em early. You’ve got to have something to pull them in.

SS: Aside from hearing the good things students say about you, how else do you know you’re being successful in building Innocence? What’s one thing your practice helps you accomplish?

ML: A lot of my students fall into the category of truancy. Or they only come because they know if they miss one more day they’ll end up in court or their family’s gonna get fined. But over the years, one of the biggest joys is seeing students come to school more often because it’s not as bad as they thought it would be.

Until they know that this is a safe place, a positive environment for them, you [as the teacher] are getting put in the same box as everybody else where they’ll think you’re just waiting for them to fail and do something wrong and then they’ll be in trouble, and they won’t have a chance. But when they see the forgiveness, positivity, and that someone actually cares in the environment, you’ll have kids who miss all kinds of school coming to school.

9 times out of 10 it’s not that complicated to see why they don’t want to come, why they have this negative idea about school in their head – because they haven’t seen much success. But if you turn around and create success with them, they want to be part of it, they want things to be better, they want to succeed. You’ll see so many more students coming to school so much more often, receiving less suspensions, detentions, referrals, when they know and believe that someone’s looking out for their best interests – they do meet you halfway. Far from perfect, but if students have somewhere they want to be, they’ll find a way to get there a lot more than what they’ve historically done.  When they know someone’s worried about them if they’re not there, that creates more buy in than anything else.

SS: What do you want to say to educators or schools who haven’t yet committed to a practice of building Innocence?