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

Monday, May 05, 2014

KIPP Denies Access to KIPP Schools: Former Teacher Tells All

Update March 24, 2016: My new book on "No Excuses" KIPP Model schools is now available from Rowman & Littlefield and online booksellers.

When I presented a paper on KIPP at AERA in New Orleans a few years back, an audience member asked me if I had ever visited a KIPP school.  I answered, no, that I had not, any more than I had visited the concentration camps that came to light after WW II.  Nonetheless, I went on, we have a pretty good picture of what happened at those camps, and most everything we know came after the grisliest of deeds were committed. 

In fact, the Red Cross inspectors of the camps during the war found nothing in the treatment of smiling Jewish prisoners to set off alarms, other than, of course, that they were being contained in segregated prisons and worked beyond exhaustion every day. 

What I have written about KIPP does not come from my firsthand observations, but from public records and from what others have observed and experienced there, primarily as KIPP teachers.

In January 2014, however, I decided to arrange some visits to KIPP Memphis, or so I thought.  I called and then sent email requests explaining my research.  I asked to visit one or more of the KIPP schools in Memphis during February.

A decision on my initial request was put on hold, as KIPP leaders were dealing with a crisis involving a teacher who had left her phone on her desk, along with some rather revealing photos.

On February 19, I wrote once more to my KIPP contact, Ashley Williamson:

I am checking in on my initial request to visit some KIPP schools in Memphis.  Thanks much.

No response.

I wrote again on March 17:

I am wondering if there may be some dates in April that I may visit your schools.

No response. 

Until April 22, when this came:

Mr. Horn,

We will not be able to accommodate your request for a school visit.

Thank you,

KIPP Memphis

I responded with this the following day, for which I have received no reply:

Is there some reason that KIPP cannot accommodate my request?  After all, KIPP is a public school, and it is common practice to welcome citizens who are trying to get a better idea of how the public schools are doing the work that our taxes fund.  

I hope you will re-consider.  I will follow all of your established protocols for visitations.  I would very much like to speak to your Director of Schools about my request.

No response.

So I guess we will have to settle, once again, for another harrowing account by a former KIPP Memphis teacher to gain some understanding of what it like inside KIPP Memphis.

Daniel, who was terminated along with hundreds of other public school teachers in Memphis, was hired, nonetheless, by KIPP Memphis a month after his RIF (seems KIPP is always hiring.) 

Daniel went to work in June and was a KIPP teacher for less than three months, but that was plenty of time for him to lose enough weight for his family to worry, time enough to develop serious anxiety and to begin to dread going to work as a teacher, which was the only career that he ever wanted to pursue.  His relationship with his girlfriend suffered, too, between June and September, so much so that she began looking for other teaching jobs for Daniel, who was working 70-80 hour weeks and recovering from work when he was not working.

Daniel quit what he described as his “soul crushing” teaching job at a Memphis KIPP because of health, relationship, and ethical concerns.  The details for each of these reasons is spelled out below in the conversation I had with Daniel, but several aspects stand out.  Daniel tells us a good deal about life inside KIPP.

We learn how the KIPP administration advised a parent to get a new therapist when the therapist recommended another school for her child.  Without the benefit of any professional training, a KIPP employee told the mother that she should get another therapist for her child.  The mother, fearing that her child would end up in juvenile detention if KIPP dismissed him, expressed her concerns.  The facilitator persisted, however, with the support of the school leader.  The child remained at KIPP, even though a suspension could have meant court-ordered detention if the child was dismissed from KIPP.

We learn about students forced to remain silent for hours at a stretch and to walk one floor square apart (without touching the wall) between classes.

We learn that all KIPP schools are not high performing.

We learn how the KIPP school leader informed the student body that talking was not allowed because students were not at KIPP to make friends.

We learn of very committed teachers worked beyond their capacity to care or teach.

We learn of mountains of lesson and unit plans submitted faithfully without any feedback. 

We learn of a teacher disappointed in an organization that does nothing to address  poverty and disenfranchisement within the community, even though that organization is backed by billionaire businessmen.

We learn of KIPP’s plans to expand in Memphis, with white male school leaders chosen from the ranks of TFA veterans.

We learn much more from Daniel that I will now let him explain.  And even though I was not there to witness all this, a very humane, able, and caring young teacher was.  For as long as he could take it.

KIPP Interview with Daniel – Audio 20111001 2031-1

INT:  Daniel, can you tell me just a little bit about your background and how you decided to become a teacher in the first place.

R:  Well, my passion was really __________ as an undergraduate at _______ [top tier private] University in ___________.  And I just really enjoyed __________ a lot.  It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I did a summer program called __________, which really is a summer enrichment program for underserved students all over the country.  And I did that in ________ for a summer and it allowed me to get some actual teaching experience for the first time.  And I was teaching _________, __________ and I just fell in love with it.  When I graduated in 20__ I really decided that education was what I wanted to do.  And so I did ___________ for another summer and then I moved to Memphis, Tennessee to pursue a teaching career.

In November of last year, which was November 20__ I was hired as a ________ teacher at _______ _______ School in Memphis, which is a large public high school.  I taught 176 students, six classes.  It was crazy.  The workload was tremendous.  Just very difficult and no support, really.  But six classes and so it was very hard.  It was a very hard first year.  And come April there’s these budget cuts going on citywide.  The district has a huge deficit in their budget, and they end up eliminating 225 positions.  One of those was mine.  And so I felt very somewhat betrayed or definitely not appreciated.  I mean I busted my butt for months and I got let go.  But I understand it happens. 

INT:  You were let go in April.

R:  What’s that?  Well, I was allowed to finish the year.  I was informed in April.  I did finish the – yeah, I was informed that my position was eliminated and so I was, you know no longer had a job there.  Now I could have also for other district jobs but that’s when I heard of the KIPP the opening at KIPP.

INT:  You heard about the opening at KIPP and then what was the process of becoming a teacher at KIPP.

R:  First I had to submit an application as well as a résumé online.  And then I was contacted through email, by someone at KIPP.  I forget her exact role at the time.  But I was contacted.  I was told that they would like to do an interview as well as a practice lesson plan.  And so I did an interview over the phone and then I have to submit a lesson plan.  And then actually do a lesson with an actual class at KIPP.

INT:  And when was this?

R:  This was in early May of 20__. 

INT:  After the interview and after the teaching, after the practice teaching the lesson what happened then?

R:  Then they told me they would call me and they actually didn’t call me for about two weeks.  And so it started to get to the end of the school year and I was getting nervous because my job was coming to close and my paychecks were about to run out.  But they gave me a call last week of May and the also sent me an email extending me an offer to join the school.

INT:  You’re hired and when were you to start?

R:  My start date was June 20.

INT:  What was that like?  Were you a part of the summer KIPPnotizing that happens at KIPP?  How did that work for you?

R:  As a teacher I went to one week of orientation with just first year KIPP teachers.  They didn’t label it as this, but in my mind that was kind of like the teacher KIPPnotizing where they start to make us familiar with the school.  But a lot of it was cheerleading.  The first day was a lot of promotional stuff just about KIPP’s mission and what they were doing and that sort of thing.  And then it was building an introduction.  And then we got to interview some students about what it was like to be at KIPP.  And then we were joined by the full faculty, and we did two weeks of mostly professional development and that sort of thing.  _____ advised three weeks with the students over the summer, which was we called it KIPPnotizing for all the new KIPP students as well as the returning KIPP students. 

INT:  Now in Memphis are all the students who are in the three week session are they fifth graders or are they fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders just all new students?

R:  Well, fifth graders and all new students for a week, but then they’re joined by the entire school for a full three weeks.

INT:  Everyone has two weeks of summer.

R:  Yeah.

INT:  What were your expectations of KIPP when you became a teacher there?

R:  To be honest it wasn’t my first choice and I was aware of some criticisms with KIPP that kind of circulated.  And so my expectations were that I wasn’t necessarily going to be on board with some of the stuff that was going on.  But I also felt that I perhaps would have a better opportunity to actually teach.  Like I said at the public high school I had a workload of 176 students and just the grading and the paperwork it was just overwhelming sometimes.  But I figured at KIPP today I have 90 students – not even 90, I think I had __.  So, four classes of around 2_ kids is totally manageable.  And so I thought there would be some good but there’d also be some bad.  But I thought in the end that it would be certainly at least better than working at my previous job. 

INT:  You were hired as a ______ teacher at KIPP?

R:  Yes.  Well, it’s technically ________ but the curriculum for _______ graders is mostly __________.

INT:  It’s ________ grade _______ and you had four classes.  And were you guys on a 90-minute blocks or how did that work?

R:  They were 80-minute blocks.  The students had 80 minutes.  They actually had five academic classes because we actually split English into Language Arts and Writing.  And so one was kind of a reading class and one was kind of a writing class.  The students had Monday through Thursday had 400 minutes of academic instruction and they had 60 minutes for art or PE they rotated depending on the day.

INT:  Is this every day?

R:  That’s Monday through Thursda--on Friday we’d get out a little bit  earlier so classes are split into 60-minute blocks. 

INT:  And your begin time in the morning was?

R:  Kids would begin arriving at 7:00.  We started our meeting at 7:30.  The students were expected to be there at the latest at 7:30.

INT:  And students left at?

R:  Five o’clock.

INT:  Five o’clock.  How did your experiences at KIPP fit your expectations going in?

R:  Well, it became too much very quickly.  And I knew about the long hours but I thought I would be able to handle it because I had put in so much work the previous year working from a 7:15 to 2:15 schedule.  And I put in some working after school hours like, well, I’m putting in the extra hours already.  But I would arrive at school about quarter to seven and on a good day I would get home 6:30.  And then when I got home and then after preparing dinner and actually eating dinner I would have an hour, hour and a half of work I had taken home with me.  Not to mention student phone calls and parent calls until 9:30 sometimes later. 

INT:  You were on call then during on weeknights to your students?

R:  Yeah. 

INT:  You started to say something else and I sort of interrupted you.

R:  With other things going on in my life all my time started to basically become dominated by KIPP and the job.  And it hurt some of my relationships, and it just started to get overwhelming. 

INT:  How does KIPP compare to your other teaching experience that you had?

R:  In my mind there’s a lot more attention given to each class.  But the focus is definitely and certainly standards and the tests were discussed at my previous school, but not to the extent that it was at KIPP.  KIPP was extremely, I mean, we had our big goals posted in our room and every classroom that big goal having basically to do with proficiency on state tests.  State test scores were things we talked about with the students and usually in presenting the truth, we were presenting some negative data.  The KIPP ________ school in Memphis we did not reach AYP this past year.  We had proficiency rates in the 20 and 30 percentile in math and reading across many grades.  And so we really didn’t have a good showing—that was talked about all the time.

INT:  How long has that KIPP been open down there?

R:  The KIPPs been open there for I think about five years at least.

INT:  Do you know how many there are in Memphis?

R:  Right now it’s ________ middle school although they just opened a high school  with only one grade right now, the ninth grade.  But they are opening a middle school next year and closed another elementary school.  And they have plans, which they’ve talked about a lot which is I can tell you right off the top of my head.  But they talk about having plans for 10 schools by 2015.  That’s their plan for Memphis.

INT:  Were there other ways that you would compare or contrast your KIPP teaching experience with your previous experience?

R:  KIPP took over my life in a way that the previous experience did not.  I at least had a few hours to myself working in the public school system to relax or even to reflect or do anything.  And definitely the school culture at KIPP was, I mean militant, and I was expected to be much more punitive as a teacher than I was at my previous.

INT:  You were expected to be much more?

R:  Much more of a disciplinarian.  More actively engaged in delivering the consequences that we had as part of the discipline plan.  And usually that was very strict code of conduct.

INT:  Let me ask you this question and we’ll talk more about the discipline and the militancy or the militarism.  If I were a friend of yours interested in applying to teach at a KIPP school.  And I didn’t know anything about it and we were sitting having a beer or a coffee and I asked you what was it like there what would you tell me?

R:  This is what I have told _____, I mean it was, for me it kind of soul crushing.  It was extremely discouraging.  I would get very anxious before going to work.

INT:  You would get anxious in the morning?

R:  Yes.

INT:  What was that like?

R:  There were days when I just didn’t want to go to work and teaching was all I ever wanted to do.  And so I mean that was somewhat confusing.  But I mean I wasn’t comfortable with some of the things I was asked to do. 

INT:  You weren’t comfortable with things that you were asked to do?

R:  Yeah, in terms of keeping the kids silent during most of the day was just something I found extremely hard, especially in the morning when I want to greet a child or say hello or catch up on the weekend.  We weren’t allowed to do that.  

INT:  It was silence all day?

R:  Pretty much.  They had 30 minutes for lunch but basically what would end up happening most of the time and in orientation and this is where I got a little bit disillusioned or I began to.  He talked about making lunch really fun because many teachers acknowledged that it’s hard to keep a kid silent for so long, and there’s a need for socialization.  And so they were like okay, we’re going to have a really fun lunch where the kids can run out some energy.  But that never materialize, and what actually happened was kids would get too loud and they would end up losing their supposed privilege to talk at lunch.  So many lunches were turned into silent lunches simply because the volume got too loud in the cafeteria.

INT:  We’re sitting and talking now and we’re having our coffee or our beer and you’re saying, well, this is like a soul crushing experience and I’m saying, wow, what else can you tell me about this place?

R:  Well, one instance that made me feel extremely uncomfortable and I say that in general that as a teacher I want to be on the side of the student all the time and really care about that child as if it was my own.  And we’re in a parent meeting one student in particular is being someone defiant and disrespectful to some teacher.  And so she’s been given all these consequences and is finally up for suspension and we sit down with her mother to have this behavior plan meeting because basically the meeting allows us to put the child on a probation status of sorts, which is basically a step away from expulsion.  The meeting really is a way to kind of start getting the student either compliant or on the way out.  And that’s basically said at this meeting with the parent and the principal, the school leader brings up this idea that we’re not sure the student is a good fit here.

And we start exploring some of the things or talking about some of the things the student is doing, etc.  And their mother starts to talk, and first she cries because she’s uncomfortable by some of the things she’s hearing about her daughter in terms of behavior and stuff like that.  And she talks about how her daughter has been going to a therapist and how the therapist has strong disagreements with KIPP, actually, and the culture at KIPP.  And how the therapist has voiced these disagreements with the mother and said, I’m not sure KIPP is such a good place for your daughter.  It’s possible your daughter was ________________________.  And I do know the sort of culture at KIPP is probably too much for her.” 

And someone at KIPP, actually one of the instructional facilitators actually [had taken] this girl in to live with her for a brief of time to hopefully, I guess in their minds, straighten her out, so in their mind.  That woman sat in at the session and had basically told the mother of the child that this therapist wasn’t good for her and that they should get a new therapist.

. . . .

R:  That was brought up in the meeting and the school leader endorsed that and basically set up to find a new therapist and put her on this behavior plan and if it’s broken then basically, it’s time to find a new place for her.  And I believe her mother said that would be some sort of rehabilitation center or something of that nature.  Something pretty serious in term of--yeah, I don’t know--that was upsetting to me.

Basically there was one morning in meeting our school leader told the students that literally you’re not here to make friends.  You know basically in response to some of the talking was going on.

INT:  Someone told you this or told a student this?

R:  He told the entire school this that students –

INT:  Oh, you’re not here to make friends?

R:  Yes.

INT:  Was there any response to that?

R:  I mean silence because that’s the expectation.  If it’s broken you get punished.

INT:  This student who was having difficulty and the counselor or her therapist said that KIPP was not in agreement with the therapist’s view of what school should be like?  And when the mother shared this, if I have this right, the mother was eventually told to get a new therapist?

R:  Yeah.

INT:  Do you know what happened to the girl?

R:  I believe she’s still at school there.  I’m not sure if she’s violated the terms of her behavior plan yet.  I mean, yeah--

INT:  Did you have a girlfriend while you there or are you married or do you have a significant other?

R:  No, I’m living with someone.  Yeah. 

INT:  You said your relationship somewhat suffered so what was that like?

R:  It was very hard on her just because I was so unavailable all the time.  And it got to the point where she was looking for a job for me just because. I don’t know, I just, it was consuming, the job was consuming in many ways. 

INT:  How was your health during this time?

R:  I lost a lot of weight.  A lot of people voiced concern about my weight a little bit because I’m not a skinny guy to begin with but finally got down to a pretty low weight there.

INT:  Yeah.  What kind of individual makes a good KIPP teacher?

R:  I would say in general everyone who works at KIPP really cares about the kids to an extent that I didn’t see in the public school, which is not to say I didn’t meet many teachers at the public school who were deeply caring about the students.  But I would say everyone at KIPP was very, very, very much committed.  But I’m not sure how many of them last a long time at KIPP.  I mean it’s just because of the workload. 

But you really, honestly I would say the best KIPP teachers are single, young, and can afford to be there on a Saturday and a Sunday, which is what I spent most of my time doing.

INT:  You were there on Saturdays and Sundays a good deal?

R:  Yeah.  Yep, I would do four or five hours of work every Sunday and probably the same on Saturday.  It wouldn’t be unusual for me to do 10 hours of work on a weekend, if not more.

INT:  What kind of person is likely to have difficulty at KIPP?

R:  I think certain people who don’t necessarily, who can’t buy into that sort of militancy and emphasis of strict discipline that it has is going to have a problem at KIPP.  I mean, I think a parent who’s very involved in their children’s lives is probably not going to last long at KIPP.  Certainly not a parent of three or four children, like I don’t know how that would be possible. 

INT:  Why so?

R:  Just because of the work.  I mean I don’t know how it would be possible to really be involved in your family if you’re doing at least 12 hours of work a day. 

INT:  Were most of the teachers very young like yourself?

R:  Yeah, most were pretty young.  We might have had two teachers over 40.  I don’t even think that.

INT:  Did you have any Teach for America people or Teach for America alums?

R:  We did have several Teach for America alums who coincidentally all are, many are in leadership positions or being groomed for leadership, um, all white.  In fact of the five schools that we’re going to have four schools are going to be led by basically white TFA alum.  And we did have two TFA teachers this year, one of whom quit after a two weeks.  He didn’t last very long.

INT:  After two weeks?

R:  Yes.  Two weeks after he began. 

INT:  Now what would you say was the percentage of white to black teachers.

R:  We had more African American teachers than white teachers though in credit to the group here did somewhat reflect the demographics of the city.  You know probably two African American teachers for one white teacher.  Yeah, I would say about two to one.

INT:  And the percentage, what would you say in terms of your student body?

R:  The student body was probably 95 percent African American.  About two percent of Hispanic children and maybe one or two percent of Caucasian.  We had a couple Caucasian students and a couple of Hispanic students. 

INT:  If I were to follow you through a typical day at KIPP.  If I’d been shadowing you for a typical day at KIPP what would I see you doing?

R:  In the morning I would be preparing my board configuration, which is a series of eight or nine things that is mandatory to write on the board.  Things dealing with the days lesson, vocabulary words, things of that nature.  And so I would likely do that in the morning and get all my materials out for the day.  And then I would head down to the cafeteria around 7:10 for cafeteria duty where I’d be expected to keep the students being directed silent for basically all of breakfast.  Until about 7:30 where students were expected to be all in their seats and ready for morning meetings where we would go through a brief meeting with the school leader.  At about 7:45 we would transition to home room and I would assist with that transition because we would have the students go in straight lines and then again it would have to be in silence, single file.

INT:  Did they walk against the wall, near the wall?

R:  Yes, they do.  They walk against the wall but not touching the wall.  You can’t touch the wall.

INT:  And where are their hands when they walk?

R:  Hands have to be at their sides.  They have to be we had a tiled floor that their feet had to be within one row of tiles but with one tile between the student in front and the student behind.  And so as teachers we had to regulate this process and redirect students who weren’t doing it correctly or I should say to the way that KIPP wanted us to do it. 

INT:  What happened then?

R:  Well, we would transition to homeroom.  In homeroom they would have a worksheet to do called morning work every morning, but it wasn’t checked by anyone and the students knew it.  And they knew it was valueless, and it was some silly worksheet on something you know reading, math it rotated by subject.  But in homeroom they were expected to be silent and they were also expected to have myself or their homeroom teacher grade or not grade but check all their homework from the previous night to see if they had it completed.

INT:  And did you see it.

R:  Yeah, so every morning the students would come in and I couldn’t really socialize with them at all because I was too busy checking over homework and making sure they stayed silent and did their morning work worksheet, which again, as I said, was pretty much valueless.  And the students knew this and didn’t really do it really anyway, so it was very difficult to keep that class engaged.  And then we would just transition into group period with the same group.  And each class would scrabble together as like a cohort each day so they would be with the same students the same 19 students all day rotating class to class. 

INT:  So you would see the same students every day, did you say?

R:  Well, the students themselves would be the same students every day.  We put them into four groups named after the university of their homeroom teacher.  And so I had ______ University group first.  And then that group would rotate to the next class and then I would get another group come to me. 

INT:  You stayed in one spot and the students moved.

R:  Yeah. 

INT:  That was first period.  You taught first period.

R:  And then I had a class with me second period as well.  And, again, these are 80-minute blocks Monday through Thursday.  Thirty minutes on Friday.  And then as a teacher I would be responsible for monitoring the transitions as well.  Making sure they exited the class in one line, silent, and that they lined up outside their next class silent as well.  And after two periods the students went to art on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’s and they went to PE on Tuesday and Thursdays for 60 minutes.  We got a little bit of a break then but often we would meet as _____ grade teachers during this time.  Or on occasion one of us would have to teach a health class instead of gym.

INT:  It was only during those specials that you would get a plan time?

R:  Well, we did get one period off of 80 minutes and so that was good to have, but I have to tell you that I needed every minute of that planning period.  It certainly wasn’t relaxing, because I was working pretty much through it, and then would have a two more periods with the students.

INT:  During your plan period were you grading all the time and getting ready for classes?

R:  I did my grading at home and yeah, I would basically do a lot of my planning, lesson planning and getting resources that sort of thing during my planning period.  And I’d try to do my multi-planning on the weekend and then throughout the week during my planning period.  Then I would do grading after school.

INT: How did you sleep?

R:  I tried to get to bed at a decent hour, but I did start waking up a little bit more in the middle of night, probably as a result of such anxiety.  You know just wondering if I had everything done or not.  That was the biggest thing.  I definitely was tired a lot.  I drank a lot of coffee. 

INT:  When the students had lunch is that when you had lunch as well?

R:  Yes.

INT:  You had half an hour?

R:  Thirty minutes, yep.  But we were in the cafeteria there, again, expected to sort of regulate the students.

INT:  You were on duty?

R:  Generally, right, it was definitely an on duty lunch.

INT:  After the last class, which the last class ended at five, is that right?

R:  The last class would end around 4:40 and they would transition to homeroom again to have a snack at the end of the day. 

INT:  Then they would get out at 5:00 or 5:30.

R: Yeah, then they would get out at 5:00 unless they had decided to go to tutoring after school, which would last until about 6:00.

INT:  Students who didn’t follow the rules what happened to those students?

R:  Well, there’s sort of a paycheck system, which is an incentive system.  Each week students can get $50 in sort of fictional money, which they can use to buy things.

INT:  At a KIPP store, right?

R:  Yeah, at the KIPP store or it’s for earned entry into monthly celebration.  We would have occasional every Friday, every Friday each week we would have a weekly celebration, which if you earned a certain amount of money you could go to.  And this would only be like the last hour of every Friday.  And then every month then it would be this big celebration that, again, you had to have a certain amount of money to get into.  And of course there’s an end of the year trip, which is an overnight trip.  You get to stay in a hotel and all that.  But that you have to have a very high amount of paycheck hours saved up.  And the school actually doesn’t even expect every student and actually can’t even afford for every student to go on this trip.  It’s basically predetermined that the cutoff paycheck hours have to be a specific amount so that they can actually afford the trip.

INT:  Do the students know this or does everyone think that they have a chance to go on the trip?

R:  Everyone believes that they do have a chance to go on the trip but in actuality if every student did have a perfect paycheck the school would be hard pressed to afford a decent trip.

INT:  Did you participate in that trip?

R:  No, because I didn’t make it through the school year.  I did go to a couple of the celebrations.  We had like a Hawaiian themed party.  Very brief.

INT:  I want to ask you about your high point and your low point at KIPP.  And you may talk about either one first or second sort of in your order.  What would you consider your high point when you were at KIPP and your low point while you were there.

R:  Well, I’d say a high point would be before I kind of started to get on the radar of the administration I was able to have relative autonomy in my classroom despite the fact that we were forced to have our doors open at all times.  But I was able to have a ____________________________________, and it went very well with several of my classes.  And it was just cool to be able to have space to do that at least for a while.  That I would say was my high point.

INT:  You mentioned getting on the radar of the administration.  I don’t want to move on talking about your low point but can you say a little bit about how you got on the radar of the administration?

R:  What’s curious is I didn’t actually get on their radar until I started doing what they wanted me to do, which I’ll explain.  I had some difficulties managing the last class of the day.  It was a bit as you can imagine at 3:30 after over three classes of instruction and all day of being silent, kids are a bit fidgety.  And this group had 15 [special education] students with IEPs in the classroom.  And so these students were receiving some access to special education resources, 15 out of 21 students.

INT:  This was the last period of the day.

R:  Yeah.  And there were a few incidents in my room, which now I try not to write students up because I don’t agree with or want the administration to handle that kind of discipline.  I try to keep everything in my classroom, but the problem is one of the teachers who was off who was also the leader of the eighth grade, she happened to see an incident between one student and another student where a student swore and basically had me write on it.  And then I was also forced to basically write another referral when one of my students basically smacked a student aside the head kind of in the back in the head.  Not like viciously but a good swat.  And it started a bit of a brouhaha, which again, attracted the attention of a nearby teacher and I had to write on that.  And so then I was approached by the administration basically and they were like well, what’s going on in your room?  Are you not making it clear or making it clear that you expect this not to be acceptable you know basically blaming me for the actions of the students.  As if I wasn’t setting the expectation that that behavior was inappropriate, which I think there are a lot of reasons why students may be behaving that way. Which, you know, I can think of a lot of reasons students are behaving that way.

INT:  Such as?

R:  Well, some of these students come from fairly broken homes and they’ve experienced trauma, which is essentially untreated in many cases.  And there’s not a whole lot of socialization at KIPP and so it’s a lot of silence and frustration I imagine for some of the students who are further behind academically, as was the case here for this class.  Because they were expected to basically be these all-star students and there’s no excuses mentality that’s driven in throughout the entire school year.  And they also haven’t been told about the failing test scores and so there’s just all this frustration throughout the day. 

And they’re not allowed to really bond with each other throughout the day so there’s a lot of conflict amongst each other.  And so you know, some of the disrespect that I see between my students there at KIPP I think had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a real good opportunity to bond.  But it was due to the fact that many of them have had traumatic lives or continue to experience trauma and are punished instead of really being cared for and listened to, even.  The big thing at KIPP was no talking back no matter what--I don’t want to hear it.  You could receive a harsher punishment if you even utter a word of talking back in response to a punishment.

INT:  You got on the radar screen what was your low point that you remember while you were there?

R:  The low point would probably the meeting I had with my principal the Friday before I quit.  I quit on a Monday, so I kind of thought it over the weekend and then finally just quit.  But the meeting with my principal was probably the low point.

INT:  How did that go down?

R:  Well, first she asked me to stay after school on Friday to talk to her about some of the things that had been going on in my classroom.  And I had a particularly stressful day.  I was taken some graduate school classes at the same time and I had some work to do that evening.  The kids, that incident I talked about with one of the students had happened that day and caused quite a stir.  And, again, got the school leader in my room and all sorts of end of day trauma.  And I was just like you know, I don’t know if I’m up for it today.  I don’t know.  It was like can you do it in a way that I just did not feel up to it.  And she said if you don’t feel like it’s urgent then there’s a real problem.  I’m not asking.  And so I had a say. 

I called my girlfriend and tried to calm down a little bit because I was kind of upset.  And I tried to calm down and I went down to be with her after school on Friday.  And some of the things she started out with were just some questions that I found somewhat irrelevant to what was going on.  Sort of like what’s going on, are you in a good place, which I felt maybe she actually was caring about my state of health.  But I did mention that I was very stressed and had some things going on.  And then she’s like okay, all right, but then she started asking about what was going on in my classroom and how she could help with what was going on in the classroom.  And I brought up first my concern about that last period and all the students and how it may even be illegal to have so many special education students in one classroom because the federal law states they have to be educated in the least restrictive environment available to them, which is the general education classroom.  And so that’s where the idea of inclusion comes in.  But in this particular classroom it seemed that it as a handful of regular education students being included in a special education class. 

INT:  Was there any special education teacher there to help?

R:  We had one but she was also the seventh grade special education teacher.

INT:  She wasn’t with you during this time?

R:  No. 

INT:  Okay, do go ahead.

R:  And, again, I brought up my concerns that with this particular group my lack of special education training, the lack of having that resource teacher in the room, and being at the end of such a long day where the students have labored through not having been able to talk.  There are some personalities that just clash in there.  I was like to be hone there are times where I’m probably not equipped to handle it.  And that’s when she was basically well, are you lacking structure and that’s kind of where she went first.  Do you have enough structure in your lessons?  What do you do first, and I mentioned how I have the students write in journals.  They reflect on – we were reading a book of poetry by Tupac and I know it’s not ___________, but I felt it was valuable just in terms of some of the personal things they shared I think helped them bond together a little bit recognized they had a lot in common.  And also just getting experience, just being free to express themselves and I didn’t grade it on grammar or anything like that.  It was just total free write.  I just felt it was valuable because it was calming and something they enjoyed and I felt it was a good way to start class.

But I was essentially told that I had to start class with some sort of standard related exercise.  That I could no longer start class with those journals.  That was language arts anyway and that the language arts teachers were to handle that.  And so that kind of hurt because that was something I really enjoyed doing with the kids. 

And then basically I got to some of these weird questions like, do you believe that students fail or teachers fail?  Kind of all these questions putting things in these dichotomies.  And so when you’re faced with a question like that on the spot, I felt forced to answer well, you know, teachers, obviously, but I was digging my own grave kind of.  And she was saying like do you have high expectations for these children?  Do you believe that these kids can succeed and I was like well, of course.  I mean I like to think that I do.  But kind of, I don’t know.  I’m not sure what she was suggesting with that line of questioning but it felt somewhat affected. 

And finally it was kind of like I don’t know what else we can do for you, Daniel.  She suggested I take up some book on classroom management.  I think it was something like The First Fear or something like that.  I think the author’s last name was Chang.  Some management book and then I also should take up some activity book from the Knowledge Tree store about Social Studies activities that I could start the day with.  And I was also told that she would be in my room every day monitoring what was going on.

INT:  Every day.

R:  That week, yeah.  And then see what they could do from there. 

INT: That was pretty much your Friday afternoon.

R:  Yeah. 

INT: What did you think of that?

R:  I don’t know.  I mean I felt like quitting right there.  It was a difficult decision because I have strong feelings towards my students.  I didn’t want to abandon them.  I spent time discussing things with my girlfriend and sort of the wear and tear that I had experienced it just seemed that it would be best to maybe consider finding a new job.

INT:  How did you feel about that?

R:  At first I was pretty nervous about potentially leaving but the more I reflected about my current state of health at the time you know the more I thought about it the more I was like even if I have doubts about this decision for health reasons and also for my relationship it just it was something that I needed to do.

INT:  There were the health reasons and then there were your relationship reasons.  How did you feel that you were being treated professionally?  How did you feel about that?  How did you feel you were being treated as a teacher?

R:  Certainly in that last meeting I felt like I was treated sort of  condescendingly.  And certainly not like a professional.  It felt somewhat taken advantage of at times.  We were required to present these very tedious structured lesson plans, which I was okay with because I write a lesson plan anyway.  It’s not necessarily the specific structure that they preferred, but it wasn’t a huge deal to me but it did take several hours out of my week.  And I never received feedback for them, even though I was required to regularly submit them.  And could be reprimanded if I didn’t have it in on time, but I never received feedback on a single lesson plan or unit plan or test that I had to submit.

INT:  Never any feedback?

R:  No.  Not a single, single thing.  You felt like you were just sending off all this paperwork to no man’s land. 

INT:  What happened that weekend and what did you do with that information?  How did you come to your decision to leave?

R:  Again, thinking about my health and my relationships and also just ethically, I had serious issues about what was going on at that school.  I just figured that I could pursue other things and I did.  I actually did it was almost like fate that weekend see an advertisement online for a position at a ___________ school.

INT:  What school?

R:  It’s a private school but it’s ___________ approach so it’s based in that.  And I definitely wanted to work in an urban environment with students who have not been really treated fairly by society.  But healthwise, I just figured I could maybe give that a shot.  But I think moreover I really just thought that maybe staying in education might not be suited for me.  Maybe that was KIPP or maybe that was a combination of KIPP and my previous experience at the public school level, but I’m probably going to pursue a graduate degree perhaps in education but maybe also in History.  And maybe teach at the higher education level. 

INT:  That’s what you were thinking at the time or is that your current way that you’re thinking?

R:  Well, I have to say that my immediate thinking was more about my health and my relationship and my ethics.  Over the course of the week and the following week that’s when I really felt the thinking that I just expressed.

INT:  On the following Monday morning that’s when you turned in your resignation or how long you were there after you decided to leave?

R:  Not very long at all.  I mean I submitted my resignation via email.  I really didn’t even want to look at my school leader in the eye again.  I basically packed up some things in my room, left my KIPP cell phone and my laptop.  And I left a note for my students in a student’s locker.  Submitted my letter [sighs] and that was it. 

INT:  That was on early Monday morning?

R:  Yep.

INT:  That must have been tough.  What month was that?

R:  This was actually ___________ weekend.  We only have ___________ weeks of regular school.  We did have the three weeks of KIPPnotizing over the summer as well.  I’d only been working there over ______ months.

INT:  And you found out all of this within that time frame that’s quite something.

R:  Well, I didn’t really last very long. 

INT:   Let me ask you this, a couple of related questions.  If you could change anything about your KIPP experience what would it be?

R: I don’t think I would just rather not taken the job in the first place.  And I knew a little bit about the culture and the hours ahead of time so I guess I thought I could handle it, but that definitely wasn't the situation there.

INT:  And here’s a related question:  if you could change anything about KIPP what would you change?

R:  I would change the culture of the school.  It’s way too militant.  I think the whole no excuses thing kind of drives this idea of every individual being accountable for, kind of their own circumstances in life.  They drive college.  I agree that college is a great thing and something to strive for, but it’s really that they aspire to at KIPP.  I guess I wish that poverty was addressed and that the KIPP organization took up more genuine concern with the current state of education and inequality, because they always talk about closing the achievement gap. 

But it’s just like, again, there’s no mention of doing things in the community or improving circumstances for people in Memphis.  Nothing about some of the reasons why things are so bad in the first place for people.  There’s no real engagement of those topics and so the students, just, I think, sometimes feel like they’re carrying a huge burden because they’re told that there’s this certain strict set of behavior that if you don’t meet expectation and if you don’t do it it’s all your fault.  It’s up to you sort of thing, and I don’t know.

INT:  Well that’s a profound understanding it seems to me. 

R:  It’s a culture though that they need to do something really to change that.

INT:  How is KIPP changed you or affected you personally and professionally and personally?  How’s your experience KIPP affected professionally and personally?

R:  Professionally, I’m pretty much out of work right now.  I am volunteering and doing some substituting.  But there’s really nothing in the public school district anymore.  No jobs available.  They even had trouble placing some of their Teach for America Corp members this year. 

INT:  And that was a priority for them, right?

R:  Right.  Right.  And they were given priority over – see, I saw something in the local paper today about over 70 people left without jobs.  There was actually some uproar at a job fair recently here in Memphis because there’s just no jobs left in the city school system.  But at the same time they gave 200 or 100 to Teach for America members so that definitely angered some people.  But basically I can’t go there.  I don’t feel like going to a charter school because of KIPP.  And I know there are likely some charter schools that work out there but KIPP has kind of made me very wary of charter schools generally.  And so, again, I kind of this point, again, feel like just going back to school myself.

INT:  Are you in school now?

R:  Actually I was taking a MAT program at the University of Memphis, but I had to stop classes for financial reasons.  I can’t quite afford them.  I didn’t feel the degree was really preparing me very well anyway.

INT:  Not a great program, huh?

R:  No.  Uh-uh.  We were very, very much definitely devoid of theory and towards the investigations-- it was all practically based and at times it was like I didn’t feel it was good practice being taught.

INT:  Let me ask you is there anything that I haven’t asked you about KIPP that you would like to talk about?

R:  No, I think that pretty much – I think I got out most of it.  I guess the one thing that kind of just rubbed me the wrong way and maybe I’m too idealistic about the whole thing.  But for an organization supposedly committed to addressing some of the negative effects of poverty I always found it curious that the organization relied so much on funding from The Gap organization.  Gap has a pretty atrocious record when it comes to sweatshop labor and human rights violations around the world.  And they all sit on the high board and so to me it seems like there’s a definite corporate agenda behind the organization.  That’s it’s okay for sort of the bandage wound that they’re putting on educational inequality and poverty in general.  But they, again, there’s no addressing of the system as a whole and some of the systematic failures that exist in urban education.  Uh, because frankly and honestly for our school to have functioned well we probably would have needed at least six trained counselors.  And plenty of other social services for these children, but no one wants to talk about that.

INT:  Your insights are very good, Daniel.  I’m going to turn the recorder off and have a couple of things to say to you if that’s okay.  This will conclude this part of our conversation.



  1. Anonymous12:12 AM

    Thank you for sharing your important story. The one thing that I feel was implied, but not mentioned is the fact that this would be unconscionable for middle class white children. The very things that give KIPP schools their trademark, are the very things that no billionare or middle class person would accept for their own children. I get leery about the corporate conspiracy linkages, but without question, an interest to whitewash poverty and to compartmentalize it helps certain segmants of our population sleep better at night. On an ideological level, the "Work Hard, Be Nice" motto has also struck me as implicitly biased--if only these kids would work hard, if only these kids were less hostile, and more nice. A few decades from now, the researchers will come to the conclusion that this sort of stringent, oppresive environment is not only unhealthy but deeply problematic for a healthy democracy. There's a book called "So Many Thousands Gone" and I can't help but think of a generation of kids who believe that their success or the lack thereof falls on their shoulders alone. For all the ramblings around the "achievement gap" there is little talk of "equity", there's no talk of the fact that zip codes determine the types of resources that students have access too. There's little talk of the rights of teachers, and there's little talk of the backslide we are on as it relates to labor rights. Thank you again for this painful but insightful truth.

  2. He's exactly right about the need for around six counselors. It's a very good point, and these are needed in every poor elementary school in Memphis. Lower class sizes and better school libraries are also needed. The "reformers" always claim we aren't offering solutions, but these are the solutions.