When interviewing former "no excuses" teachers for the book, I asked them to describe a high point and low point during their time inside the KIPP Model schools. Those responses provide the focus of Chapter 7 of Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching. (For previous chapters, search the web for the title of this blog post).
Teacher Highs and Lows
. . . we had staff meetings that would go past midnight, and I’m glad that’s not a part of my life anymore. (1167)
For former KIPP teachers, the high points they remember from KIPP are most often associated with “the kids.” Hearing some variation of “the kids were my high points,” or “I loved the kids,” or “the high point was definitely the kids themselves” was common during our conversations. Another teacher said her high point “would definitely be interactions with students. I mean, there are specific students that I remember very fondly and think about their potential and their kind of stick-to-it-ness when it came to their work, and the things that I admired about them.”
High points included projects with children that teachers worked on outside the regular classroom. One teacher talked of a carnival, and another described a history fair on Saturday. One teacher identified her high point as being able to create a special education program at a KIPP school, where none had existed before. One teacher talked of teaching children to sing a song in German and “teaching rhythm to my advanced band.”
A former KIPP teacher discovered a high point as a result of working with one particular student who “had been diagnosed with several learning disabilities.” She had worked one-on-one with the student on developing “a growth mind set,” and as a result the student had “worked her ass off for . . . a 4.0 average by the end of second quarter.” This teacher said,
It was one of those success stories that I feel wouldn’t have happened at a public school because the support network that this girl had with the [KIPP] teachers who were dedicated to staying until seven o’clock every single day, and she would rotate who she was getting extra help from. She was dedicated. She was committed. And so to see her work pay off like that and to prove the critics wrong was a highlight for me.
Another teacher had his high point when he found that all his 22 middle school students with whom he had worked with for two years had passed the state test at the end of the second year. He said he remembered “crying and setting up a big party.”
One former KIPP teacher experienced her high point near the end of the year after the state test, when her students produced a major writing project that lasted eight week that was “really, really beautiful, and very memorable….It was the first time I felt like all year the kids really were enjoying writing class, and what was, you know, hugely frustrating – it was like a high, and a low, because that’s how I would have wanted to be teaching all year, but I was told that I need to teach in the five-step lesson plan.”
Another teacher’s high points came near the end of the year, too, when he and two other KIPP teachers designed a trip for students who had earned enough paycheck points to go on a week-long trip that included quality time in the outdoors and fun time in a large city in the region. This teacher found that when the lid was loosened on the KIPP pressure cooker, so that teachers let their “guards down,” both children and teachers had some profound experiences:
There was very little pressure—there was always some academic thing we would infuse with it, but it was very much a reward. It was fun because it’s a reward, and everybody likes rewards. But more than that, we basically let our guards down enough so that we could really stand back and watch and observe the kids be middle school kids in these exciting places. When we took that pressure off and just observed them, not only did we see all of their colors . . . . But to see them be interacting with each other in an unsupervised way really, I think, gave them a sense of ownership and freedom to where we were able to create an experience that was theirs.
And then more so because they were allowed to relax and breathe, they were able to reflect a lot easier, and their reflections on the past year, certainly in relation to school and their relationships with each other and their relationships with the teachers, were profound. It’s the kind of thing where you feel like you’ve done your job because you’ve created an environment for them to thrive as opposed to feeling like you’re driving the train.
Another teacher’s high point came near the beginning of his time at KIPP “before I got on the radar of the administration,” a time that allowed “relative autonomy . . . despite the fact that we were forced to have our doors open at all times.” A former TFA teacher who lasted four months at KIPP had her high point when she was able to set aside the KIPP Model long enough to have a “little Friday afternoon party” for students who had earned a certain level of paycheck dollars for the week: “I felt like someone that they wanted to be around, so that was exciting and it felt good to just kind of be in the chill environment because it's so often so strict and so structured.”
Another teacher who struggled “under the weight of guilt” for being part of imposing the harsh KIPP Model on students found her high point, too, in “forging relationships with students, rapport with students . . . [who] were consistently not meeting expectations.” These students who “would’ve been called defiant, questioning authority, questioning the KIPP code” were able to come to trust this teacher:
I felt like I established a rapport with them, in the sense that I think that over time it became clear to them that they feel secure questioning certain precepts of the KIPP code with me. They felt like rather than respond with either jargon or with accusing them of defiance, and threatening them with some kind of punishment, I felt like they, over time, felt they could come to me and have a real intellectual discussion about some of the rules that they were forced to deal with day in and day out. In terms of a high point at KIPP, those times when I would work with those students, not even work with them but have lunch with them one-on-one and just talk to them about their school and some of the issues they had to deal with in coming to a KIPP school, those were definite high points.
Other teachers found such opportunities rare or unavailable at all. One teacher, whose professional ethic centered on being “on the side of the student all the time” and on caring for each student “as if it was my own,” remembered a situation that made it clear to him that his values were not shared by his school leader. In relating his experience, he shines a light on the questionable process used to shed non-compliant students without increasing the low suspension and expulsion statistics that KIPP offers as evidence that its schools do not “dump” problem students:
One instance that made me feel extremely uncomfortable and I say that in general that as a teacher I want to be 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 conduct marks 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.
One former KIPP teacher found her memorable high points in bonding with a small cadre of colleagues who questioned or challenged KIPP rules or mandates that they considered “insane.” As she related,
You know, I still talk to these people, and we keep in touch and kind of laugh at the things that happened. . . . Some of the teachers who were there from the years before who had stuck it out obviously are the type of people that can be controlled easily and like things to be in a certain way, kind of like bureaucrats, you know, people who could follow these rules, who are okay with them. . . .We just did not buy in.
Low points while teaching at KIPP were more frequent, more intense, and easier for teachers to recall than the highs. As one teacher said, “I couldn’t pick out a single low point because they were so many.” She followed up by talking about being “absolutely exhausted” as the low points during the three years she taught at KIPP. The total exhaustion culminated when she fell asleep on her way home and crashed into another car at a traffic light.
Her experiences at KIPP and her subsequent recovery from exhaustion left her with a renewed belief in public education, which she identified as a high point from working at KIPP: “I have not lost faith in the public school system—I’ve actually gained more faith by working at KIPP. It has tripled my faith in the public school system.”
One teacher found her low and high points shifting back and forth as she focused on how other teachers treated, and mistreated, students at KIPP:
. . . the kids . . . for the most part wanted to do well, struggled so hard and worked so hard. Harder than they would have ever worked in a regular public school, and still didn’t do well, and seeing them be misunderstood by teachers who didn’t understand much. There were a few teachers who thought the same way I did. One of them was let go….Another one, she did her two years and she left there. There were a couple of really amazing teachers who did not need to shout or scream or belittle or berate, and did some amazing things with those kids and seeing that happen was a high point. That is what I thought I was getting into. An organization full of those kinds of people.
One teacher found out she would not be rehired only when she was the lone teacher during a faculty meeting who did not receive a copy of the revamped schedule for the coming year. Another teacher in performance arts who worked four days a week came to school on a Friday to find her computer had been taken away. When she complained, she was given another without a power cord and told the school had no power cords for that computer.
During an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2008, co-founder Dave Levin said that KIPP looks on its teachers as “rock stars” or “star athletes.” This contrasts sharply with the way former teachers felt during their time at KIPP, as one teacher explained when she talked about her leaving KIPP to have a home and family, “those things that too many KIPP teachers are not getting.” This former KIPP teacher who was in graduate school in education recalled that he “felt like I was not being treated like a rock star at all. I felt like I was a grunt in the military the way I was being treated.”
He said that KIPP had been entirely “unwilling to make sacrifices at school to allow for a healthy lifestyle outside of school.” He talked, too, of a conversation that he remembered having with a female colleague who also wanted marriage and children:
. . . we were both commenting on how the KIPP lifestyle was not going to provide us with the opportunity to meet someone and really foster a healthy relationship, and that having kids and working for KIPP are mutually exclusive. They don’t go together. The only teachers at KIPP that I know that have kids do not work full time.
For this teacher, this situation was due to paradox created by placing all KIPP’s concern on student test score outcomes and none on teacher welfare, when teacher welfare is key to raising test scores:
. . . they’re kind of creating this paradox or they’re contradicting themselves because most schools know and most people know that good teachers raise test scores. Good teachers create good students, and the good teachers are the ones that you need to keep, but if you’re not attracting the best teachers to your school and you’re not keeping the best teachers at your school, then you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot, and the long hours . . . can only get you so far.
So if KIPP has constant turnover with their teachers, then they’re reinventing the wheel every year, and they can’t keep those really good teachers that are responsible for the kids making such drastic improvement. . . . That’s [the long hours] not what’s improving test scores, and it’s not the lesson plan. It’s the teachers themselves.
One veteran teacher who was hired at one of the Memphis KIPP schools encountered criticism from the outset, when he was shocked to hear that his bulletin boards did not meet specifications. When that had been corrected, he found that school leaders did not like the way he was open with students and engaging them in debate and questioning, even though he had years of high school experience and the school leaders had only taught brief stints in the lower grades.
Criticism of teaching style was quickly followed by a critique of his content, which the school leaders found inappropriate for high school students, even though the readings used are included in most high school curricula for the subject taught. By October, this teacher was demoralized to the point of beginning to feel as if all his prior success and his “entire career had meant nothing.”
Angered, he asked the school leaders why they had brought him to Memphis if they did not like what they had seen or heard during his practice teaching and interview. Their reply offered what this teacher considered a deep insult and his low point at KIPP, when they said, “We thought we could make you a KIPP teacher.”
One teacher’s low point came as a result of being chosen as the new teacher who would get “special help” from a consultant hired by KIPP to help the school better monitor student behaviors that this teacher had never known were so important until she came to KIPP:
. . . if they had their hands on their desk, or if they were tracking me when I was giving directions, or like, if their backpack was not on the back of their chair, or if they were wearing their sweater instead of their sweater being in their cubby, or on the back of their chair, or if they still were writing when I had said, “pencils down.”
The consultant had what he advertised as a sure-fire system based on constant narration of good and bad behaviors that all teachers were to apply. This new teacher admitted she was both skeptical and somewhat resistant, which ended in her having to wear an earpiece as the consultant stood in the back of the room whispering instructions into her ear:
. . . it just really bothered me that I had to do it this specific way, and it got to the point where he had me wearing like an earpiece, and he was standing in the back of the room, watching me lead my class, and I was so uncomfortable, I was sweating, and then, I had to do this sequence of directions the way that they wanted me to, and he would tell me into my earpiece what I was supposed to be saying to the kids. And it was just really weird, because there were like 27 kids; they were really good kids, but they had to be like perfect, and I—I just—I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t agree with it, and [in] meetings with him I was crying, talking to this consultant, saying like I just don’t believe in this—I don’t get it, and I was just really encouraged, like well, this is how we’re doing it, so this is how we need you to do it.
Several teachers related incidents of losing control or of nearly losing control as they tried to keep perfect order while meeting all the expectations of school leaders. One teacher said,
. . . I personally had an incident in which I lost control with some students in terms of just getting upset with them. And I used a curse word and I got very, very, very, very, very angry. I lost control and so that was probably the low point.
Another teacher’s loss of control climaxed in a screaming match with a 7th grader that had to be broken up by a parent volunteer. It all started when a student “smacked her lips,” which was an offense that required a deduction from the student’s paycheck:
And if you smack your lips, that was a deduction on your paycheck. I walked around with this clipboard all the time, and I had my pen and everybody’s name on it. If someone did something they weren’t supposed to be doing, then you’d deduct their paycheck. Which can be done in a nonchalant way or it can be done in a very clear way or it can be done in an escalation manner. I tried very hard to not escalate. . . . I deducted the two points from her paycheck.
She rolled her eyes and started complaining. That leads to another deduction, and she just escalated and I played along with her. Somehow she started screaming; at KIPP that kind of behavior is entirely unacceptable. The typical method, which is something that was somewhat unnatural for me, but something that I employed, was to not let her do that. In front of this whole class we got in this screaming match. I obviously moved her outside, but the kids in the class could hear it until one of the parent coordinators came in with, ‘Let me take care of this, let me remove her.’
I remember going home that night thinking, or I remember in that moment when the parent took this girl away from me, that I had just not only over-stepped the bounds of professionalism, but I was extremely embarrassed by my behavior. I think it’s probably indicative of some of my experiences, where as much as we loved those kids and we just tried to love them as hard as we could. Everything came from that place of wanting more for our kids. But a hard lesson that I’ve had to learn over the years is that you can’t want more for other people if they don’t want that for themselves. As a teacher, you’ve got to guide them there, but you also have to set high expectations. Again, you‘ve got to meet them where they are and certainly not get into screaming matches with 7th graders. I felt embarrassed and I think it called into question for me a lot of what we were doing at school.
When asked, specifically, what was called into question for her by this incident, she replied,
This whole notion of extreme discipline. There were some places where we were able to create an environment where there’s a love of learning. But by having, exerting, so much control over the environment and the students, I wondered what happened to them when that kind of discipline wasn’t instilled, that kind of control wasn’t [there], when those reins were taken off when they went to high school, what would happen.
And shouldn’t we, as educators, be trying to prepare them to be more independent than we were. I think we felt like a lot of our kids were coming to us in crisis, and they needed stability and they needed somebody who they could trust. I think we did absolutely our best. I can’t imagine having done more. But sometimes more is not the answer; sometimes less is the answer. The idea of more rigor, more discipline, more control, more stability, I think, was not appropriate for our kids, over time.
A young teacher who had difficulty adjusting to KIPP Model discipline after two years as a TFA teacher in a public school attributed her struggle to her different style of interactions with students, which had been more persuasive than confrontational. When she was called to a conference with her grade level chair, who had the same amount of teacher experience as she, she was told that her discipline problems were due to students’ lack of respect for her, which derived from her inability to develop relationships with students.
The grade level chair’s advice was for her to follow his lead, which was to drive students home and to buy them food from McDonalds. This teacher found this supervisor’s advice “preposterous:” “And [to] have this guy my age with the same experience tell me that I didn't know what I was doing or . . . to limit a child's ability to understand a human being based on whether or not they're buying them food at the end of the day just, to me, is so inappropriate.”
Another teacher who gave her all to KIPP and found it not enough had received honors in her previous teaching position. Yet at KIPP, she could not seem to ever satisfy the school leader, who had taken her to lunch when she started teaching at the school: “He spent like an hour with me. And I know he’s busy. He took that time because he wanted to check on me. And I felt valuable.” By December, however, her dream of being a KIPP teacher had turned to nightmare, and she was doing all she could to stay ahead of total exhaustion, while trying to do everything that was expected of her. The low point came during her final conference with the school leader, just days before she was fired:
. . . he sat down with me. He’s, like, ‘we know you're working hard, but effort does not equal results. And when you look this stressed, not showering,’ and the way that he looked at me, I felt like he was commenting about my weight and my clothes and my appearance. He’s like, ‘what does it look like to the kids when you're their leader?’
And I think that was the low point because I really had given the kids every single thing that I could think of. I brought every trick with me. And I gave them every minute. And, you know, I felt betrayed by this principal who had sat with me, and he cared about me, I thought, and valued me. And I felt like a complete failure. So that was the low.
The teachers I spoke with were deeply affected by their experiences at KIPP. And while some found points of light that illuminate their stories, for the most part, there remains a darkness that pervaded the narrative spaces that these teachers created as they recalled their time at KIPP:
I look back at those years, and for that year and a half, it just seems like a dark period. My blue period. And there was some good, but for the most I feel anxious when I think back. It was a very hard time. There were other things going on like I was saying in my private life . . . it was hard because I was never home, it was hard to take care of either the job or my personal life well. It was just a bad time.