Saturday, November 23, 2013
Teaching at KIPP: An Extended Interview
I am working on a book that will be published in 2014 about teaching at KIPP schools, and the most significant source of my data comes from extended interviews with former KIPP teachers. The following interview represents the first complete transcription from those interview files.
This interview with “Adam” was conducted the year following his experience as a KIPP teacher. While each participant sheds new light on the experience of working in a KIPP school, here “Adam” shares experiences that are not at all atypical among those twenty teachers I have interviewed so far.
Even though the book will be available in late 2014, I share this transcript now for those who would consider teaching at KIPP, as well as for those parents and children who are considering enrollment. I offer Adam’s account, too, for those colleges and universities that are encouraging the KIPP model by giving special consideration to KIPP students who are applying to their institutions. I offer this complete firsthand account, too, for those who have come to depend upon the corporate media and press releases to form their opinions about the total compliance model of corporate charter reform schooling.
A very old ethical question looms once more: Does the end, which in this case is college enrollment and graduation, perhaps, for a relative few of the hundreds of thousands of former KIPP students, justify the means? Are there unjust and inhumane conditions bred by KIPP’s institutional parameters and accepted practices that cannot be morally justified for any reason, regardless of intent? Or is there a rationale for concentrated oppression among the poor that makes it acceptable?
All dates, geographical information, grade levels, and subject references have been blanked out in an effort to assure Adam’s continued anonymity.
KIPP Interview with Adam
JH: How did you find out about KIPP?
ADAM: I sort of found out about KIPP through the Teach for America pipeline. As a core member of Teach for America from 20__ to 20__, from the very beginning of my experience, from the five week training program that Teach for America employs, all the way through my two year commitment, KIPP was really sort of mythologized as the end-all, be-all, the ideal model for a classroom of high achieving students, from day one of joining Teach for America and seeing videos of KIPP classrooms, up until towards the end of my two year commitment when I was considering next steps, KIPP really actively coming in and harvesting new employees from core members who were finishing up their two year commitment. It was always something that was before me over the course of my two years with Teach for America. And then I really started to feel like I was being recruited into almost the next phase of my TFA experience towards the end of my second year as I was preparing to transition into being an alumni.
JH: You say you felt like you were being recruited. Can you talk specifically about how you came to feel that way?
ADAM: Teach for America is famous for employing a lot of systems, almost to the point of inundation. I know I was encouraged by some of my mentors, some of my supervisors, in the TFA experience, to submit my resume to a database. It was strongly recommended, put your resume in. It was a resume for recruiters for KIPP regions, specifically in my case, the KIPP __________ schools. There was definitely a sense of, immediately after doing that, I started receiving emails, phone calls from various KIPP school leaders and administrators trying to gauge my interest on coming on board with a KIPP school.
JH: You mentioned the word mythologized, that KIPP is sort of a mythologized, ideal school. You said you saw a number of videos. Can you think of other ways KIPP you feel like was mythologized?
ADAM: That’s a great question. It would be everything from the Teach For America corps member has a very close working relationship with someone called their program director, who works with them in a supervisory capacity. They’re someone that provides feedback on their instruction, observes them over the course of their commitment. I know that a lot of times, if I was reaching out for a resource, whether it was in terms of looking for new strategies for classroom management that I could implement or looking for a lesson plan, the resources that I would be directed to were very often resources that were created by KIPP teachers, that had the KIPP label and logo on them. A lot of the resources that I felt like I was being directed to by my Teach for America supervisors originated in KIPP schools. In a more abstract and vague sense, there was this sort of idea, the two founders of KIPP, Feinberg and I forget the other guy’s name – I’m sure you know it.
ADAM: They were always capstone references. It was in the background, this is an example of what a Teach for America corps member that internalizes the experience and takes it forward is not limiting themselves to a two year commitment to closing the achievement gap. This is what the idea Teach for America alumnus goes on to do, this kind of thing. There were always vague models. But also referenced very explicitly in a lot of cases, just anecdotally, these are the guys that you wanna be like. I think it was in very particular ways in terms of the strategies that were being transmitted to Teach for America corps members in the classroom, and also in a broader sense.
JH: I want to ask you how you became a KIPP teacher, but I first want to ask you to tell me about your educational background.
ADAM: My educational background, I attended private schools from Kindergarten until I earned my high school diploma. I went on to a liberal arts college called ____________ here in _____________, and while I was there I studied primarily __________ [humanities] during my first two years. And then I went on to declare _____________ as my second major. My background is primarily in the humanities, with little--but no formal education in education, in classroom instruction or anything along those lines.
JH: How did you become a KIPP teacher? Your name went into this database while you were with TFA.
ADAM: It did. I started looking at relocating to ___________ and at that point, I guess the best way to put this would be to say almost like an autopilot. It seemed like a logical step for me professionally and personally to transition into a role at a KIPP school. I interviewed with multiple KIPP schools in __________, and received an offer from one in _____________. I received two offers from different KIPP schools, ___________________. The one in _____________ just seemed to be more along the lines of the kind of culture that I wanted to be a part of. That was how I transitioned into the KIPP role after Teach for America.
JH: What kind of culture did you want to be a part of?
ADAM: I wanted to be a part of clearly a culture of high expectations. I also wanted to be a part of a school that was, and there’s a part of me that wants to cringe when I say this, but my own experience at the private schools that I grew up in was just a culture that was very much about the development of the individual, critical thinking, cultivation of the intellect at an individual level with each student. I thought, naively, that this would be the kind of culture that I would be transitioning into at the KIPP School.
JH: If I were a teacher, and if I were interested in becoming a KIPP teacher, one of the first things I might ask you is what was it like. What would you tell me?
ADAM: Hard. Draining. And I actually had this conversation with a former colleague from my Teach for America experience not long ago who is looking at a KIPP school in the _________. Incredibly, incredibly draining on a personal level. I would have to say that my first response would be to counter with a question. If you told me that you were a teacher looking into teaching at a KIPP school, my first question would be directed at your own educational philosophy because I would think that it’s a very rare thing [for one] who has a passion for young people and a passion for education to have a philosophy that aligns with the KIPP schools.
JH: You used the word a couple of times, draining and personally draining. Can you say more about that?
ADAM: I can. Obviously I could start with, and I hesitate to do this because I feel like it comes off as whining, a lack of work ethic, but then I’ll also address that in a moment. Obviously there’s the issue of the hours. The school that I was, and I think this is pretty formulaic from most KIPP schools but in my case it was I was at school every day from 6:45 AM until most days 6:00 PM at night, some days later, into 8:00 and 9:00 PM. I would talk about Saturday school. I would talk about the fact that I was on call until 10:00 PM every night for homework questions or for calls from parents. I would talk about two hour classes. Each class that I taught was, three days out of the week each class was usually a two hour and ten minute block. I would talk about all those things.
But for me personally, and I think I addressed this in my original email to you as well, and I don’t want to get too much into that, it’s a bit too meta-cognitive, but there’s this idea in the culture of, at least on the staff level, the culture amongst the staff of, if for any moment you are flagging under that pressure, if you find yourself feeling drained because of the hours or because of the frenzy of work, that’s not natural; that’s a cause for guilt. That’s a sign of a flaw in character, or a lack of commitment to the students or a lack of work ethic. It was draining on all the levels of the particulars in terms of the time, the energy, but it was also draining in that sense of I was always struggling in my own mind with this idea of--should I feel guilty about the fact that I’m exhausted? And the guilt was almost more exhausting than the actual work, itself.
JH: There was an emotional exhaustion?
ADAM: There was a supreme emotional exhaustion that surpassed the physical exhaustion, that surpassed all the other elements. Had it not been for the emotional exhaustion, I have no doubt that I could have felt more successful in my work. The odd thing is on paper and according to my administrators, I was successful. It’s not that I had an unsuccessful year at KIPP and left with a bad record or with a stain across my experience. There was that emotional exhaustion; it was too much.
JH: This leads me to ask you, there’s a great deal of talk in the KIPP organization in terms or a motto for children, work hard, be nice. It sounds as if you were being pushed to adopt that same philosophy and if you didn’t work hard enough or nice enough, you felt guilty about it.
ADAM: I think that’s a huge part of it. Give me any one of the KIPP mottos, the work hard, be nice, the team beats individual. This is tangential, but you mentioned that motto, work hard, be nice. I felt that was something we imposed on our students. That was definitely something that was--the staff adopted those kinds of mottos, too. Yes, your point absolutely rings true. These are things that it’s not just something that you build into your classroom culture. It’s an idea that’s shot through every aspect of the KIPP organization from administration to classroom instructors. The interesting thing, one of the things that I found myself at odds with all the time as a staff member at this KIPP school was the adults, for the most part, were all working very hard. All of my co-workers were all working very hard. But very few of them were being very nice, to each other or to the students.
JH: How were they not so nice?
ADAM: I remember, distinctly, I have a very vivid memory of my first week at this school, the staff-training week, new staff training. There was the topic of screaming and yelling, staff screaming and yelling at students came up. That was something that my knee jerk reaction was to cringe from that because in my two years thus far as an educator, I had never raised my voice. I did not believe in yelling at students. The principal saw this in most of our faces, school leaders, and had a whole conversation around how yelling and screaming at students used to be a big part of the school culture, but that she believed that it was something they had moved on from. Dr. Horn, I will say, not a day went by in that school where I did not hear an adult raise their voice to a student, and not just in the stern command issuing tone kind of way, but just loudly berating students. That was something that always, we had this motto that’s meant to be on our walls, but at the end of the day, there’s just nothing nice about that kind of tone, that level of volume.
JH: When you talk about berating students, how did that sound?
ADAM: No. I would say it was never anything in terms of the content of what they were saying, unless it was humiliation, which was sometimes a tactic that I saw employed, the content was never anything like cursing, name-calling, anything like that. I’m remembering some specific instances here. I know that on the first day that students were on campus, we were all in assembly in the cafeteria and there was a slide show going on. This was my first day as a new staff with students on campus. There was one student that was, I think, fidgeting or talking to his neighbor, something like that. A staff member just came out of nowhere and interrupted the principal in the middle of her presentation, interrupted the whole thing and started shouting at the student. I expected the principal to appear taken aback or disoriented, but the principal jumped right on board and turn to the student and, I distinctly remember, that’s pretty embarrassing, huh? Is that not embarrassing to you? A lot of that going on. Not only did I see this a lot, but I felt this sense of because I didn’t for my first several months there at this KIPP school, because I was very slow to raise my voice, I actually felt like I was under pressure from the administration, in my observations and in my feedback to yell more. I felt like that was the subtext to a lot of the feedback I got in terms of you need to be more strict, you need to be more heavy handed. I felt the subtext was raise your voice, scream more, that kind of thing. It was a school with an open door policy, but we always said if you saw a closed door that meant that the teacher was screaming. And that was something that was part of the culture. Teachers would go, they’d close the door to their classroom and they would just erupt.
JH: Was it referred to as screaming?
ADAM: It was definitely referred to as screaming. There were several times when I would have conversations with my students in advisory periods – that’s what we called the homeroom period, when the kids had a chance to reflect. It was 30 minutes out of one week and it was the only time when there was any kind of relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. That was hands down the number one reflection that most kids had when asked if you could change one thing about your school, what would it be, it was almost always no screaming, less screaming.
JH: I wanted to ask what year was this that you were teaching at the KIPP School?
ADAM: This was last year; it was 20__-20__.
JH: Go ahead; I interrupted you.
ADAM: It was not uncommon for, a part of their culture was they talked about team and family and the idea of other teachers would drop into co-workers’ classrooms during their prep periods and observe and give feedback, which is a great idea. But it was not uncommon once a day for a co-worker or an administrator to come in my classroom, and I would be in the middle of a lesson, working with the students and if that co-worker or administrator saw a student doing something that they felt didn’t meet expectations, even if it was something like, they didn’t have a pencil, their shirt was un-tucked, their head was down, they weren’t tracking the teacher with their eyes, it was not uncommon for a co-worker to interrupt my lesson and derail it more than any student misbehavior ever could. How can you correct a co-worker in front of a classroom full of students? It was not uncommon for a co-worker to come in and derail an entire lesson because they saw a student not meeting expectations and decided to seize on that opportunity to just erupt and interrupt my class, my lesson, with a rant.
JH: Did you say with a rant?
ADAM: With a rant, yes, sir.
JH: The term rant, this was used to describe this kind of correcting, this kind of loud correcting when something happened that was not behaviorally correct?
ADAM: I would say so, yes, sir.
JH: This guilt that you were feeling for not working hard enough and being tired and being tired of feeling like you were guilty of being tired, is this something that you brought from your TFA experience, or is this something new that happened when you came to KIPP?
ADAM: I would say it was something that was the result of conditioning over the course of my Teach for America experience that was unearthed by my experience at KIPP. Because I had a very positive Teach for America experience, for the most part. I was very successful and I quite enjoyed myself, in part because I had a very good placement. Looking back, that’s what I attribute my positive experience in Teach for America to. I had a great placement at a school with great co-workers, a great principal, and I loved where I was. But there was, I think I mentioned to you originally, that sense of over the course of the two years being conditioned to believe that if there’s any slacking of will at any point, if there’s any departure from these philosophies, these precepts of Teach for America, which I think are held in common with KIPP--they just look different--that’s a sign of someone giving up. It’s almost this idea of a fundamentalist cult. Someone’s not allowed to question, someone’s not allowed to doubt. If they do, that means that they’re fallen; that means that they’re out. There’s no room for conversation. There’s no room for nuance.
JH: How was the reinforced? Was it through their literature, through their lectures, through their discussions? How was that reinforced?
ADAM: I think it crossed a lot of levels. For me personally, I don’t know how to address that generally. For me personally, because I had a very positive relationship with my closest supervisors in Teach for America at that time, I know that the way that they would talk to me about certain peers of mine, equivalents of mine who were the same year in the program who came the same time as me, the way that they would talk about some of those peers who were less committed, or some of those peers who were starting to balk under some of the expectations, or thinking about doing something after the two year experience that had nothing to do with education, had nothing to do with Teach For America, there was always a tone, an undercurrent. I would say that. I would also way their massive efforts to funnel people off of their two year commitment into either a KIPP school, the massive efforts to get a partnership between TFA and KIPP to sort of channel people that are coming off of their two year commitment that don’t want to stay in their current classrooms, into a KIPP school. There’s massive effort to funnel people that are coming off of their two-year commitment into Teach for America staff positions. It’s just this constant barrage of--you need to stay affiliated in some way. Even today, I still get probably an email a day from Teach for America about the ways that I can still be involved.
JH: An email a day?
ADAM: What am I doing – I would say on average, an email a day for a business week. On average. And it’s from various branches of Teach for America. I’ll get an email saying these are the ways that you should be thinking about how can you affect educational policy. Then I’ll get another one about get in on the ground level of education law. Just lots of different branches of the organization.
JH: So once a corps member, always a corps member in some ways.
ADAM: That’s exactly it. I think the same is true of KIPP. It’s interesting you mention that because I have a plaque on my wall that was given to me when I left KIPP. The only reason I have it on my wall is because all of my students signed it and I appreciate looking at what they had to say. But the centerpiece of it--once a KIPPster, always a KIPPster.
JH: Let me ask you this question. What kind of person makes a good KIPP teacher?
ADAM: That’s a good question. Because what I will say is that there were a handful of people that I worked with during the year that I was at KIPP that were, I would say, not only good KIPP teachers, but I would say that they are good teachers. But it’s just such an exact formula. But what kind of person in general would make a good KIPP teacher, I would start off it would have to be Type A personality. It would have to be a Type A personality. And in fact, if you’re not –
JH: Why is that?
ADAM: Because to me, the culture at KIPP, especially around how you manage your students, around what you expect of your students, it’s just all about control. This idea of every student in the classroom has to have their eyes on you one hundred percent of the time. That’s the ideal classroom.
JH: All the time?
ADAM: All the time. One hundred percent. It’s that idea of track the speaker. You have to track the speaker with your eyes, at all times. That was one of the things, to them, that’s their vision of a successful classroom. Not speaking, always sitting up straight, eyes on the teacher, no indication of tiredness, no indication of boredom, anything like that, no indication of wanting to contribute their ideas preemptively, that’s the ideal classroom. Someone who wants that kind of classroom would make a good KIPP teacher. I think part of the reason I not only, I managed to mold myself in some ways to their model, but part of the reason that I was miserable is to me, that’s not what makes a good teacher. I like a classroom with an exchange of ideas--there’s a premium placed on that. That’s not what they want in a KIPP classroom.
JH: How did that work for you? Did you feel a tension? Were you able to be the teacher you wanted to be? How did that work?
ADAM: Some of the time; for the most part no. And there was a definite tension. Towards the end of the year, I felt a lot more liberty, in part because I’d established a rapport with my students and managed to find some ways of operating and also I’d decided that I wasn’t going to be returning for a second year. I didn’t particularly care if I got negative feedback, as long as I felt like I was doing right by my students. But in terms of how it worked for me, I was always asking for more feedback from my administrators when I was there. The feedback always came in the form of--I called it drive-by feedback--of an administrator stopping by for five minutes, recording what percentage of the students had their heads on the desk, what percentage of the students weren’t tracking me, whether or not my objective was written clearly on the board, whether or not my homework was displayed properly, all that kind of stuff. I’d get an email later that afternoon saying 70 percent of your students were tracking you with your eyes while you were speaking. Do you find that this is acceptable? What can you do to get that 30 percent engaged? I didn’t feel that was adequate feedback. In terms of how I tried to make it work for me, I always trying to tactfully pressure my administrators into giving me more meaningful feedback.
JH: On your teaching technique, on the curriculum, or on what?
ADAM: I would say both teaching technique, the curriculum. The curriculum that I taught was handed down to me from the previous year’s ______ grade _______ teacher. I was always trying to look for ways to make it more my own, to integrate some of my own ideas and personalize it a bit more. I felt the message that I was constantly getting was there’s no time for that. You teach it as it is; make it work.
JH: You were teaching _____ grade?
ADAM: Yes, sir.
JH: All courses, or just some?
ADAM: Just _____.
JH: If I had been there at KIPP, following you through a typical day, what would I see you doing? What experiences would I observe you having?
ADAM: You would arrive with me. We would start at about – students would begin to arrive at 7:15. What you would see for the first hour of the day was homeroom, which I was very excited when I first started to find out that I would have a homeroom. That’s not something that I had before, until I realized that it wasn’t a homeroom in any sense of a culture or anything like that. It was for the first 30 minutes of each day, or the first 45 minutes of each day, I would come in and immediately call students up, one by one, alphabetically. The first thing that they did in the morning was they would have their homework checked from the night before. Each student was to bring up their homework, and they would have a piece of homework for every single class that they have and an agenda, which is their notes where they recorded their homework. The agenda was meant to be signed by their parents. For the first 45 minutes of the day, I would just call up the kids one by one, check to make sure that they had every piece of homework, that every piece of homework was signed by their parent or guardian, that their agenda was signed by their parent or guardian, and that all their homework had been recorded in there from the previous day. Then I would sign off. If they did not, they would first of all be docked what we called paycheck dollars. This is very common at each KIPP school, students receive a monthly paycheck with KIPP dollars that they can spend at the student store. They would be docked dollars for any item that was missing. They would also be, probably 80 percent of the time, forced to call their parents. Most of the time it would be in front of the rest of the students, to explain that they were losing their dollars because something was not in place.
JH: So the call happened then, during homeroom?
ADAM: It would happen then, during the homeroom. Homeroom was meant to be 100 percent silent. Each morning students would come through the door and they would have morning work in a very specific place in each of their homerooms, which was essentially busywork. Oftentimes it wasn’t meant to be as an idea of a review of material that they covered in a class from the previous day. So each teacher for the grade level would have morning work one day a week. For example, I had morning work on Mondays. Each morning I would be responsible for creating that morning work for Monday morning. Tuesday I might be the math teacher. And it’s meant to, as I said, reinforce the lesson that they practiced the day before in that specific content area, but nine times out of ten, between all the other responsibilities that teachers are forced to perform, morning work was something that fell by the wayside. So it was almost always some kind of busywork: a crossword puzzle, and it was almost always something that the students could finish within five to ten minutes, but they were still forced to be 100 percent silent and in their seats during that time.
JH: For the 45 minutes.
ADAM: For the 45 minutes, and that’s how they would start their day.
JH: This was 7:15 – 8:00.
ADAM: Yes, sir.
JH: What time did you get there?
ADAM: I would usually get there about 6:45 AM. If I had morning work that day, I would get there between 6:15 and 6:30. The other thing is, for the first three months of school, KIPP doesn’t work on a--well, the transitions between classes were very routinized, very disciplined. For me, as a new teacher starting off getting accustomed to this procedure, I could not make it through 30 students, checking every item of their homework, checking for every signature and placing parent phone calls, because nine times out of ten when a student calls home to say they don’t have something, the parents are then going to want to speak to me. And, of course, I’m not going to tell our parents that they can’t talk to me because I’m checking 29 other students’ homework. So nine times out of ten, for the first four to five months of the school year, I found that I could not get 30 students done, checking five pieces of homework plus everything else, in 45 minutes. I would send the students on and that class would then be late for the next class and I was pretty strictly reprimanded by the administration for that.
JH: What happened to you as a result of that?
ADAM: There was no punishment, no kind of probation. I remember going to them again and again and saying this is not--I need help. There’s no way that I can get this done in 45 minutes, and it was always, make it happen, find a way. Basically I did. More often than not it was by taking short cuts.
JH: Taking short cuts?
ADAM: Not really checking in depth to see if every signature was there, not really checking every piece of homework to make sure that every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed.
JH: This is 8:00; what happened through the rest of the day?
ADAM: Starting at 8:00, the students would go into their normal rotation. They would move into transition, which was always a stressful time. It’s mean to be very routinized. They have a thing called “one, two, three dismissal,” where they’re given about 20 seconds to pack up. Not about 20 seconds; it is an exact 20 seconds. Give them 20 seconds to pack, then they have one, two, three dismissal, where the teacher raises one finger and that indicates that all students should be tracking them. When all students are tracking the teacher, the teacher raises the second finger, which shows that all the kids can stand. On three, the students go to line order, which is very specific, students line up single file. They’re meant to have out an independent reading book at all times during this time so that during transition--while they’re waiting in line, while they’re walking, they’re reading. Everything is done completely silent. The students line up and then leave the classroom, file out single file to their next class, usually down the hall, somewhere down the stairs, something like that. Once they arrive at the teacher’s classroom, the next teacher’s classroom, their first period teacher, if that teacher happens to be a little bit behind that day, like I told you I would be sometimes when I was doing homework checks, even if they have to wait for five or ten minutes, they stand in the hallway, completely silent and meant to be reading their independent reading books. The ideal picture of a KIPP hallway during transition time is students in single file lines, complete silence.
JH: So they’re walking on the right side of the hallway?
ADAM: Walking on the right side of the hallway, yes, sir.
JH: And they’re reading their book as they’re moving along?
ADAM: They’re reading their book, not as they’re moving along. I would not say as they’re moving along. There’s no pressure to do that. But if there’s a line of students, if one class arrived at, say, at Miss Jones’s class, and Miss Jones is still wrapping up her homework check and she’s a little bit behind that day for whatever reason--maybe it’s a behavior incident, and the class that’s arriving is forced to wait for several minutes, then those students are expected to have out their independent reading book and be reading.
JH: This is repeated how many times a day? How many periods?
ADAM: Gosh, it would probably be, I would say, six to seven times a day. On a full day schedule, when they go until 5:00,h and they have afternoon rotations, which are shorter classes of book clubs, PE and stuff like that, maybe nine to ten.
JH: Students are there essentially from 7:15 to 5:00?
ADAM: Yes. It was Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the schedule was 7:15 to 5:00. Wednesdays and Fridays were shorter periods; they would be out by, I think, 3:30.
JH: How long do you think it took students to do their homework? Do you have any knowledge of how long it took most students?
ADAM: I think what we told them was, I know the mantra because we had a lot of parents who would come in at conferences and say my student is spending forever on homework each night. And our homework is they should not be spending more than 30 minutes per subject, which would mean about three hours per night. I think that’s what we would recommend. But for a lot of the students, it was way more. It was a lot more.
JH: This is every night?
ADAM: Every night.
JH: What do you think is the intended purpose of KIPP?
ADAM: The intended purpose of KIPP. I would quote my former school leader and say the intended purpose is to give students from low income backgrounds more options in life, specifically by giving them an excellent education which will equip them to move on to an excellent college and thus have more options in life.
JH: How do you think that KIPP measures up to their intended purpose?
ADAM: Obviously my experience at one KIPP School, I’m hesitant to project that on the entire movement. But I also would say –
JH: You can only speak from your experience.
ADAM: I think that in terms of how they measure up, I think that there are virtues in a lot of their ideas and this is something I told a friend recently. I think that the idea of working hard is a great idea. I think the idea of being nice is a great idea. But I think that when those are the pillars of the culture, the pillars of what they’re trying to do with students in the classroom, and when they’re not taken into consideration with other things like critical thinking or intellectual development or the development of the individual, there’s this idea in the KIPP culture that it’s all about the team rather than the individual.
I tend to reject that, especially where developing kids are concerned. I think that they’re cold virtues. When they’re not held in tandem with other virtues, I think that it’s ultimately producing students that are not well-rounded and are not equipped to move into higher education and succeed. The students that I taught, the students that I sent onto ______ grade, and they’ll be sent on … to high school, I have no doubt that they will be able to organize their homework. I have no doubt that they’ll be able to track a high school teacher once they get to 9th grade and function in the classroom with some semblance of scholarliness. But I don’t know for sure if they’ll be able to write a paper, an exhaustive expository paper. And I don’t know if they’re going on to be empathetic students and empathetic citizens. I feel like if I had to boil it down to one fundamental quality, I feel like empathy is something that’s just completely missing from the equation.
JH: Completely missing? How does empathy get lost? Can you say more about that? It’s a very interesting observation.
ADAM: It might not be a fully evolved idea, but that was something I told myself from day one going into the classroom: if I had one wish for my students moving forward in the world, it would be that they’d be empathetic people and empathetic citizens. I don’t see the students that I worked with in KIPP--I don’t see the KIPP program cultivating that quality or those kinds of qualities in its students. There’s certainly a type of ambition that they cultivate there, but like I said before, it’s a cold-eyed kind of ambition. It’s not a well-rounded ambition.
JH: How do students view one another?
ADAM: How do they view one another?
JH: How did they get along? Obviously they weren’t empathetic towards one another. How did they interact with one another?
ADAM: Very little, considering their recesses were cut short, if they had recess at all. Lunches were often silent, depending on the mood of the administrator looking over lunch that day. There were very little opportunities for any kind of social interaction at school that I recognized from my own experience in school as healthy, social school interactions between students. And so a lot of times that meant – obviously there were students that got along very well with each other. And there were groups of friends and things like that. There were a lot of conflicts between students, a lot of conflicts. Everything ranging from physical conflicts, and this is ______ grade, so nothing incredibly severe, but from physical conflicts to a lot of teasing and a lot of bullying and verbal aggression.
JH: You saw a lot of aggression between students?
ADAM: I would say so. Yeah, I would say so.
JH: This is interesting. The students didn’t get to interact very much. Yet the emphasis was on the group. What was the group, if there was no community or there wasn’t any interaction?
ADAM: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. Because that idea of team and family was something that they touted a lot. There were a lot of efforts made at, at every Friday actually for the last hour of the day, they had a time called Team & Family, where we together at grade levels and we could play a game or have some kind of reflection exercise that would strengthen the bonds between the students and sort of cultivate this idea of team and family. I would say probably 70 percent of the time, those team and family meetings would dissolve into the students sitting on the floor and writing lines, a hundred times, “I will not disrespect our time with team and family,” because maybe they didn’t transition in a straight enough line to team and family. Maybe they were talking too much.
JH: So about 70 percent of the time was taken up with disciplining.
ADAM: I would say so. There was a time three months in, I was like, why are we even bothering with this team and family thing? We take an hour out of our schedule to come together and have team and family, but nine times out of ten, team and family is an exercise; it’s supposed to be an hour and we spend 30 minutes, half of that hour, standing around reminding kids, you’re not tracking me with your eyes, or you should not be talking to your neighbor, or you, step outside and call your mom. And so much of that time is meant to be time where we’re being together and cultivating a sense of team and family is devoted to enforcing this very rigid, inflexible code of KIPP precepts. It just seemed to defeat the whole purpose to me.
JH: Inflexible code?
ADAM: I would say highly inflexible code.
JH: What was your lunch period like? Were you with the students, or were you with other teachers?
ADAM: The administrators usually handled, in terms of overseeing, monitoring lunch. They handled that. So I would usually be in my classroom, however, there was – I’m not sure, are you familiar with the idea of “yet lunch” at other KIPP schools? Is that something that’s common to KIPP schools or is that particular?
ADAM: Part of what happens during the morning homework check that I mentioned earlier, in addition to losing paycheck dollars, if something in your homework is incomplete or you don’t have a signature and having to call home, you’re also placed on a probation lunch called “Yet lunch” at this school.
JH: First time I’ve heard of it.
ADAM: Students who don’t complete a homework assignment from the night before are placed on “yet lunch” and they are then placed on a list. When those students go to lunch, the teacher that escorts them to lunch reviews the list for that particular class and if a student is on YET, they’re called up to a teacher’s classroom where they’re forced to work. It’s a silent working lunch where they make up work from the night before or something along those lines. One day out of a week, I would be the monitor for “yet lunch.” That would take place in my room. Otherwise, if I wasn’t the monitor for “yet lunch” on that particular day, I was usually in my classroom with one or two students, either sort of remediating or just chatting.
JH: Can you describe for me a significant experience you had during your time as a KIPP teacher?
ADAM: A significant experience. There were a lot (laughs).
JH: You had many significant experiences?
ADAM: I would say not all of them positive, most of them negative. There were a lot of significant experiences, though.
JH: Maybe we can come back to that. Let me ask you this question. Can you talk about a low point and a high point during your time at KIPP?
ADAM: Yes, sure. I would say that, ah--I’m trying to be as specific as I possibly can here. The high point during my time at KIPP would definitely be, I guess this isn’t very specific, but I forged a lot of relationships with students, rapport with students, who were otherwise regarded by some of the other students as difficult or even said they just didn’t want in the classroom. Students that were consistently not meeting expectations.
JH: What kind of students were they? How would you characterize them?
ADAM: I would say students that were known, that had a reputation for, as they would say in KIPP language, was not meeting expectations in terms of things like, known for what other teachers would’ve called defiance, questioning authority, questioning the KIPP code. And some of these students I felt like I established a rapport with them, in the sense that, ah, I think that over time it became clear to them that they felt secure questioning certain precepts of the KIPP code with me. An they felt like rather than respond with either jargon or with accusing them of defiance, and threatening them with some kind of punishment, I felt like they, over time, felt they could come to me and have a real intellectual discussion about some of the rules that they were forced to deal with day in and day out. And so in terms of a high point at KIPP, those times when I would work with those students, not even work with them but have lunch with them one-on-one and just talk to them about their school and, uh, some of the issues they had to deal with in coming to a KIPP school, those were definite high points.
JH: They were able to ask questions.
ADAM: Yes. And that was, it sounds a little bit self-aggrandizing. That was something to me that meant a lot to me. That was something that when I was struggling under the weight of guilt that we talked about earlier, that was a redeeming factor, that those particular students felt like they could come to me. They felt safe coming to me and having those kinds of conversations.
JH: It sounds wonderful. It sounds to me as if you were having your own questions and there was, you might say, some empathy with these students who were having questions, too.
ADAM: I would say so.
JH: So that was a high point. What about low points?
ADAM: (Laughs) I’m sorry I’m having trouble with that one. There’s so many of them.
JH: That’s okay. If it’s something you can’t talk about, then we don’t have to go there.
ADAM: I would say without question the low point for me would have to be, and this is something that totally just occurred to me; I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. I had, like I mentioned earlier, some close working relationships with some of my co-workers that I still maintain today. I had a very, very strange, difficult working relationship with my administrator and school leader, to the point where by the time February came around, I think it was in February, there was--a part of the culture among staff there is, at this particular KIPP school and I think at most KIPP schools--because there’s no contract, there’s this idea of you could go at any time. You could not be re-hired next year. You could be let go with absolutely no notice if it’s their whim. I felt that pressure a lot, to the point where I was losing sleep. I could not, even by February, I could not have told you for certain whether or not I was going to be rehired for the next year. I had no concept of whether or not my administrator, how she regarded me, at all. Just because it was such a strange and turbulent working relationship. And so, at that time, she approached me and was trying to gauge whether or not I was planning on returning next year. At this point, I was on the fence. And she told me that the reason she wanted to know whether or not I was planning on returning next year was because there was a fantastic candidate for my position and that she wanted to keep me on because she felt that I could do great things next year and that if I wanted to stay on, then the job was mine for next year. But if not, she really wanted to jump on the opportunity to hire this fantastic candidate. Now at this point, I’m, I would say, probably 60 percent sure that I wasn’t going to be returning next year. But I also hadn’t really fleshed out any other options for myself, so of course I wasn’t gonna say, no. This was February and I hadn’t decided yet. I told her I’m more or less planning on returning because I knew if I indicated any level of uncertainty it would make for a lot of difficulty, just passive-aggressive difficulty in the coming months. I told her that yeah, I’m fairly sure I’m returning. It was about two months later that I lined up my plans and I went to her and told her I’m not gonna be returning next year. She was just livid. I wish you had told me, I can’t believe; now I can’t hire this other candidate. She’s already been given another job somewhere else and now I have to go and find someone else. This was in probably late March and so it made the last two months of my experience there, in so far as my school leader was concerned, very, very uncomfortable.
JH: Sounds like it. You think there was another candidate?
ADAM: That’s a good question. That’s a really good question; I don’t know. I never questioned it.
JH: That was definitely a low point, because it affected you for the last two months of your school, right?
ADAM: It definitely did. She didn’t speak to me or even look at me for weeks following that.
JH: Did she yell?
ADAM: She did not yell at me. Most of the interaction took place in email and I actually, about a week after, I emailed her again. This was something she was known for, was dealing with these kinds of things through email intentionally so as to avoid as much face-to-face discomfort as possible. After a week or two after this interaction, I couldn’t stand it anymore. It was driving me crazy. I had apologized to her many, many times. I said I’m very sorry to have put you in this position. I didn’t have an answer in February when you told me that, and I didn’t know; things changed. Plans change, and I’m sorry. By this point, I remember writing her an email saying I’m so, so sorry again. Can we please just talk face-to-face and straighten this out. I really don’t like the idea that I’m gonna leave here with any kind of bad feeling in the air. She never took that up with me. She never responded.
JH: When you’re going about your day now and you think of KIPP, what comes to mind?
ADAM: It’s a real sense of relief that I’m on there anymore. That would be the foremost, inherent reaction. But it’s very closely followed by I do miss my students there very much. Very, very much. I still keep in touch with a lot of them regularly and get a lot of questions about when are you coming back, will you be here when we graduate and stuff. I do miss my students there. I also feel a lingering sense of inadequacy. Over the past several months, since I made the choice to leave, I’m managed to rein it in significantly, but I still feel in some way, like there’s a part of my brain that wants me, it’s like it’s trying to sabotage me into believing that this really is a great idea, this type of school. And you’re only rejecting it because you couldn’t hack it. Everything else is just your way of justifying that you could not hack it at this school. There’s definitely that sense. That’s definitely part of my neurosis (laughs), but I think a substantial portion of that is because of what I mentioned earlier, that sense of conditioning that began with Teach for America.
JH: Do you think that’ll go away?
ADAM: I hope so. I really hope so. (Long pause.) I think a part of it for me, and this is a conclusion I’ve reached recently, I think the answer for me is to continue to hone my craft as a teacher in other ways and at other places, and just to expand my base of knowledge as far as the craft is concerned and broaden my experiences beyond what Teach for America has to offer and beyond what KIPP has to offer. Then maybe after some very different experiences, more knowledge and more time, I can look back and let it go, consign it to the past.
JH: Yeah. Are you working as a teacher now?
ADAM: I’m not. I’m working towards my certification in the state of _____________ right now.
You have talked about a number of things, some personal and some professional. How would you say that KIPP has affected you professionally?
ADAM: How has it affected me professionally?
JH: How has it affected you as a teacher, do you think?
ADAM: I think I learned a lot about the kind of educator that I don’t want to be during my time at KIPP, um, specifically in terms of the strategies that I use to motivate. And the characteristics that I value in my students. I think at the most fundamental level, that’s what it is. The characteristics, what constitutes a successful teacher and an excellent classroom, being at KIPP taught me a lot about, for me, what that’s not.
JH: You’ve talked about how it’s affected you personally in terms of this hangover of wondering whether or not, having this lingering doubt. Has it affected you personally otherwise?
ADAM: I think besides the lingering doubt, there’s definitely, sort of, being out of the classroom now and working towards my certification, there’s definitely an apprehension now about the idea of returning to the classroom, after stepping out, making it through that year. I was just so relieved to be done with that year, as much as I regretted having to say goodbye to my students. There’s an apprehension now about going back into the classroom, the idea of going back, that I’ve never had before. It never daunted me in this kind of way. Now I just –
JH: What do you think that’s about?
ADAM: I think it’s probably bound up in that sense of inadequacy that I addressed earlier. If I had to guess. Otherwise, I don’t really know.
JH: Is there any question that I haven’t asked you that you were anticipating you might be asked to answer, or anything that you would like to say that I haven’t asked you?
ADAM: I don’t think so. I feel like I’ve been all over the place, and I’ve said a lot of what’s on my mind. I don’t think so, in particular. This is something I know you’ve written about, but in particular about the KIPP school that I worked at, their school-wide culture around discipline. Are you familiar with the whole idea, I guess, of the public, almost like the Scarlet Letter marking of students that are being disciplined?
JH: No, what is that again, a scarlet letter?
ADAM: The idea that the students that are on probation, that they wear the – in my school in particular, they would wear a sticker throughout the day.
JH: What did the sticker say?
ADAM: It was a school-wide probation program that they called “The Bench.”
JH: Describe how it worked at your school.
ADAM: It’s meant to tie into the metaphor of this is KIPP as a team and if you don’t do something that jibes with the expectations, then you go to the bench, just like you would on a sports team. It was a very overly complex system with--it was just way too complex to be an actual, successfully implemented discipline system. The thrust of it is a student that commits an offense that is really worthy of probation is placed on the bench and they have to do a certain number of things to work their way off the bench. They go through detention. They carry around a choices form throughout the day, which has to be signed by each teacher at the end of each period, whether or not they made good choices for that period.
JH: It’s called the choices form.
ADAM: The choices form, yeah. At the end of a period, a teacher will sign off on yes, he made good choices, no, he made bad choices today. I think the most striking thing to me about it is that students, while they’re on the bench, until they earn their way off by completing these requirements, having multiple days of good choices, having written a reflective essay, having had a meeting with the teacher that put them on the bench originally, that student also each day until they earn their way off the bench, they wear a sticker across their uniform that says bench on it, in big, bold letters.
JH: They can’t go anywhere without people knowing that they’re on the bench.
JH: I see. Did students ever lose their uniform or lose their shirt?
ADAM: Yeah. That was another thing. The one time that it happened at my grade level, was a pretty severe case of a student making a threat to a teacher. That student lost their shirt. There was that concept of each student started off the year with a white shirt and then after a certain period of time, once they demonstrated the qualities of a KIPPster, they earned the blue shirt. There was one student who for several months into the school year had not earned his blue. He was the one student in the ______ grade who was walking around with a white shirt on.
JH: Did it seem to bother him?
ADAM: Oh, yeah! It bothered him enormously. It would bother me. It would bother anyone, any sane human. One hundred eighty kids walking around in blue shirts, and you’re wearing a white shirt.
JH: You taught in non-KIPP schools. You taught two years in TFA. You taught one year in a KIPP school. I’m sure there were similarities and differences. What stands out to you as being different from your other school experience?
ADAM: The first thing would be there wasn’t the sense [at non-KIPP schools] of dread hanging over the place at all times, of someone’s going to yell at any minute. It could be at any time. I could be in the middle of a lesson; someone could come in and start yelling. Kids could be walking from class to class; someone could start yelling. There wasn’t this sense of just, of like an iron curtain over everything at all times.
JH: You had the sense of dread that was with you at all times.
ADAM: Yeah, at all times. I felt like most of the students shared it, too.
JH: You felt students shared it also.
ADAM: I definitely do—I definitely, definitely, do.
JH: When you think about your former students, you must have some real feelings that they’re still there and you’re not.
ADAM: Yeah, I worry about them. I worry about them a lot.
JH: What is your biggest worry?
ADAM: Oh (sighs). I talked to one not long ago, a student of mine that really struggled with the KIPP expectations and he was always in trouble but not because he was not an inherently intelligent kid that was capable of understanding rules. He just was constantly bucking the more particular rules. I talked to him recently and he was talking about how I was suspended.
Why were you suspended, W_____, what’s going on?
I didn’t have my independent reading book and I was talking.
I started asking so and so why, and so he was suspended. I had a very earnest, frank conversation with him around this is, for better worse, where you are and I hope that you can try and find some way to master these rules and make it through the next two years to graduation. Because you’ll be fine once you get to high school. You have all the qualities that you need to succeed in high school. I’m rambling.
JH: You’re not rambling at all. Go ahead and talk.
ADAM: I guess that my biggest fear is that some of these students are going to—um, some of the brightest students that I had at KIPP and some of the students with the most potential at KIPP were the ones who were coming up the hardest against certain rules, certain aspects of the KIPP culture that I didn’t agree with. And were struggling behaviorally and academically because of some of these rules. My primary concern is that these students are not going to be as well equipped to move into high school, or to move into high school at all, because of certain aspects of the KIPP culture.
JH: You think that they’re going to drop out? What do you think’s going to happen to them?
ADAM: Potentially drop out, but also just in a broader, more general sense, that they are going to be completely soured on the idea of school, on the idea of education. These are students that if not for the KIPP culture, would not be soured, that should not be soured. No student should be soured on education, but some of the students I’m thinking of in particular, there’s no reason why this person should not excel and go on to actualize their potential. But because they’re caught in things that they don’t understand, certain rules and certain aspect so the culture that they don’t understand and frankly I don’t understand, they’re going to associate education with KIPP. Does that make sense?
JH: Yeah, it makes sense. To you, what is the hardest part that you don’t understand, these rules, which obviously if you don’t understand them, there’s a large number of students who don’t understand them, too.
ADAM: Right. To me, the inflexibility of it. Just the idea of 100 percent of students will track the teacher 100 percent of the time. Wait a second--that doesn’t make any sense. First of all, that’s impossible to expect of a classroom full of _______ graders. Secondly, there are no nuances there. You’re talking about a classroom full of 32 _________ graders like they’re statistics, like they’re numbers, 100 percent of the kids will do this 100 percent of the time. That’s not the case at all. And I think what I struggle with the most about, to go back to your question in terms of the rules but also with the philosophy in general, is one of their mottos is “team beats individual” and that’s something we talk about a lot. It’s just this idea that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room carved out in the KIPP philosophy for the individual. Whether it be the educator, because I felt my individuality as an educator stifled, because I had to conform to some of these KIPP expectations. And for the students as well.
JH: Since you left KIPP, do you dream about KIPP? Have you thought less about it since you left? How would you characterize your transition?
ADAM: I would say the initial transition--there was definitely a lot of the guilt and the doubt that we talked about. In terms of how much conscious thought I now devote to KIPP, at least in that sort of existential angst, I’d say that I’ve minimized it. But I do still dream about it. I had a dream the night before last--maybe it’s cause I knew this call was coming up. I have terrible nightmares. My fiancé, all I have to do is wake up and tell her, I had a KIPP dream last night and she knows exactly what that entails, exactly what that means.
JH: I don’t want to take you back through it, but what is the usual worst scenario?
ADAM: It always begins with me teaching and everything seems all good and well. It usually ends with some kind of humiliation. The other night it was, I’m trying to remember, I was teaching a class and my principal came in and pulled me out and took me to a meeting full of staff and they were all asking why. Why can’t you do right by these kids? Why can’t you do right by these kids? There was one not long ago before that where I got into an argument with my school leader about whether or not I was yelling enough. She was telling me that I needed to yell more. In the dream, I had actually returned to KIPP after leaving. I came back and said this time I’ll make it work and I’ll do it right now. I was in the classroom and she came in and said you need to yell more. I said no, I’ve been down that road and I’m not going to do it again.
JH: You were being assertive?
JH: The principal you call your school leader, right?
ADAM: Right. It’s an alternating thing. I think at most KIPP schools, they’re much more commonly referred to as school leaders. At my school it was alternately school leader, principal.
JH: There’s something slightly spooky about that term “school leader” to me.
ADAM: I totally agree! Is it particular to KIPP? There are other charter school programs that have school leaders, right?
JH: There’s a number of them that try to model themselves after KIPP, like Yes Prep and Aspire and Uncommon Schools. I think they’re all on that same model.
ADAM: And they’re getting so much, all this publicity.
JH: There’s a good deal of support behind them, financial support anyway. I’m going to turn the recorder off. Do you have other things you want to say before I turn the recorder off?
ADAM: I think, I think I’m fine.
[END OF INTERVIEW]