"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, April 11, 2014

A KIPP Teacher Speaks of Her Nervous Breakdown and Post-KIPP Recovery, Part 1

The following excerpts are from an interview conducted in February and March of this year.  The findings from these in-depth conversations will comprise a significant part of a book about the experience of teaching in the No Excuses corporate reform charter schools.  

When Jane became a KIPP teacher, she had a non-education Bachelors, a Masters in Education, and several years of successful teaching experience.   It was a short video that she saw during graduate school that sparked her desire to be a KIPP teacher:
I really bought into the mission about helping kids who might not otherwise go to college. And also the video made me think, like, if they didn’t go to KIPP, they were going to die. Like it was very drastic. And so I worked really hard. And in the back of my mind, I really just wanted to be a KIPP teacher.
After teaching for some time in her home state and winning praise as Teacher of the Year in one of the schools she worked, she finally made the decision to apply out of state to a KIPP school.  She was hired after getting her certification for middle school.  Like many other new KIPP teachers, her teaching experience began in July.  To protect her anonymity, all personal references have been deleted, as well as some of the transcribed text of the in-depth interview, which occurred in two separate sessions.

INTERVIEWER: Right. So they [KIPP] started in July?
JANE: Yeah, they have a summer school in July, at the beginning of August, and then real school, like, the full day, the nine-hour school day starting in July.
INTERVIEWER: Did they ever refer to it as KIPPnotizing? Did they ever use that term?
JANE: I haven’t, can you say the word again? You’re a little garbled. What was it?
INTERVIEWER: KIPPnotizing. It’s sort of like --
JANE: KIPPnotizing?
JANE: I’ve heard the term. It’s kind of a bad word at my school. I don't know if --
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t use the term themselves?
JANE: No. No. It was a little bit, and I should tell you this, too, Jim. The principal in my interview said that he really wanted to see me during the interview or during my sample lesson catch students misbehaving. And if I saw misbehavior, he wanted me to address them. And that, you know, he was really particular about that. And he told me at the time, he just wanted to make sure that I was aware that there were issues. And so it was really important to him that I catch kids and redirect them. And during my sample lesson, there were five adults in the room. So there’s all the kids and then there’s five adults. And some of them were circulating around and disciplining as well. And he told me, you know, not to be upset about that. He’s, like, we just need to make sure that the kids are on task. I found out later that those kids had had four English teachers that year, that two of them had quit and that they had, well, their first teacher quit. And then they had the assistant principal come in and then another teacher quit in the same grade. And so she had to go and teach that class. So they had four teachers during that year. And so they had a very bad reputation, these kids. And nobody told me that at all. And then I started teaching. It was somebody else, one of the other teachers told me, like, watch out for these kids. They’re really bad. And I kind of felt misled, because I felt like the principal knew during my sample lesson and he didn’t say anything.
. . . .
INTERVIEWER: What was the composition of the kids? You have eighth graders and were they mostly Hispanic or African-American?
JANE: Mostly Hispanic. In the whole _______ grade, I had, like, three black kids. We had about a hundred ________ graders in the beginning. And I had no white kids at all. It was very much predominantly Hispanic. I also had, I think this is important. We had really old kids in eighth grade. I had two kids that were 16 years-old in _________ grade. And one turned 17 while she was in first semester. She turned 17. And most of my kids, at some point, had been retained. So a majority of my kids were 15 years-old in _________ grade. So while everybody, the school, like, you cannot be in ___________ grade unless, like, it was really rare. Like, they started the kids in fifth grade and then they kind of, you know, so there’s always fewer eighth graders than fifth graders. But they weren’t brand-new to KIPP. So a lot of these kids had been retained at KIPP. Some of them had been retained before. I had a lot of old kids.
INTERVIEWER: I interrupted you. You were talking about what happened in the morning.
JANE: Oh, I’m sorry. And so we, the kids would fight against being silent. And they didn’t like it. I didn’t really blame them because they’re on a really intense schedule. Our kids, they needed to be at school by 7:20. And we marched them out to the buses at 4:20. That’s a really long day. And we micromanaged every single minute of their day. They weren’t allowed to walk themselves from class to class. They had to walk in a straight, silent line from class to class. So the first two weeks of school, all we did was march around silently. We practiced being silent and marching around. You know, Jim, I want to, like, show you, like, I don't think that this was helpful because I know that the school really wanted us to, like, lay down the law and show them, like, this is the way that things are. But I think it was really divisive because they weren’t learning really anything first two weeks of school. It was just how to be obedient and what we expected. And they started testing us as teachers, and especially me. You know? This is my fifth year of teaching. So I really didn’t, I’d never had anything like this. The other teachers on my team, one had had four years of teaching. The other ones, they were brand-new teachers. And, like, everybody, the other teacher on my team, you know, the English, history, math, science, we were a team for ­­­___________ grade. They’d had very little experience at all. And then if they did have experience, like the history teacher, it was at KIPP.
So this didn’t seem weird to them. You know? I was told to use a strong voice, which is basically the KIPP way, at KIPP ___________, was yelling. That felt very uncomfortable because I’d always been a teacher where the kids did what I said. They liked me. You know? They didn’t necessarily, we weren’t best friends or anything. You know, I was their teacher. But I was nurturing and I was calm. And this school, that was not working. So the first two weeks of school, I am not exaggerating, we marched the kids into the classroom, out of the classroom. You know? If they talked, we would do it again. And the KIPP administration liked it that way and they said, you know, Harry Wong, that’s what he says. If they don’t do it right, [then do it?]. So the first two weeks we did nothing except march around, basically. And then the third week we were supposed to be integrating, you know, class rules and stuff like that, and where the kids are really supposed to be sitting silently. And, you know, it’s routine, like, where do they turn in their papers and stuff like that. And the kids started fighting me on it. Jim, I don't want to give the impression, like, that I didn’t know how to run a classroom. You know? I was not new to teaching. And I’ve taught before. I taught poor kids before. You know? But these kids, I think by week three, we’re going on a month of school now, you know? And we haven’t learned anything. And they are really pissed off that they have to stay silent so long. And they thought, like, they’re in __________ grade. . . . . Some of these kids are old, like, getting ready to take their driver’s license test. And they did not like being told what to do all the time. So they really fought back. And I had one kids, I don't know if they had, like, social problems, something. But it was not uncommon to find kids lying down on the floor because my back would be turned for a second. They would go lie down on the floor just to be funny. Another kid yanked down the curtains, like, crawling the walls. It was like herding cats sometimes. And I was under a lot of pressure, too. The scope and sequence that we had to operate by was really intense. The principal had a copy. He had them around his office and color-coded and all sorts of things. I don't know about other KIPP schools, but we have these things called in‑term assessment, IAs. You familiar with those?
INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
JANE: So we had IAs. And they explained to me that by IA one, these are the standards that we want kids in______________ to know. And I just saw, you know, a clock ticking. The kids were out of control. I went to my grade level chair. And I was, like, listen, the kids, they won’t sit still in their chair. And they’re yanking down my curtains. I’m trying all the KIPP things that they taught me in professional development. She’s, like, yeah, these are rough kids. I went to the assistant principal and the principal. And they’re, like, tell me the names of the hard kids. And I did. And they’re, like, well, we’ll talk. And I was, like, I really think that I could do a better job if I kick out two of these kids when they’re naughty. Like, I really want to kick them out of the classroom and send them to you. And I was told no, don’t do that. If it gets really bad, I can text the administrator. But I should keep the student in the classroom at all costs. And they showed me, like, well, you could pull them here where you could still watch the kids. You know? I was just basically told, like, the kids need to stay in the classroom and only if it’s, you know, a huge emergency am I to send the kid out. And it was really, when I did text the assistant principal to come to the classroom, I really felt like I was more in trouble than the student was. Like, she would criticize what I could have been doing differently. And I did feel criticized. I didn’t feel like it was helpful. She was, like, well, how many warnings did you give [her?]? You know? It’s limiting your credibility when you say, you know, this is the last time I’m going to talk to you and then you give her another chance. And so it was really, it was about me and it was really uncomfortable. And these kids were really difficult.
. . . .
Jane here talks about the first interim assessments (IAs) that are given in the early fall at KIPP _____________.  Results showed that her students were do better than some teachers who had been at KIPP longer than Jane, and she thought she was doing pretty well.

JANE: I thought, that’s great. I thought that was a sign that I’m awesome, you know? I thought that things were going well. But 55% pass rate, the principal did not like. And he told me that there were all sorts of things that he was upset about. But he was never angry. He didn’t yell. He’s never yelled at me. He just, things got really intense after that. And they deteriorated really quickly. There’s only 29 school days between IA one and IA two. And I feel like after IA one, so that’s mid‑October, I had been working non-stop since July. And when I say non-stop, I want to be, like, really accurate. I left my house at 4:30 in the morning. And I got to work between 5:00 and 5:15. I have a little bit of a commute. So I would get to work super early and I would work non-stop until 9:00 at night. And then I would come home and work some more. And I did this every single day, weekends too. And it was expected. I was never the last person in the parking lot. And I was never the first person in the parking lot either. And I worked non-stop. I also have to say, like, KIPP was very isolating. When you work those horrible hours, like, I left my family and my boyfriend in ____________ and I wanted to, like, forge this great life out here. And I wanted to be this great teacher. And I gave it everything I had. But it’s like I had no time for anything else in my life. And the weird thing is, that at KIPP, like, nobody does. At my school, the social worker was married and there was a _________ teacher that was married. And the social worker had kids, but she was new and she was saying that, you know, this was impossible. No one had kids, not the principal. Like, nobody had families. And honestly, like, I would say, hey, you know, like, I would ask for help. I liked the ___________ teacher on my team a lot. He was really nice to me. And I asked him, you know, how do you, what do you do outside of work? Like, how do you keep your sanity? And he would say, like, what outside of work?

And that was the thing. Like, it was expected. Everybody was like this. And I really started to, like, fall apart. I wasn’t sleeping because I was just, there was no time. It got to the point where, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] mostly like [begins to cry here]. Like, I didn’t realize that I was still so raw about this. I would skip showers sometimes because I just wanted to have that extra 20 minutes to myself. And I had no time to grocery shop ever. So my roommate would do all the grocery shopping. She would cook things for me and she would leave them in the fridge. And if it wasn’t for her kindness, I think I would have starved to death. And I’m not exaggerating. I’m so embarrassed that I let my life get like that.
INTERVIEWER: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, so. You go ahead.
JANE: I’m so embarrassed.
INTERVIEWER: Don’t be embarrassed.
JANE: I talked to my grade level chair. And I said, you know, I’m really falling apart. I really want to see a therapist. And I don't have any time for that. Like, I don't have any time to look for a therapist let alone, you know, to do these things like the [KIPP] literature says, like, KIPP teachers with these extended hour classes, they have all this extra prep time. And that’s a lie, because I had two preps a day except for Wednesday. So I had eight preps a week. And three of them were grade level meetings or we had this thing called an O3 where you meet with your manager, the assistant principal. So I really only had five preps. But in those preps, I was supposed to make, I made calls back to parents. I was supposed to, you know, I really didn’t have any time to, at my old school, you know, I would use my preps to get organized. I would make my personal phone calls that I needed to make, like doctors appointments, things like that. I would make photocopies and it was no problem. At KIPP it was really rushed. Where a regular class is 70 minutes at our school, preps are only 50 because they were going to art or PE. And I had to escort the kids to their class, make sure that they were well behaved and silent, and then come back to what was really only about 40 minutes, sometimes only 35. And I really only have five, but, you know.  So anyway, I asked my grade level chair about what I should do. And she said that I should talk to the administration. And we have these one-on-one meetings with the, mine was with the assistant principal. And she came in. And the one-on-one meetings are a chance where, for the entire meeting, like, she’s looking, you're supposed, I had to create the agenda the night before and email her. And it was like how many kids are failing? How many kids are missing? How many special ed kids are failing? How many English language learners are failing? Are they on track to pass the next IA? You know? What am I doing to make sure of that? So it was really, you know, curriculum intense. And then there was this section on the agenda where we had to look at, she asked, like, how we were taking care of ourselves. It was self-care. What are you doing? And I said my goals for self-care was I wanted to take showers on a regular basis and I wanted to see a therapist. And I really don’t think that those are things that a boss should ask about. But I was told by my grade level chair that that’s the time that I should bring those up, and that if I didn’t bring them up, then they wouldn’t know how it was. I just needed to talk to them. So in the meeting, I was, like, I want to take more showers and I don't know how to do this. I want to see a therapist. And she was, like, well, let me talk to the principal. So the principal came in and he watched a lesson. And then he came over and he’s, like, you know, I’m just really worried about you. I hear you have no joy. And I fell apart and I was crying. And I told him that I didn’t know how much longer I could take this. I felt like I had been isolated from my family and making any new friends, you know? All the teachers at KIPP are very young. I’d had a career first. Like I told you, I was a __________ and then a teacher. So I’m ten years older than any other teacher at the school. It’s not like I’m unfriendly. I’m super nice and personable. But, you know, I wasn’t making friends. I felt very isolated. I felt really under the gun because they were watching me a lot. They would point video cameras in my classroom. And they would tell me that they were watching the kids and trying to pick up on their bad behaviors. But they would point the video cameras at me a lot of the time.
And she [the assistant principal] was, like, oh, we just want to make you better, and all of this. I never felt that that was the case. And then the principal said, well, I’ve got this really great idea. So this is at the end of October. Like, I’ve got this really great idea. How about this? How about if I take over the planning for you and the kids, you know, first period of the day, I will teach the first lesson. I will plan it. I will take care of it and I will teach it. And you watch. Then for the rest of the day, you teach the lesson that I have shown you. And then I’ll check and, you know, somebody will come in during the day and see how things are going. And that way, you can start to get control of your life back. And _______, my principal, he actually gave me the number of a therapist that worked for his friend [another KIPP teacher who required therapy]. And he’s, like, she’s back at KIPP. She had, like, a nervous breakdown. She saw this lady. And she’s, like, and this lady is available after hours. And so, you know, why don’t you just take care of yourself? And I really did believe, like, that he was making this investment in me and that he wanted to try it out. He laid out some ground rules. He said that Wednesdays, I would do it myself. You know, he would never plan Wednesdays. He told me what he wanted me to teach on Wednesdays. He’s, like, just teach __________ and all of that. And I really felt like that things were going to get better. And so starting in the beginning of November, _________ [the principal] came in and he did what he said. But it was weird because he was teaching the kids The Iliad. Now my kids are, they don’t even really speak English very well. And he was teaching them Greek mythology. And a lot of kids liked it. You know, they’d read some books, you know, the Rick Riordan stuff. They were excited. But a lot of them were really struggling. And the principal, you know? But I guess last year when teachers all quit in eighth grade, I didn’t tell you this, Jim, but actually there’s only 20 teachers at KIPP __________________. And nine of them left last year at the semester. Nine, almost half.
INTERVIEWER: So they lost --
JANE: And so when [they?] went through that crisis --
INTERVIEWER: They lost nine teachers at middle of the year?
JANE: Yes. They left, all of them. One was fired, but everybody else left. Nine.
INTERVIEWER: Nine out of 20.
JANE: Nine out of 20, yes.


  1. This is brilliant. I taught at a charter school and my experience was very much like this. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Anonymous8:24 AM

    I relate. I was a KIPP teacher too and it took a year to recover. I got a great therapist. I feel for you and I am so thankful for you for sharing your story. I feel less crazy.