Bill was an experienced urban teacher when he came to Memphis to teach at KIPP. Like other teachers I have interviewed, he found himself so compromised and burned out that he did not last very long. When he unexpectedly was offered an opportunity in another state, he bailed. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation:
INTERVIEWER: How do you think KIPP achieves its purpose and its aims?
BILL: They don’t, not in Memphis, and, you know, I knew about KIPP __________ when I was working down there as well. They don’t achieve their aims. Here’s what KIPP’s MO is. They’ll take kids who are academically the lowest of the low, whose test scores—they’re not at the bottom—they’d already reached the bottom and had begun to dig. They’ve dug a hole. And they take all those kids. And then they tell the public, well, yeah, they’re not passing yet, but they are improving. Well, yeah, the kids have nowhere to go but up.
And through rote memorization, you can turn a kid into a robot. Doesn’t know how to think. Doesn’t know how to process. But you can turn a kid into a robot where he’ll get enough to improve on the test. But long-term, it’s not going to happen. Are there kids who come out of KIPP schools who do well in college? Absolutely. But there are kids who come out of every school who do well. Are there are teachers at KIPP schools who are good teachers? Yes. But from what I saw, I don't know where they come from, because they’re running off more good teachers than they’re keeping. Of the ten teachers who were at KIPP Memphis, and I didn’t know this until I actually arrived on campus. But of the ten teachers that they had for the 201_-201_ school year, only two survived.
. . . .What it is, is they take these, like I said, they take these young kids [young teachers] and they indoctrinate them into the KIPP way. Whether it works or not doesn’t really matter. It works from KIPP’s perspective; the teachers who stay are indoctrinated. It’s almost, and I hate to use this word, but I’m going to anyway. But it’s almost like a cult.
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INTERVIEWER: You didn’t hear dialogue with students?
BILL: No. No. It’s, like, you know, the students came in. The browbeating was all day, if you will. They were going to do things one way, the KIPP way. It’s what I kept hearing, it’s the KIPP way. OK. The whole idea of grit and determination, you know, if you just do 80 hours a week, you'll be successful. I’m, like, really? How about worker smarter, not harder? Like I said, it wasn’t a good fit. And I knew it. They knew it. And when an opportunity arose, I jumped at it. I will say this. On some level, I feel really bad about leaving Memphis because I think, I’m pretty sure that there were a few kids that I could have reached if I didn’t get fired along the way. I’m a firm believer that if you save one, you save the world. And I miss teaching. I’m no longer in education. I’m now an ___________consultant for a _______ company. I miss the classroom. I miss the interaction with the kids. I miss being _________ , because I’m not _________ anymore. I’m just Bill at work.
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INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that there was a possibility of turning kids into robots. Did you see kids being turned into robots?
BILL: Yeah, that’s all KIPP does. I’m convinced that’s what their whole MO is . . . they think that the idea to help young urban youth is to turn them into automatons. I don't believe that. I believe that in order to help any young person, you have to get them to think. And that means that they can disagree with you. Used to tell the kids all the time, you can disagree with me all you want. You'll be wrong, but that’s OK. It was actually a quotation from one of my professors in college. That’s where I got that. It’s the whole idea of Socratic teaching. The whole idea of Socratic, you know, dialoguing and critical thinking is to get these kids to think. They can form their own opinions. That’s my feeling. That’s not the KIPP way.
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INTERVIEWER: So how does your experience teaching at KIPP compare to your other experiences?
BILL: I’m a teacher. And I wasn’t teaching at KIPP. You know? I had moments, brief flashes where I was.
INTERVIEWER: What were you doing?
BILL: Just teaching, like I said, the conversations with the kids. That was the worst ______ months of my career. And yet, you can always try to find a silver lining in it with the kids. I keep going back to the kids. My wife and I have talked about this. You know, I was talking the other day. Will I ever be a teacher again? I don't know. I don't know what the future will hold. I would like to think that some day that I might be a teacher again. But it would have to be under the right circumstances. And the right circumstances to me, I don't necessarily need 100% autonomy in the classroom. I’m not a college professor. At the same time, I want to be appreciated for my experience. I want to be appreciated for the things that I do. You know, it’s the old saying, leave me alone. As long as the kids are learning, what does it matter? You don’t have to understand it. And so who knows what will happen? I’m happy now at my current position.
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INTERVIEWER: So when you're having your day and you're going along and suddenly KIPP comes to mind, is there an image that stands out to you?
BILL: Yeah, the administration telling me that they could change me into a KIPP teacher.
INTERVIEWER: How does that make you feel?
BILL: It made me feel almost like my entire career had meant nothing. And you know what really angered me about it? I had kids on the south side of _____________, who when they came to me as juniors had no idea that they were really going to go to college. And two years later, they were not only going to college, they were ready. And I still get emails from them. One of them told me that she went down to [local college]. She walked into class the first day and when the teacher handed them the syllabus, she started laughing. She knew that she wouldn’t have any problem. The work was obviously a little different, but she wouldn’t have any problem doing the work.
. . . . BILL: You know what it reminded me? I’m sitting here thinking about it. KIPP reminds me of Brave New World. They’re trying to feed the kids the soma. And I guess people all over the country are buying it because they don’t think that there’s any way else to reach these kids. So when you have somebody that comes in and says, wait a minute, there is a way to reach them, and really reach them, that person can’t last in society. Didn’t happen in Huxley’s book. And it didn’t happen to me at KIPP.