In this chapter, KIPP Model teachers talk about what it was like to teach in a No Excuses charter school.-->
You may find earlier chapters by googling the blog post title above. You may preview a copy here, or you may purchase a copy of Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching at any online book store or from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
You may find earlier chapters by googling the blog post title above. You may preview a copy here, or you may purchase a copy of Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching at any online book store or from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
What Was It Like to Teach at KIPP?
I just feel like KIPP has left this doubt that no matter what I do, I’m just not good enough. (1183)
Most former KIPP teachers expressed grave reservations about recommending KIPP to others as a place to teach. The question I asked all teachers was a variant of this one: If I were a friend interested in applying for a teaching job at KIPP, and I asked you, ‘what was it like there,’ what would you tell me? One teacher told me that he loved “the people there,” but he did not love the KIPP system that made life hard:
Ten-hour days with students is definitely taxing on the teacher. You have no life. KIPP is your life. Even when you are done with the children at 5:00, you might have [students] after school or at the same time you are definitely developing lesson plans. . . .Because the way they have it set up, we didn’t really get time to plan our formal lessons; we were hired in June, and I started in June. I didn’t really get the time to really plan any kind of lessons at all . . . we had a week’s worth of planning but that first week before school started we went to a KIPP Summit.
You really don’t have a life at all; that is what I would definitely tell them. It’s easy for you to get a job with them because you don’t have to have education as your major, so I would tell them yes, that’s a positive about it and yes you do get paid more than you would in the [public] school system, but it’s still a lot of work, a lot of work.
Other teachers were more graphic in their response to the question. A teacher who remained under the care of a therapist when I talked with her, said this:
I would say that working at KIPP was the most horrible experience of my life. I would tell people that, I would tell a friend especially, that the message is good with KIPP, that you want to send all kids to and through college, but it is at such great personal sacrifice that it’s—it crushed me. I would encourage anyone else to just stop. It wasn’t even getting fired that was the worst thing for me. It was knowing that I was told that if the kids didn’t go to college, that it was my fault. I just think that anybody else who wants to do good could do better good at their own school rather than destroy themselves by working at KIPP .
Others also experienced the heavy load born by KIPP teachers who are told that they, alone, must assume responsibility for the success or failure of students. The heavy load of responsibility placed on young shoulders produces pathologies and degrees of burnout, or flameout, uncommon at regular public schools.
Another teacher was particularly eloquent about the guilt that school leaders nurtured at the KIPP school where she taught. She described teaching at KIPP as “hard, draining.” When asked to elaborate on how it was draining, this teacher noted that any complaint about unsustainable pressures at KIPP was viewed by the school leaders and colleagues as exhibiting weakness or coming off as “whining.” The thought of offering any protestation, then, for unbearable conditions brought with it a sense of guilt for not being onboard with “team and family.” It also indicated a “sign of a flaw in character,” which produced more guilt, and for this teacher, was “almost more exhausting than the work itself:”
I hesitate to do this because I feel like it comes off as whining, a lack of work ethic, but then I’ll also address that in a moment. Obviously there’s the issue of the hours. The school that I was, and I think this is pretty formulaic from most KIPP schools but in my case it was I was at school every day from 6:45 AM until most days 6:00 PM at night, some days later, into 8:00 and 9:00 PM. I would talk about Saturday school. I would talk about the fact that I was on call until 10:00 PM every night for homework questions or for calls from parents. I would talk about two hour classes. Each class that I taught was, three days out of the week each class was usually a two hour and ten minute block. I would talk about all those things.
But for me personally, and I think I addressed this in my original email to you as well, and I don’t want to get too much into that—it’s a bit too meta-cognitive—but there’s this idea in the culture, at least on the staff level, if for any moment you are flagging under that pressure, if you find yourself feeling drained because of the hours or because of the frenzy of work, that’s not natural—that’s a cause for guilt. That’s a sign of a flaw in character, or a lack of commitment to the students or a lack of work ethic. It was draining on all the levels of the particulars in terms of the time, the energy, but it was also draining in that sense of I was always struggling in my own mind with this idea of, ‘should I feel guilty about the fact that I’m exhausted?’ And the guilt was almost more exhausting than the actual work itself.
There was a supreme emotional exhaustion that surpassed the physical exhaustion, that surpassed all the other elements. Had it not been for the emotional exhaustion, I have no doubt that I could have felt more successful in my work. The odd thing is on paper and according to my administrators, I was successful. It’s not that I had an unsuccessful year at KIPP and left with a bad record or with a stain across my experience. There was that emotional exhaustion; it was too much.
Other teachers focused directly on the loss of social and family life that comes with teaching at KIPP. One teacher who found KIPP “oppressive” said teaching there is “demanding to the point where you’re asked to leave all your family and social aspects behind.” Another said “you had best be ready to give up your social life.”
Another teacher waved his warning flag, in particular, at teachers with public school experience:
Should I come work at KIPP? I would probably say don’t do it. You’ve already gotten used to life at a public school. You’re used to that schedule. You’re used to having a life outside of school and it’s not an adjustment that’s going to go well. If you were somebody who had spent some time in the military, if you were someone who had done TFA or had taught overseas in a third world country, then I might be a little more inclined to recommend teaching at KIPP, but I think for the most part if someone asked if they should work at KIPP, I offer a lot of warning. I say you’re not going to sleep at all. It’s going to be pretty brutal, real tough. You wind up sacrificing your physical health and most of your social life.
One former KIPP teacher said that others had asked him the “what was it like there” question in the past:
. . . I told them I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy. That’s exactly what I say every time I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And I have no enemies but I wouldn’t wish it if I had an enemy. I wouldn’t put anyone through that. Anyone. It was probably – you give up your life and not only do you give up your life you’re giving it up for nothing. It’s not like you’re seeing results. It’s not like you’re being rewarded appropriately. I mean there’s no reward for that type of work. It’s just like you’re being used up and thrown out. It’s like they’re going to use you up as much as you can take until you realize okay, I’m being used, and then you get out. My friends quit asking now. . . everybody knows what KIPP is like now so I don’t get that question much anymore.
According to one of the former KIPP teachers who served in a number of leadership roles at KIPP, including teacher leader and head of professional development, there are three categories of teachers who “make it” at KIPP:
The teachers that make it at KIPP fall in one of three categories, a) the extremely type A personality. They are dedicated. They love KIPP. . . .They may have a Teach for America background. I can also tell you that 40% of our teachers are Teach for America corps members. . . . So, there’s those type A’s that are just used to this environment and used to self-sacrifice ideology.
The second group is experienced veteran teachers that have been everywhere, public school, private school. They’ve dealt with the most extreme work environments and the most relaxed, and they genuinely care about the kids and what they do. So they have success because they’ve had the experience to work on classroom management, to build relationships, they’re there.
Then there is the scariest type: those that just stay in it and feel that there is nothing else left better to do. They do not have a life. They don’t talk to their family regularly. They don’t eat healthy at all. . . .They are at work until 9-10 o’clock at night. KIPP is their life. Anything KIPP, they’re there, even on Saturdays, Sundays. So, inside they’re there. . . . They’re just there because they don’t feel a way to get out of it, or it’s their life.
Although the prevailing views among the teachers were deeply critical of KIPP, some teachers had positive and negative things to say about teaching at KIPP. Almost all the teachers I talked with missed their students at KIPP, even though most expressed regret that the organizational parameters at KIPP made it difficult to get to know students. Most expressed positive regard for colleagues at KIPP, even though some stories were shared about mistreatment of students and unprofessional conduct by some administrators and, to a lesser degree, teachers. One teacher, in fact, said she would recommend teaching at KIPP, if the school was more established and less dysfunctional than the one from which she had been fired. Another said teaching at KIPP “was worth the dedication at that point in my life,” but he also said,
“It’s work—that was it. I did KIPP and I didn’t take days off even when I was sick. So I’d say, yeah, I’m glad you’re doing it, you got the fervor, I think you can do amazing things, but understand that your sacrifices are everything from less time to talk to your family, your girlfriend, going out—it’s a very single-minded focus.
Self-sacrifice among KIPP teachers sometimes threatens the well-being of others. During a time when another teacher was ill with a fever and flu-like symptoms, he continued going to work at KIPP. When I asked him if he worried about possibly spreading his illness to students, his response offered a glimpse of the paradoxical situation KIPP teachers find themselves in, when “doing whatever it takes” and “putting yourself in harm’s way if the job calls for it” can have serious consequences for those who are ostensibly the beneficiaries of such self-sacrifice:
You know I took care of myself and I kind of got myself quarantined in the classroom, and as far as endangering the kids, I was not worried about getting them sick, to be totally honest, because they’d gotten me sick. A lot of them were gone from school already, and a lot of them were already sick and they could take the day off. If they were coming home with something, they could stay home and rest and have some Theraflu or go to the hospital if it was an extreme case.
No doubt parents of children sickened as a result of this unhealthy practice would find little consolation in this teacher’s dedication to duty.
One teacher described teaching at KIPP as “kind of soul crushing.” He pointed to the anxiety that he developed about going to work, which affected his love for teaching, which began in his teen years. He said “the things I was asked to do,” such as enforcing silence, left him with such anxiety that he didn’t want to go to work, even though, as he said, “teaching was all I ever wanted to do.” When asked to elaborate on how he felt the job was soul crushing, this teacher told me about being “extremely uncomfortable” after a series of meeting that began with a child who was being defiant and disrespectful.
The mother of the child had been called in when the school leader had decided that the child would be placed on probation status, which meant that the mother would know that the next step would be expulsion if the child’s behavior was not corrected. During the conference, the mother tearfully shared that her daughter was seeing a counselor, who suspected sexual abuse earlier in the child’s life. The child’s counselor, too, had thought placement in a KIPP school was inappropriate from the beginning, due to her emotional instability.
The response by KIPP administrators was to recommend the child be sent home with a KIPP staff member to live until the child could be “straightened out.” At a subsequent meeting with the child’s mother present, KIPP’s administration “told the mother of the child that this therapist wasn’t good for her and that they should get a new therapist . . . because of the therapist’s disagreements with KIPP and the effect it was having on the girl.” This meeting occurred with no school counselor or school psychologist present.
Another more experienced teacher had a similar experience of anxiety and dread that led him to not “want to go to school.” He said that his experience and age allowed him to understand that “what they were doing was wrong:”
In terms of browbeating the teachers every day in the meetings, it became more of a process between the administration and the teachers than it did between the teachers and the students. There was very little learning, what I would call learning going on, from what I saw. Anybody can memorize, but they’re not doing anything with the material. And if you came to me and said, listen, you know, should I apply, everyone is different. Every KIPP school is probably different, because any time that you have a different KIPP school, you're going to have different administrators. You're going to have different people. I would just tell you to be very careful. You know? The hook is the money. And like I said, they say all the right things.
Another teacher compared teaching at KIPP to being placed every day in a pressure cooker:
. . . my KIPP experience was extremely intense in a very good way and in a very difficult way. We, to some degree, created a pressure cooker there and that again had some rewards, and then it also presented some challenges to the long-term viability of the school and for the teachers, themselves. . . . Regarding academics, it felt like we really pushed them hard and achieved some tremendous gains with some students. . . . At least according to some measurements.
Exciting, and we almost felt like we were, or felt like I was, doing important work. I felt like this was not just some job that I did from 9 to 5, or 8 to 6 or whatever time. This was a job. This was very much wrapped up with my life and how I saw myself. It became an identity, which just like being part of a family, has some pros and also has some real challenges. From the challenges standpoint, I felt like my experience teaching at KIPP was unsustainable, ultimately.
Another teacher wasn’t nearly so nuanced to telling me what teaching at KIPP was like: “I would say it was horrible, that I hated it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, unless you were like masochistic….These are the reasons I really hate it, and I wouldn’t recommend: The hours are totally unsustainable, and especially if you’re new, and you’re developing curriculum. There’s not enough hours in the day to get everything done…”
Another teacher who shared stories of her and students killing cockroaches and rats in her KIPP classroom responded to the question of what it was like by shouting mock advice to anyone contemplating working at KIPP, “No, run away, don’t do that, absolutely not.” When asked what it was like teaching at KIPP, she said,
You know the first word that comes to mind is hell. H-E-L-L, hell it was. There was so much about it that was so good and promising in the beginning, and I got hooked into that from the minute I saw the news piece on them—you know the interview, and coming and seeing the classrooms, it was just so different than what I had seen, but the dirty little secrets are what you don’t know until you are in those trenches.
Some teachers focused on logistical or organizational issues when asked what it was like to teach at KIPP. One described her situation as a new teacher in a new school as terrifying: “This is a new school, so imagine every system, every schedule, everything that makes a school run from bell schedules to when to schedule meetings with parents, when to schedule professional development, etc., etc., etc. Imagine everything through the school none of its established yet, and you’re literally creating it as you go.”
Another had taught in a temporary facility that was shared by community programs after school. Security and order were real problems, and she found her materials misplaced, disorganized, or missing often:
Our poor art teacher he had no permanent room. Our PE teacher, the same thing. Actually our PE teacher couldn’t even be there every day, so the kids only had PE I think like twice a week, which is ridiculous for middle schoolers, they need it every day….Our Science teacher was in I guess like the arts and crafts room, so there was like paint all over the place that she had to clean up every morning….And there was like dollhouses and toys all over my room that I had to clean up every morning. I had to teach off of a baker’s rack where I hung my dry erase board, which really wasn’t even big enough for the kids and everybody could lock up their stuff at night and because I was upstairs and there was no elevator I couldn’t, so I had to push everything to the side.
….There were no textbooks, so you have to make up everything, like your own handouts, your own activities, your own whatever, so I just remember having to copy all the time. And then just the actual day-to-day KIPP mindset or structure was very hard for me to deal with and ultimately that is why I left. Like the kids had to line up in the mornings and there was like no playground for them. It was just like a parking lot and then a gravel place where they lined up and they had to be in a silent line and there was something that we had to give them to do. So like they were reading a passage or they were solving math problems and they were doing it just standing up and there was nowhere for them to sit.
As noted earlier, former teachers found the stress levels at KIPP unsustainable.
One teacher who wore a number of hats because of prior experience as a teacher described teaching at KIPP as “like being in a tornado:”
…it’s just this funnel. It keeps moving. It picks up different things in its path. As a KIPP teacher, every single day is different. You’re picking up multiple things in your path. You have multiple hats. Every teacher in my building watches and advises academically and behaviorally 15 to 20 kids in their grade level. They are teaching anywhere from six to eight classes a day. Then, they are sponsoring either athletic events or a club. Then, they lead tutorials in the morning and in the afternoon. Some are not eating lunch. I have gone many days without eating lunch. I have spent until 11 and 12 at night at the school. I have been at the school as early since 4 a.m. in the morning. I have had lesson planning meetings before church on Sunday mornings. I have known some of my colleagues who stay up into 1 a.m. Then not to mention if you’re qualified or you have experience, they love giving you additional hats and titles without necessary pay or time to do it, so it’s just this big moving tunnel. A revolving funnel of just stuff all the time.
Thirty Children in the Basement
The disturbing analogies that former teachers used to describe what it is like to teach at KIPP provide further indicators that the picture presented by corporate think tanks and their marketing firms do not focus on the human realities at KIPP schools and the No Excuses emulators. This is partly due to choreographed, deceptive messaging aimed to protect and promote the KIPP brand at all costs.
One teacher said that, in retrospect, KIPP reminded her of the The Stepford Wives, the story of a seemingly perfect American neighborhood on the outside, where all the wives, however, have been replaced by total compliance robots that perform just as instructed by their husbands. Another teacher expressed deep concerns about the repercussions of promoting a false image that is used to mislead the public and to advance an ideological agenda that could further damage communities struggling to remain viable.
This cultivation of an image of perfection is demonstrated in one teacher’s recounting of how all the school’s students with behavior issues were moved to an empty school basement when important visitors or potential investors were on campus. During visits that lasted as long as three hours, approximately thirty children were rounded up and sent to the basement, while regular classes carried on above them. To make sure that no infractions of rules were visible during visits, class changes were suspended until visitors left the building. Here is our exchange:
TEACHER: . . . my experience was so different from my close friends who were employed at different KIPP schools. But the people that were at my specific school seemed to have a similar experience to me, which is terrible. But I have, like I said, I have a lot of close friends that are still involved in KIPP. . . . but I think that there’s a lot swept under the rug as far as things that also aren’t so great.
JH: And what do you see as swept under the rug?
TEACHER: You know, there’s just cultural things like, I can only speak to what I experienced in my day-to-day, and so that was a lot of yelling, a lot of berating students, a lot of, you know, physically confronting students.
We used to have a special schedule when we had visitors in the building. For instance, sometimes we’d have, you know, investors or big-wigs walking through the building. And so we would have a separate schedule where we would pick out all the behavior issue kids and take them down into the basement for the duration of the visitors’ visit, to kind of keep them out of the way. So you know, that’s one very, like, clear example of sweeping something under the rug.
JH: Can you tell me how that worked?
TEACHER: Yeah. So in the morning, we would receive an email or a special schedule that said VIB schedule, Visitor in Building schedule. And it would basically list all of the students that needed to be in the basement area, and it would tell us the specific times that they were supposed to be there. And we would also, for instance, we would not transition from class to class if there was a visitor, because the transitions from class to class would sometimes be, you know, kids are kids, and so they would sometimes not listen, or they would run, or whatever the case is. And our administration didn’t want the visitors to see anything less than perfection. And so we would hold students in the classroom when normally they’d be transitioning from class to class. So the visitors didn’t get the impression that the school was anything less than very well managed.
JH: Right. So what was in the basement? What did the students do in the basement?
TEACHER: That’s a great question. I never, fortunately I guess, was never in charge of managing those students. But in the basement, what was down there was just, you know, there was basically nothing. I mean, there was a carpeted area. And I don’t know what they did down there, to be honest.
JH: And how many students were sent down there?
TEACHER: I believe our school had about 300 students when I was there. And it probably, you know, less than 30.
JH: And these students were selected how? Based on what?
TEACHER: From my impression, it was that they were, based on their behavior. So if they were a student that acted out frequently, they would be sent down into the basement for the duration of the visitor’s stay.
JH: OK, so these were called Visitor in Building days? VIB?
TEACHER: Yeah, VIB schedule.
JH: OK. And what was the longest time that you remember staying in a class, that you weren’t allowed to switch?
TEACHER: Two or three hours, depending on the visitors and how long they would be there.
The KIPP Foundation and corporate supporters of the KIPP Model rationalize or ignore the disturbing stories that have come from KIPP’s teachers, parents, and students. Too, many remain entirely unaware of the darkness beneath the bright smiles that greet visitors at KIPP. Feinberg’s and Levin’s public pronouncements continue to ignore the fact that former KIPP teachers describe their work at KIPP as “extremely discouraging,” “terrifying,” “draining,” “like sprinting a marathon for two years,” “oppressive”, “h-e-l-l,” “a very high stress place,” a “pressure cooker,” a “concentration camp,” a “tornado,” a “soul-crushing” place, the “most horrible experience of my life,” the “worst years teaching ever,” “something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” a “constant surveillance” workplace where teachers felt like they were “being used up” without any opportunity to “replenish” or maintain “family ties.”
Though it is not uncommon to find a continuing belief among these former KIPP teachers that they were doing, or attempting to do, important work at KIPP, there remains a consensus among the teachers I talked with that manic organizational parameters, hidebound rules, and inexperienced, hypercritical leaders stood in the way of getting much of that important work done. When one teacher near the end of her second and final year was asked how she would change her KIPP experiences if she could, she said she would have resigned earlier:
I feel like I tried my hardest and I tried my best, but the thing that is frustrating is that I always felt like no matter how hard I worked and no matter how hard the kids worked, that it was never good enough. Like I am never being like excellent, even though I am working as hard as I possibly can, and I am putting all this energy and effort into it, I feel like I am not appreciated and I feel like it is never good enough.
I think that is just something that I have recently realized is that I will, to their eyes, I will never be good enough, so I just have to not care so much as to what they think and just kind of do things the way that I think they need to be done in my classroom.
Without a constant infusion of new teachers to replace all those who burn out quickly under such grueling conditions and all those who come to believe they will never be good enough to meet expectations, KIPP would have to shut its doors. The role of Teach for America and programs based on Teach for America’s hyper-abbreviated preparation are crucial, then, for the continued survival of the total compliance No Excuses charter schools built on the KIPP Model. We turn, then, to an examination of Teach for America’s place in corporate education reform’s paternalistic agenda for preK-12 schools.