If you are a new teacher in a "no excuses" school, you may be discovering a level of Hell that you previously did not know existed. In the excerpt below from my book, former teachers and teachers begin to recount some of their experiences in KIPP Model schools. I would say, enjoy, but that is not the right admonition. Rather, read a bit, and go outside and look at the sky, then continue.
The KIPP Teaching Experience
It’s like you’re being used up and thrown out. –1160
. . . looking back on it, it just seems crazy that people are willing to do the things that KIPP requires of them without a second thought. You know, you have to have blind obedience, if that makes sense. –1184
As noted elsewhere in this book, KIPP teachers are at-will employees, which means that the teacher or KIPP can terminate the contract at any time without notice. While this arrangement provides a tangible motivator for teachers to try to keep up with KIPP’s expectations, it also allows KIPP to quickly replace teachers who are not producing measurable results in the form of test scores.
This arrangement, in turn, creates higher stress levels among teachers who are already under intense pressure, and the ability to fire teachers at-will creates a negative energy that runs counter to KIPP’s advertised face of positivity and widespread “joy factor.” Teachers report that job insecurity was a major stressor, which creates negative energy from knowing that termination might come without warning: “I think that KIPP is kind of fueled by negative energy in some ways. You know, it’s easier to try to scare people into doing things than to motivate them or encourage them. And I think that was kind of the attitude that I ran into a lot is, you know, you’re an at-will employee, so if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else.”
Another teacher noted that his lowest points at KIPP were related to his anxiety about job insecurity, which caused him to lose sleep: “. . . a part of the culture among staff at this particular 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. I felt that pressure a lot, to the point where I was losing sleep.”
Another teacher who had worked in public schools before coming to KIPP talked about the downside of KIPP’s system of at-will teacher contracts:
. . . public schools aren’t all perfect. . . . I’m not a wholesale believer in everything that the union has done, because I’ve seen a lot of ineffective teachers get tenure and things like that. And I’ve seen a lot of teachers not be protected when they should have been. But I believe that there is a reason for the protections that teachers have. And at KIPP, there is no such thing. You know, you're an at-will employee all the time [and] there’s no guarantee that, if you’ve been there for five years, that year six, they’re going to even ask you to come back. And they don’t have to give you any notice.
The Teaching Day
Teachers in KIPP Model schools have long days that range from 10 to 14 hours. It is not uncommon for teachers to arrive at school between 5 and 6 AM and to leave after 6 or 7 PM, and all KIPP teachers are on call Monday through Friday until 9 or 10 PM for homework tutoring or questions. Some KIPP schools have Saturday school for a half-day, but most have Saturday school every other week. “And then,” as one teacher said, “there’s the lesson planning and grading” to be done as well.
Most teachers arrive well before 7:00, in order to get their photocopies done before the children begin to arrive at 7:05. School leaders make the rounds checking to see if rooms are ready. At 7:20, children are signaled with a series of hand motions to line up for breakfast, and they are marched silently in single file to the cafeteria. Children return to the classroom for “advisory” at 7:50, where they find the morning work on the board or they are handed a worksheet that may or may not be relevant to the curriculum.
During this time of silent work, teachers check homework folders to make sure all homework has been completed correctly and that the proper paycheck deductions for sloppy or missing work and credits for correct work are made for each child. With as many as 30 students in advisory with four subjects, each requiring written work every night, this task rarely gets completed with complete accuracy in the time allotted. At 8:40, children get the readying hand signals once more and are silently marched to their first class.
One teacher explained the students’ transitioning in this way:
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 a 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.
Between 8:40 AM and 4:40 PM, teachers have a plan period and a half-hour for lunch, during which time most teachers remain on duty while trying to eat. Because lining up and marching has to be performed perfectly or it must be done again, lunch usually lasts less than the thirty minutes allotted in the schedule. Throughout the day, teachers carry clipboards and spend their time maintaining total compliance and teaching content.
Following the minute details of management, demerit, and punishment plans takes up considerable chunks of class time. One teacher described the “demerit clipboard” this way:
And I really struggled with this demerit clipboard, because there was a whole, you know, each type of different demerit had a different number from one to nine. And you had to note it in a certain way. And you had to put your initials. And you had to put it next to the student’s name. So finding all of this on a clipboard that’s legal size with 30 kids on it, while you're in the middle of a lesson on the spot, so you [must] remember to record it—it can interrupt your whole lesson and derail it. I mean, some teachers can just do it quickly. At [another charter school where she taught previously], they have a barcode scanner and they just literally scanned the student’s name and the kind of demerit. And they do it instantly. I joked that they should just put the barcodes on the kids’ foreheads, you know?
The after school KIPP teacher experience looks something like this: At 4:40 students begin to get ready for home, and at 4:45 KIPP teachers march their students to the buses. The teachers board the buses with the students to make sure everyone is settled with something to read. Teachers leave the buses and are instructed to wave until the buses are out of sight. Teachers then walk back to the building, where they tutor children until 5:45, except on Mondays and Wednesdays, when professional development meetings last until 8PM.
Afterwards, teachers compile data for exit tickets that provide “concrete data” that children have learned what was expected of them that day. Then teachers organize their classrooms, prepare lessons for the next day (which must be typed later and turned in to the school leader each Friday), and make sure the independent worksheets are ready for the next morning. By 8 or 9 PM, it’s time to head home to fix dinner and grade papers.
“Trying to put your finger on every potential leak”
One teacher, who compared his 80-100 hour weeks at a KIPP school to “sprinting a marathon for two years,” provided insight into KIPP’s control strategies and the “intensity” with which they are maintained. At his school, silence was not only maintained at school—it was also enforced on school buses—by teachers. There are no ellipses in this excerpt, as it is verbatim from the audio transcript:
It wasn’t just working on being at the office or something like that. It was we had to create and own an environment that was difficult to manage, and had to do that over a very long period. I’ll give you two or three examples that will hopefully illustrate what I’m speaking about. In the mornings, we decided, or the school decided, that kids should be reading as much as possible. The bus drivers picking the kids up and dropping them off wouldn’t be able to discipline them or create the same kind of culture that we had expected of our students and that a lot of the culture that we’d created would break down on the way to school and after school. We thought that if kids were unsupervised on those buses, they would inevitably lead to some sort of drama, fighting or conflict of some sort, and that would carry into the school day and distract them from their learning.
Our kids came in performing well below grade level, and we were trying to get them not just on track and caught up, but prepared academically and propel them forward. We felt that was a risk that we couldn’t really take in terms of the amount of potential disruption that might come from getting off the bus with fires to put out before 7:30 in the morning. Our solution was to ride the bus with the students. This is actually something that a bunch of schools do. I don’t think we were the only ones to do it. What we did on the bus, was we had policy that we introduced that kids were not allowed to talk. They could read their books. They could look out the window. They could sleep. They could just relax. But you’re getting ready for school—get yourself prepared. Take a moment, gather yourself, read. That was the policy. As you can imagine, that’s not something that’s very typical for a group of 10, 11, 12 and 13 year-olds to abide by, especially at 6:30 in the morning.
Actually it was certainly harder on the way home from school. It became an exercise in discipline, where the teacher was expected to ride the bus each day, either going out or coming back or sometimes both. The ride would be an hour and you had to sit there and make sure that the kids didn’t talk. That’s an extra hour or two added on top of the school day that’s already extremely intense where as a teacher I felt like I had to be extremely focused. I had to be extremely professional. I had to be extremely consistent.
In retrospect, the benefit of that policy was probably extremely limited. But it was something we decided to do. We were on board with it. We executed to the best of our ability. However, it had a long-term cost of creating this experience for the teacher that was very intense. And the experience with the kids that were very intense, too. That created, as I mentioned briefly earlier, almost a pressure-cooker kind of environment where you felt—or I should say our strategy was trying to put our fingers on every potential leak. But you’d feel like it’s going to explode if you’re not putting your hands in the leak.
Upon reflection, this teacher characterized his school’s approach as the “far extreme of control,” which, for him was “something that creates teacher turnover every two years. It creates kids dropping out of the school. It creates nervousness and stress among parents and students.”
Silence and Stress
Enforced silence is one of the chief sources of stress among KIPP teachers. Failure to meet silence expectations is attributed by school leaders as teachers’ shortcomings, rather than any examination of unrealistic expectations of children with real social needs that were not being met:
…there is a huge pressure in terms of behavior and the way that kids act in your class ….I feel like if there is ever any behavior issue, it is automatically the teacher’s fault, when I don’t necessarily feel like that is true and those expectations that the kids are supposed to be silent in the hallway, they need to be silent when they are in your room, they need to be SLANTing and tracking you and silent when you are talking—I just feel like it is not realistic, especially developmentally, to expect that from middle school kids.
So it is just frustrating because they are just doing what is natural to them to kind of interact and like play around, and I feel like there is a big pressure for the kids not to be acting that way. Then if they are choosing to act that way, it is your [the teacher’s] fault, like “well what should you be doing, you need to be doing more for them to be not acting that way.”
As this same teacher noted, the emphasis on silent behavior had so sensitized her to that expectation that more teaching energy was going into enforcement than into offering more effective learning strategies. The result was a focus on constant policing rather than teaching:
In terms of teaching, retrospectively if I look at it, it has made me a worse teacher because now I feel like I am constantly thinking of these expectations that I am supposed to have in terms of behavior—having them be silent and all those things—and I feel like it is making me a bad teacher because it is like constantly looking at the negative, “oh they are not doing good.” I feel like it has not helped me to focus on the positive things as much.
From Stress to Distress
I feel like there are a lot of really good teachers who did leave and it wasn’t because they were bad teachers; it was just because they couldn’t deal with the pressure and the hours and the stress that is kind of put upon people (1177).
A former KIPP teacher was headed for a visit to the KIPP school where he had resigned the year before. He had found a different job since leaving KIPP, and he was able to sleep again. He had started to gain weight, and his hair was starting to grow back. While at KIPP, he had made friends with other KIPP teachers, and he missed the kids that he had come to know, despite all the organizational rules that discouraged that from happening. He recalls:
I was walking down the sidewalk outside of the school, and I ran into one of the teachers who was going to the deli on the corner to go grab a Gatorade, and he said, ‘every time I see somebody who’s left this school, they always come back looking ten times happier.’ So when I think about KIPP now, I think about how grateful I am that I’ve been able to get some sleep and have some of my hair start growing back.
Other teachers found school time consumed a great deal of personal time, which brought added stress from a loss of connection with family and friends. One teacher who had her first child while employed at KIPP placed the baby with her mother during the four years she spent teaching there. She supported her mother so that her mother could retire and be the full-time caregiver for the child. She offered this tearful explanation:
At the end of the school year in ____ is when I left, and my son started school that same year. That’s when I realized I just had missed out on one of the most important things in my life. He was my first child. I had him late. Yeah, that was hard. I realized I didn’t know my four-year old because I had spent four years focusing on KIPP. I was a first time parent so I didn’t understand. I actually I gave him to my mother. My mother quit her job to raise him. I supported my mother and myself so my mother could retire from her job to take care of my baby so I could work for KIPP. Then I realized it wasn’t worth it.
Teaching at KIPP has many stressors, but factors related to organizational policies and practices, time demands, and the weight given to tests figure significantly to most of the teachers interviewed. The following quote provides insight into how all three of these factors figure into the stress that this teacher acknowledged:
. . . there’s a lot of stress to do good in terms of making the [state testing] goals, and also for each teacher wanting that group to do at least as well as the teacher the year before, and in a lot of cases because you get a lot of turnover, that’s a big thing to hold over somebody. It’s like, ‘Well, this teacher got this [state] scores for her English class,’ so there’s a lot of stress on that, and that’s a lot for the English and math departments, which are tested more often. There’s also stress that the other departments have to cram stuff into a smaller space in time, because a lot of time is spent on those two subjects, Math and English, because those are the ones that are tested, and so I know that I had to squeeze a lot of curriculum into a smaller space in time that I shouldn’t have had to do.
This same teacher said the stress was “more continuous” than in his previous school, where test prep had been restricted to the month prior to the state test. As with the other KIPP teachers I talked with, this teacher’s school did not hire substitute teachers, for fear of altering the behavioral regimen. Outsiders could not be trusted to maintain the level of academic and behavioral compliance that the KIPP Model demands, and as this teacher put it, “it was hard to get anyone trained to be a sub.”
Because other KIPP teachers would have to take up the slack when a teacher was ill or needed to be off for other business, the teachers I talked with only took off for emergencies. Even then, the principal might “call you at home, and say, ‘can you possibly come in for part of the day?’ And you could be really throwing up, or whatever, and it was like you feel so guilty, and you’re trying to get in.”
One teacher, who compared KIPP with her other charter school experience, found KIPP less fulfilling and less successful, even though she made between three and four thousand dollars more per year at KIPP:
. . .if you break down how much I am making an hour, I am making way less an hour than a public school teacher is and I am just constantly stressed and worried about school. This is something that I didn’t experience in student teaching or when I was at the other charter school in New York: it was a lot more laid back than KIPP, and the day was not as long as a KIPP day, either. And I feel like that school was way more successful than the KIPP that I am at now.
Another teacher, who had landed a public school teaching job in a wealthy community after leaving KIPP, had a similar sense of relief that came when the yelling stopped. She apologized for using the military analogy, but she could not come up with a more appropriate one:
I felt like I was almost coming out of, I don’t feel totally right saying this, but I guess I can, in a minor way, understand how military might feel coming home. And again I don’t feel totally right saying that, but that is the only parallel or metaphor I can make right now, but just sort of like this kind of shell shock sort of feeling and then like coming to a place where you know people are normal and act like humans.
That is kind of how it felt, and I just felt so grateful. I was like wow, we have books, like wow, I don’t have to yell at anybody for talking, and I can actually sit down and have lunch. I didn’t feel so stressed, and I almost didn’t know what to do with that feeling. So it was just liberating, and I felt like I didn’t know what to do with all this liberation.
After the grueling work schedule at KIPP Model schools, the time left for family is often consumed with trying to recover from mental and physical exhaustion. One teacher, ironically, pointed to the weekends as her low points while teaching at KIPP:
. . . I was just absolutely exhausted, my body was exhausted. That happened so often, I would just sleep like all day on Sunday. Where most people look forward to the weekend to run their errands, to spend time with their family, that would be my time to sleep. Everyone knew it, like don’t call her—she’s sleeping. Those are my low points—the weekends.
It is not uncommon for KIPP teachers to have no more than 4-5 hours of sleep each night during workweeks of 12-14 hour days. One KIPP teacher spoke of a principal whose sleep deprivation while at KIPP had contributed to an inability to get pregnant. Upon resigning from KIPP, “she slept for about a month straight and she was pregnant a month later. So it had a pretty profound impact on other people.”
One teacher, who was still under the care of a therapist following her time at KIPP, said that she would leave her house at 4:30 AM in order to get to school at 5 AM. This way she could get her photocopying done before most of the other teachers showed up, and get to her classroom by 6 AM so that she should organize for her day, which started at 7:05 with students. Having gotten to bed around midnight after getting home between 9 and 10 PM, the alarm came earlier each day that she followed this routine. She said of the hours she kept,
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 KIPP was very isolating when you work those horrible hours. I left my family and my boyfriend in Arizona and I wanted to forge this great life out here. And I wanted to be this great teacher. And I gave it everything I had.
By October, she was getting up at 4:17 AM and out the door by 4:30. It was at this time that she said, “I stopped taking regular showers because I wanted to get 20 more minutes sleep.”
While many KIPP educators lose sleep because of the workload and the pace of work life, one teacher found KIPP colleagues who were “very, very, very much committed,” but he said that, because of the workload, he was unsure “how many of them last a long time at KIPP” (1170). Sleep is not only an issue for teachers, but also for students. One former teacher told me that the first thing he would change about KIPP would be early start time, which is commonly around 7 AM.
He framed his argument in terms of test scores achievement: “How much are we harming these kids’ scores and their cognitive development by depriving them of sleep because a lot of them are still going to bed at midnight or 1 o’clock in the morning and then getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning? Many of them have the same schedule as the KIPP teachers.”
From Distress to Other Health Issues
You wind up sacrificing your physical health and most of your social life. . . . I put my relationship with the students before my physical health. (1166).
With the kind of pressure-filled hours described above, it would be surprising if teachers reported no ill health effects. All the teachers interviewed did report negative health effects from working inside No Excuses pressure cookers. The mental health effects range from PTSD symptoms, anxiety disorders, unusual sadness, nightmares, depression, anger issues, nervous exhaustion, emotional and mental breakdowns, and classic teacher burnout. One teacher spent a week in the hospital in November after a “mental breakdown,” and another who was still in treatment described her condition as a “nervous breakdown.” A third teacher reported that she saw four teachers have “complete nervous breakdowns:”
I can definitely in my mind right now identify four teachers that I saw unravel that had a nervous breakdown and I would just explain it as crying and shaking and talking and not making sense. Babbling, a lot of babbling. Asking for help. Crying. I felt horrible.
Self-reported physical manifestations included weight loss, weight gain, bad nutrition, more colds and respiratory infections, poor hygiene, and alopecia. One teacher was so unavailable to his partner as life became “completely the job” that her partner began an active job search for her while she was trying to survive the rigors of KIPP. She said, “I lost a lot of weight. A lot of people voiced concern about my weight.” The job search proved productive, and she left KIPP for health, relationship, and ethical reasons having to do with the treatment of special education students.
Another teacher who suffered from alopecia and other work-related illnesses resigned from KIPP for health reasons. She talked about not being able to “handle working there,” even if it meant not finding another teaching job immediately:
I am just going to hope that I can find something. I just decided that regardless of whether or not I get another job—I would like to have another job—I just can’t handle working there. It is just not worth my health to do that for another year, because even other than my hair falling out, I have had a lot of other health issues. I have had pneumonia, I have had my hair fall out, I have had stomach problems, and I have had a lot of anxiety and it is just not worth it at all. And I am constantly in a bad, bad mood and my boyfriend tells me like all the time that he has noticed a big change in the way I am since I have been working there.
One teacher I talked with came to KIPP after teaching for some time in her home state and winning praise as Teacher of the Year in one of the schools where she worked. She had a non-education Bachelors degree and a prior successful career in her field. Her Masters was in Education, and it was a short video that she saw during her graduate school experience 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.”
She finally made the decision to apply out of state to a KIPP school, and she was hired to teach middle school. She packed up her car with all her teaching materials, which left room for a single suitcase, and moved to begin her dream job at KIPP. The new KIPP regimen proved brutal. In order to get everything done the KIPP way, she found it necessary to work 16-18 hour days, which left no time for anything else, including taking care of herself:
…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.
When she told her grade level supervisor that she was breaking down and thought she needed to see a therapist, she was sent on to the principal, whose first reaction was to ask to observe her class. Following the observation, the principal opened their meeting by saying, “I’m just really worried about you. I hear you have no joy.” It was at this point that she “fell apart” and told the school leader that she didn’t know how much longer she could “take this.”
A distinct lack of joy is not only apparent among many KIPP teachers. One teacher noted that students “look like adults walking down the hallways. They’re stressed. One thing you always notice at the [KIPP] school I was in—you will not see a student smiling. You would not see a teacher smiling. I mean the difference in the school culture from [my] previous school is so different—like the kids were literally breaking down.”