By Michael J. Solender
Even after a quarter of a century of teaching under his belt, Corey Mitchell is never far from reflecting on a kindness intervention when he just started out that has served as a life-long inspiration.
“At the onset of my career there was a French teacher where I did my student teaching,” says Mitchell, recalling his early days and experiencing financial struggle and homelessness. “Who put a check in my pocket and said, ‘I’d like to make an investment in the future of education.’ And ever since, I’ve felt this obligation to contribute to education in a way that was worthy of the gift she bestowed on me.”
It turned out to be quite an investment. Mitchell, a theater arts teacher at Northwest School of the Arts (grades 9 – 12) for the past 20 years, is one of the most recognized and heralded educators in our community. He’s helped bring national recognition to this acclaimed magnet school, along the way winning the first-ever Tony Award in 2015 for Excellence in Theatre Education.
Mitchell’s indefatigable work ethic, passion and enthusiasm for the stage and the varied life lessons discovered there have led to so many awards, shelves that bear them continuously groan under their combined weight. A few to note include: Charlotte Post Teacher of the Year (2018), Outstanding Artist Award Winner, National Black Theatre Festival (2017), Global Teacher Prize Top 50 Finalist, The Varkey Foundation (2017), Special Commendation from the North Carolina State Board of Education (2015), Outstanding Theatre Program, Educational Theatre Association (2013) and 25 Blumey Awards.
The Mitchell-produced and directed version of The Color Purple at NWSA, only the 2nd high school in the U.S. to stage the production, was selected for performance on the main stage at the International Thespian Festival in 2013. In 2015, a full-length documentary film, Purple Dreams, chronicled the remarkable backstory of the toil and drama both on and off the stage in this effort.
For Mitchell however, motivation doesn’t come from awards or recognition, it’s the thrill of the process that lights his fire. “The thing that really clicked for me about being in education and really growing personally,” he said, recalling a NWSA production of Ragtime, “Is when I found myself reveling in the chaos and madness of high school musical theater. It was chaotic, fun and there were so many threads going in different directions with the theater staff, the kids, and the designers. I thought this is what collaboration feels like. This is what artistry feels like, and I felt like I was home.”
Helping students, especially those who may feel on the outside looking in, is perhaps Mitchell’s greatest gift.
“At Northwest, those I teach may be labeled “geeky theater kids,” or have preconceptions about them because of their race or orientation,” says Mitchell. “But they’re not on the margin here. Sometimes in education, when a kid walks into the room, they’re walking in with the baggage of so many generations. For many years before them, kids that looked or acted like them were immediately written off. It’s a tremendous honor to be able to elevate where those kids come from and celebrate them for who they are.”