Itasca teacher inspires students to change the world

That's what Itasca teacher Pamela Mitchell tells her second-graders, and they aim to prove her right

  • Pamela Mitchell reads to her second-grade class at Benson Primary School in Itasca, where she shares a message that's both simple and complicated: You can change the world.

      Pamela Mitchell reads to her second-grade class at Benson Primary School in Itasca, where she shares a message that's both simple and complicated: You can change the world. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted11/22/2017 10:13 AM

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

It's a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and she has her second-graders at Benson Primary School in Itasca painting American flags while listening, over and over again, to a recording of Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless the USA."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After a while, the kids pick up on some of the lyrics and start singing along. A bunch of 7-year-olds who are proud to be Americans, where at least they know they're free.

One of the kids, a girl, comes up the way second-graders sometimes do and says, "Ms. Mitchell, you should record us!"

So Mitchell responds like she almost always does. She starts working with other teachers and they join forces to create a patriotic CD that includes every kid in District 10. Some sing. Some perform with bands or choruses. Some recite the Pledge of Allegiance with Itasca firefighters.

Nice, huh?

But here's the best part: Once the CD is finished, Mitchell sells copies to folks around town. She raises $9,000 and donates it all to an organization helping children who were orphaned in the attacks.

A year later, on the anniversary of that terrible day, she sends copies of those CDs to schools within a mile or so of ground zero. She gets a letter of thanks from some guy named Bush. Her second-graders these days may not recognize the name, but he was president of the United States.

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"I believe strongly in creating opportunities to show our young students the importance of helping others and how, when everyone pitches in just a little bit, we can make a big difference," she says.

'It was always in me'

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

She was born in New Jersey but grew up in Glen Ellyn doing what kids of her generation did: playing school and pretending she was the teacher.

It's kind of funny, really, because young Pamela wasn't a very good student. School didn't come easy for her. But there was never a question she was going to be a teacher someday.

"I don't know that I ever made the decision," she says, "it was just always in me."

The only time she might have wavered, even a little, was when she graduated from college and discovered there weren't a lot of jobs available.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She looked all over, considering possibilities as far away as Texas, before finally finding an opening in Itasca.

"By God's grace, Itasca and I found each other," she says.

Her first teaching job was in a second-grade classroom at Benson. Twenty-two years later, it's still her only job.

#kindnessrocks

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

The 2017 school year is just starting and she's seeing all these scary stories about hurricanes in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico, and her thoughts immediately go to the kids in those areas and their families and, because she's a teacher, their schools.

So she does what she does, you know? She starts talking to other teachers in her school, in her district, and comes up with a way to raise money to help out.

"Sorry," she thinks when talking to her peers, "you're going to get a thousand emails from me."

And darned if everybody doesn't jump in to help her pull it off in late October, with an eye toward restoring classrooms and schools in those hurricane-ravaged areas.

It's a two-hour party for kids and their families that includes a photo booth, visits by comfort dogs, a bake sale and even a silent auction where folks can bid for the chance, say, to go to a movie with a teacher.

The Itasca PTO and the Itasca Lions Club pitch in by donating money to cover expenses so every penny raised can go to people in need.

She calls the thing "#kindnessrocks," and students and staff buy T-shirts with that message on the front to wear on the evening of the event -- with $2 from each shirt going toward the cause.

Mitchell doesn't put a price tag on the event's success, because that's not how she measures things (even though it raises more than $5,000).

"For me," she says, "success is seeing kids come together with their families to have fun for a good cause. Above all else, they're making a difference in other students' lives and that's what's important."

'The Pied Piper'

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

Not long after she arrived as a teacher at Benson, Dawn Turner was named principal. They've been working together for 20-plus years.

"What I love about her is her pure passion for teaching, for kids, for people," Turner says. "Years later, kids still run to her like the Pied Piper, even when they're 20 or 25 years old."

Everybody at Benson tries to engage whole families in the educational process, Turner says, but Mitchell "takes it to the next level."

Back in 2011, after a tsunami swamped Japan, it was Mitchell who pulled together a poetry slam to raise money for the victims.

"She's always the person who helps us figure out how to help," Turner says. "You just let her wheels turn and it all comes out over time."

Benson serves students ages 3 to 8, and most of them probably think they're too young to make a difference until Mitchell comes into their lives and shows them that if they work together, they truly can change the world.

One word of caution, though: Once Pam Mitchell starts rolling on something, she really starts rolling.

"I have to have a big, strong cup of coffee," Turner says, "just to keep up with her."

'We're all a team'

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

She's going to cry now, just a little, because you ask her what it's like, after 22 years in the classroom, to hear from some of her former students.

She has a regular Facebook page, just like everybody, but she's also got a separate one to keep in touch with her former students and the parents of those students.

"We're all a team," she tells kids and their parents when she first meets them at Benson and, even after two decades, she still views them that way.

Social media helps her keep tabs on students as they grow up.

After all this time, some have even become teachers and tell her how much she influenced them. "I became a teacher because of you," they say.

She tries to brush off those compliments because she knows so many others helped along the way, but the truth is they kind of stick with her, too, because isn't that every teacher's dream: to be remembered and have an impact?

And when that dream becomes reality, well, it's enough to make anyone a little teary.

'Change the world'

Here's a story about Pamela Mitchell.

Sometimes, after 22 years in the same place, it's easy to become a little jaded. Been there. Done that.

Listen to Mitchell:

"We're very, very blessed at Benson," she says. "You can just feel the love in the building.

"I have a boss who's very supportive, who understands where my thoughts are coming from and what's in my heart."

She hopes that love and support rubs off on her students. She hopes they remember it next year and the next and throughout their lives.

"I want them to be compassionate people who see others around them and look for ways to help," she says.

"You're going to change the world," she tells the 7-year-olds, and she believes it. And after a while, so do they.

So what's really the story, Pamela Mitchell?

"Kindness," she says, "always wins."

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