By ALEXANDER CORREA & JENNIFER ARIELLE TURCIOS
The 2020-2021 school year was unlike any other any of us have ever experienced before. Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, our lives are different. We’ve all been affected in some way; some of us had friends and family with COVID-19, some of us had COVID-19 ourselves, and some of us mentally suffered because of our time in quarantine. Each community struggled with how to move forward in this strange new world. Principals everywhere were faced with challenges and questions that had never been considered before. These obstacles appeared for Dr. Mitchell in his first year as the principal of Oceanside High School. We wondered what that experience was like. Dr. Mitchell kindly agreed to speak to us about the challenges of teaching through a pandemic, along with several topics, such as mental health awareness, transphobia, racism, and more.
“What motivated you to become a principal?”
Dr. Mitchell grew up in a small community – really small by Long Island standards. There was only one building for all 600 students K-12! Compare that to the Oceanside School District which has 10 buildings with 5,290 students. So how did this small town kid come to be principal of a school that hosts almost 2,000 students every day? Well he didn’t exactly “set out” to become a principal, but he enjoyed the sense of community from his hometown, he loved how everyone was so kind and welcoming and he really loved school. That combined with his love of Literature put him on the path to becoming an English teacher. Dr. Mitchell first started teaching English to seventh and eighth graders in San Francisco, but a desire to live and work in NYC brought him to Harlem where he taught and eventually met his wife. Dr. Mitchell says about the moves and the progression “…each step along the way, I wanted to have some bigger goals for myself and for my future. I wanted to develop better relationships with students and colleagues, and I really wanted to help out in any way I could.” He found that bigger goal and worked on developing better relationships while working at an alternative school and fell in love with alternative education. That path eventually brought him to Castleon right here in Oceanside and now into year two at OHS which he loves. “Oceanside gives me the sense of community that I was looking for” which is why you’ll see him at many of the school activities and popping into classrooms.
“How would you say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed your experience as a principal?”
Dr. Mitchell joined our school community at a difficult time, and he was forced to face challenges throughout the school year that some of his predecessors did not due to the pandemic. There were plenty of times when he did not have the answers that people wanted, and he was put into the difficult position of having to decide weather to be vulnerable and admit that he honestly did not know how the pandemic was going to affect our school, or to pretend he had the answers to put people at ease. “… Instead of making something up, [the pandemic] taught me to be honest and transparent.” He told us, as he decided to take the more difficult path and communicated with the people around him. This is difficult to do for many people in his position, as being open and communicating with others is hard to do when people are looking to you for advice and direction. However, regardless of how thankful he is for what the pandemic has taught him, he is still grateful for our slow but sure return to normality. “I missed a lot of chances to meet students and to step into classrooms to say hello. I’m happy that we’re gaining that back this year.” He wants others to understand that this experience has changed his view of open communication, and wants people to know how important it is to be vulnerable, even when it is difficult.
“You mentioned the importance of vulnerability. How would you say that people being more vulnerable and open about mental health has impacted students?
Dr. Mitchell believes in the importance of vulnerability, and is a big advocate for mental health awareness. Due to his time teaching in alternative education, he has learned the importance of being honest with others about how we are feeling mentally. Dr. Mitchell spoke to us about the direct correlation between how comfortable students are in the classroom and how well they understand the material that they are learning. “No matter how good a teacher is, you’re not going to learn if you don’t feel comfortable and accepted in the classroom. I think that our content is important, but I also believe that even more so, we’re working with adolescents that have problems that the adults in the building didn’t have. There are new struggles in the world. They deserve to know that there are people in the building that are there to help if they are struggling.” He told us. He hopes that the impact made by opening up the conversation about mental health will help us to understand and assist students with their mental health before things become too unmanageable and overwhelming. Regarding the future of mental health awareness in our school community, Dr. Mitchell told us about an upcoming resource for students that need assistance with their mental health. “…Big picture, we’re working on a mental health and wellness center. I can’t wait for that to be a resource that is available for students and I’m so happy that we’re able to have these conversations that we couldn’t have before.”
“Students being comfortable is a huge part of their success. This year we’ve seen new diversity within the school community, and there has been a new wave of LGBTQ+ acceptance. Even so, many transgender students still face the issue of ‘deadnaming,’ which refers to the usage of a transgender person’s former name. What is being done about this?”
That idea of students being comfortable in their learning environment is important. OHS has seen growing diversity in the school community and a new wave of LGBTQ+ acceptance here and beyond. The positive steps are encouraging but there are missteps along the way. Unfortunately something that some students have encountered is “deadnaming” – using the name that a transgender person used before they transitioned – Dr. Mitchell disclosed to us that he only recently became aware of the term, but also shared that it is a major concern “With our transgender students, we are 100% willing to make accomodations and changes in our systems regarding names and pronouns. All that stuff depends on how comfortable the student is and what they decide would make them feel more comfortable.” In addition Dr. Mitchell explained that they are always working with teachers, counselors, and administrators behind the scenes to get things right. It is evident in the Infinite Campus system the school uses that makes note of preferred names and pronouns for students. Even with these steps though at times it is a challenge “…because this is all pretty new for us. It’s different. It’s not something a lot of us had during our earlier years of teaching, which is why we’re always open to suggestions regarding what would make our students feel comfortable.” Which is great to hear. It appears Dr. Mitchell and the administration would welcome feedback from students on ways to make the environment as inclusive as possible. In addition Dr. Mitchell explained “If the wrong name is called out at any point, I’m confident that it would never be intentional. But if it was, we would hope that the student would inform us about it so we could fix the problem.”
“What advice would you give to this year’s incoming freshmen?”
When it comes to being a new member of a large community, Dr. Mitchell has a bit of history. He went from spending his childhood in a very small town to eventually becoming the principal of a school that has more students than his whole hometown. His advice to incoming freshmen was to always ask questions. “I actually spoke to that group of students at their moving up ceremony in 8th grade.” Dr. Mitchell told us. “I told them that this really is a building of helpers. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but I thought that they should know that when I say that, I don’t just mean the teachers. When I say this, I mean all of us. The students, the teachers, the administrators, and everyone else who helps to keep our school running smoothly. I think that our 10th, 11th, and 12th graders are collectively, as a group, good people. We have a really strong building and a strong community. I want our new students to feel like asking for help doesn’t have to be a scary thing.”
“As you may know, September is Sucicide Awareness Month. What is the school doing to recognize this important issue that has affected so many people personally?”
For Sucicide Prevention Month, the school did a few things. QR code stickers were given to every student, and when scanned, it would bring up a list of resources. This list contains contact information for school counselors, social workers, psychologists, along with the phone numbers for the LICC (Long Island Crisis Center) and the 24/7 Sucicide Prevention Hotline. Tables were set up in the main lobby to promote suicide awareness, and students were given the opportunity to write messages on a piece of paper that they would give to someone who’s struggling with their mental health. “We’re also looking to add a program called Sources of Strength. The great thing about Sources of Strength is that it’s almost– not entirely, but almost entirely run by students. It’s very focused on peer assistance. Soon I will be putting out a call for students and teachers who would like to help get this started, and we’ll be training them in hopes to get this program running by sometime in early November. It’s a national program implemented by Rockville Centre last year, and it takes a few years to really get going, but the process is definitely worth it. It’s so important to get rid of the stigma about issues like depression. Asking for help is hard, but it’s important for people to realize that asking for help is not a weak thing to do. If anything, it’s a strong thing.
“You’ve gotten to oversee so many important moments here at OHS, what are some of your favorite moments from your time as principal?”
Dr. Mitchell acknowledges that it is early in his time here, but one of his favorite memories from this year would be our 9/11 commemoration ceremony. Dr. Mitchell was a second year teacher on 9/11/2001, and he has plenty of difficult memories associated with the tragedy, just as many of the other teachers in our school do. While none of our students were alive for long enough to be directly affected by that day, all of us recognize the importance of community and respect on that day. “There always will be a certain amount of processing and remembering we have left to do,” Dr. Mitchell says. “But taking one step back, I really felt that remembering that day brought the building together.” He appreciates the respect and remembrance shown on that day, and he hopes to create more memories like this one.
“What have you learned from your time as principal?”
During Dr. Mitchell’s time as a teacher before he came to Oceanside, he worked with a very small group of students. There weren’t many different voices on issues in the community. This is very different from things here at Oceanside, as we have many more students who are heavily involved in making positive changes to our school community. Dr. Mitchell values communication and told us that the most important thing that he has learned would be making others feel heard. “[Students] deserve to know we’re all listening, even if they have made mistakes in the past,” Dr. Mitchell told us. He hopes to see more students using their voices and making their problems known for the better of our community as a whole.
This interview opened our eyes to how hard being a principal truly is. We thank Dr. Mitchell for taking the time out of his day to speak to us. We learned a lot from Dr. Mitchell and his experiences, and we hope to spread awareness by talking about the issues we discussed with him. Dr. Mitchel never quit despite how difficult his first year here was. We hope that other students will begin to recognize and appreciate everything that he does to make Oceanside High School a better place for everyone.