If you close your eyes and picture a school principal, what do you see? Maybe you envision a buttoned-down disciplinarian sitting behind a mahogany desk, doling out punishment to petrified students. Or perhaps you see a motherly figure roaming school hallways with a cup of coffee and a warm smile.
What you probably don’t picture is a bearded, earring-wearing former bouncer who collects guitars and quotes Bob Dylan.
Yet there he is, Tom Mitchell, sitting in his office at Elk Plain School of Choice surrounded by his Jerry Garcia mug, his assortment of musical instruments, and the various odds and ends that inspire him, including a copy of the Prayer of Saint Francis and a JP Patches bobblehead doll.
It’s fair to say Mitchell has eclectic tastes, and over the years his one-of-a-kind persona has made him one of the most beloved and respected figures in the Bethel School District.
Mitchell has been an educator— either a teacher, assistant principal or principal — since 1987. It’s a job he was made to do, even though it took him a while to figure that out.
Growing up in Marysville, Mitchell was more interested in music than school. After getting guitar lessons in church, a teenaged Mitchell started his career as folk musician, playing Bob Dylan and Neil Young covers at a local pizza parlor.
He later parlayed that gig into a singing telegram business that he started with a buddy.
“People would pay us to do a birthday tune. They’d give us a few facts about the person and we’d make a song. We even got in the local newspaper one time for surprising my orthodontist on his birthday,” he said.
Mitchell’s love of music never waned, but he was pragmatic enough to know that being a rockstar wasn’t in the cards. So he went off to college, not quite sure what he’d do with his life.
It was in those years that Mitchell took a job as a bouncer at a bar in downtown Seattle. In many ways it was the perfect job for him at the time. He was a big guy who loved boxing, but he was smart and diplomatic enough to keep most situations from becoming violent.
“When I got hired to be a bouncer, they told me, ‘We don’t want you to lead with physical force. We don’t want you to be a hired thug. What we want is for you to use your physical presence and your diplomacy to solve problems,’” Mitchell said.
Those are skills Mitchell has used countless times in school hallways and playgrounds. But at that point he still didn’t know his future would be in education.
Mitchell admits he had no clue what he wanted to do after graduating from the University of Washington. He flirted with going to law school, but he couldn’t shake the idea of becoming a teacher.
He thought back on the handful of teachers who had made a difference in his childhood, and realized he’d like to play that role for other students.
“Those people still walk in a hallowed state in my mind,” Mitchell said of his favorite teachers. “The power to make a positive difference in a kid’s life is really a holy thing.”
His first teaching job was in Sultan, where he taught middle school P.E., health, communications and art while coaching the wrestling team. He later moved to Orting and then Auburn before arriving in Bethel as an assistant principal at Frontier Middle School.
Mitchell’s sartorial choices made him hard to miss in those early days. In addition to his beard, long hair and earring, Mitchell’s daily outfit generally included jeans and Birkenstock sandals.
The laid back attire went hand in hand with his goal of being accessible to students. Mitchell knows being a kid can be difficult, and he works hard to be someone his students are comfortable talking to.
“I think very quickly kids realize that while I’m going to hold the line, they can trust me and they can count on me,” he said.
The goodwill between Mitchell, his students, and his teachers has translated to success in his schools. As principal of Liberty Middle School, where he served from the school’s opening in 2010 until 2016, Mitchell oversaw a period of great success.
During his tenure in Bethel, two of Mitchell’s schools — Liberty and Frontier — were awarded “most improved” in the district, and Liberty was recognized as a Washington State School of Distinction, which meant it was in the top 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of sustained improvement.
Mitchell became principal Elk Plain School of Choice in 2017, and he has relished the idea of starting fresh at a new school.
“When my friends and other principals ask me how I’m liking it, I almost feel guilty talking about it,” he said. “I love this place. I love coming to work every day. There are things to be worked on and improved, but there’s a lot to enjoy and celebrate, too.”
Mitchell is quick to credit others for the success his schools have seen, and he says he has a “healthy sense of gratitude” for the people around him.
“I’ve been surrounded by great people throughout my time in Bethel and any success I’ve had is firmly grounded in their hard work, support, mentoring, and understanding,” he said. “That goes all the way from the Superintendent and School Board through central office support staff, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, grounds and maintenance folks. It’s really Team Bethel that makes it possible, not me or any individual. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”