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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Understanding KIPP Model Charter Schools, Part 12: The Final KIPP Interview

Part 12 of Work Hard, Be Hard . . . focuses on the last teacher interview that I did for this book.  

I am still interviewing, however, so if you are a former "no excuses" charter teacher or student or administrator who wants to share your story for future publication, please contact me: james.horn@cambridgecollege.edu.

Chapter 12
The Final KIPP Interview
         My first interviews with former KIPP teachers began in 2011, and the last ones for this project were conducted in 2014.  The very last one was with a young woman who contacted me to tell her KIPP story, which had ended just a few days before our interview.  Like other former KIPP teachers, she stepped out of the darkness to speak, even though she feared reprisals and “harassment” from KIPP employees if her identity could be assigned to her words. 
As with so many other former KIPP teachers who left damaged by their experience, she is a former Teach for America corps member who taught two years in a poor public school before coming to KIPP.  She had suffered through her first TFA year finding out all that her college double major did not teach her about children and teaching, but by the second year she felt like she had hit her stride.  She had, nonetheless, decided to leave teaching when her two-year TFA commitment was up, when she was contacted by KIPP. 
KIPP had acquired her name as a prospective teacher from her first year teacher mentor, who previously had spent her first year as a teacher at a KIPP school.   Her mentor, she explained, was looking to cash in on large finder fees for new teachers hired from his leads if the new hires stayed at KIPP for at least 30 days.
         She was invited for an interview in an urban area large enough to have its own KIPP network, and she received a guided tour of the “most beautiful classrooms” and “perfectly-arranged classrooms.”  She was taken to lunch and to dinner, and 24 hours later she was offered a teaching job.  Since this KIPP school seemed to “have it together more” than the public school she was leaving, she took a risk and decided to give teaching one more try. 
Like other KIPP teachers, she started to work in early July.  On the first day of her second week at KIPP, she was part of a team-level meeting that included two program chairs and several other teachers, none of whom was new to KIPP.  At that meeting she heard this:  “Because you're hired here doesn't mean that you're anything more than a warm body. Until you prove yourself worthy of my trust you will not have it.”  The colleague who offered this warning, she found out later, had students with the highest test scores in the school, which provided him great a deal of latitude for his words and actions, regardless of how callous or foolish they might be. 
         This was her first exposure to what she called “an adult culture of negativity,” one in which she “felt bullied every single day.”  She was told, too, “by multiple people [at KIPP], ‘I'm so sorry, but you don't have any of the skills that it takes to be successful here in terms of management.’ It was just constant negativity.”  At one point, a grade level fellow teacher told her, “you're the weakest link, but you're not the weakest link of the school, so at least appreciate that.”
         In what she described as a poisonous and unprofessional environment, group messages flew back and forth with cutting remarks, jibes, and bad-mouthing of school leaders, other teachers, and students, as well:
I have saved text messages of them complaining about the fact that our principal can never show up to school on time. I have saved text messages about teachers actually making fun of students and their disabilities. . . a child who has special ed needs. He was caught playing with himself a couple times in school. They started making fun of him via a group message about the fact that ‘finally we taught this child how to use his right brain and his left brain at the same time.’  And some absolutely horrific things about that child. Things that should never be spoken at any school anywhere.
         Having heard some KIPP teachers make negative comments about other teachers and school leaders when they were not present, she began to wonder if these same teachers were talking about her.  She found herself walking unannounced into group meetings that would go suddenly silent, where “you know people are complaining about you.”  She had suspicions that students had overheard remarks about her from teachers.   She said she felt like she and the kids were “surrounded by a culture of negativity day in and day out” that served as a vitriolic variety of behavioral hazing. 
         She quickly worked into a schedule that had her arriving at school at 5:45 to make copies and to get her board and other materials ready before the 7:10 start.  Like many KIPP teachers, she usually worked through lunch, and she had her first break at 2:45. Although a plan period was in her daily schedule, meetings and other commitments consumed that time except for one day of the week, so that she was left with 80 minutes during the week, as she said, “to myself.”  She insisted on leaving school just after 6 PM, even though school leaders “chastised” her and said, “you would have better relationships with the people you work with if you stayed here past 6 PM.” 
         Having never been seriously ill or hospitalized, her family was alarmed when she was hospitalized early in the Fall with a “bleeding cyst in [her] reproductive system.” She was prescribed morphine and kept in the hospital for three days.  Her mother, who suspected work stress as a major factor, flew in to be with her and to take her home, and doctors ordered more pain medication and three more days of bed rest.  As with most other KIPP schools, substitute teachers were not part of the culture, and her biggest worry during her recovery was the other teachers who were having to cover for her:
. . . the doctor told me I couldn't be at work while I was on morphine because it would just be a disservice to the whole world. I couldn't drive a car. God knows I shouldn't have been in front of children . . . . I did come back. I [still] had a little bit of pain, but more I had so much anxiety about screwing these other teachers over because of my own illness that caused even more stress.
She came back to work for several more weeks before resigning prior to
 Thanksgiving, when she became the sixth out of 10 newly hired teachers to leave that KIPP school before mid-term.  Two of those were new teachers, and four had prior experience.      
         Before she resigned, other teachers were falling ill, too.  Two colleagues on different occasions required treatment at an emergency clinic, where both were prescribed anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants.  Two weeks before she resigned, another teacher was treated for hives that covered most of her body. The weight of the negative pressure was taking a toll. When I asked the purpose of all the negativity, she replied without hesitation, “I think it's to get every teacher working at that school to give every single thing they have until they can't give anymore.” 
A bit later in the interview, she said, “I don't think that that's what the [KIPP] administrators want. But I think that they're so focused on these test scores that they don't see teacher satisfaction. They don't see the benefit of long-term teacher relationships or the benefit of maybe seeing a student struggle and realize that there's more to a child than hitting a certain number on their math test. They just haven't figured it out yet.”
         A few days after leaving KIPP and returning to public school teaching, this teacher found herself in a psychological space that she had forgotten during her four months at KIPP.  The day of our interview she had called her boyfriend to chat, and it occurred to her to ask him, “Is there something different in my voice?”  He reminded her that she sounded “really happy” again.  She said that during her time at KIPP a “dark cloud was cast” on her and that she “had become a shell” of the confident teacher she had been prior to coming to KIPP: “They successfully stomped out any type of confidence or this feeling I had about my abilities—and made me feel like this person who was just failing students every day.”
         In reflecting on positive aspects at KIPP, she found the focus on professional development for “making the teacher look more effective” commendable, but she noted “you can’t get a teacher to be more effective if she feels unhappy at work every day.”  She estimated that fewer than one in five KIPP teachers at her school appeared to be happy.  She said that those who realize working conditions are unfair, quit, and she described the teachers who remain at KIPP as “impressively resilient but also very passive.”
She said they are the ones “who will just take hit after hit after hit,” and she described one “beautiful young woman” who came to KIPP as a new teacher without knowing that teaching in other schools can be very different from KIPP: “It's really hard for me to see her because . . . she's actually been physically assaulted by students, but they don't want to suspend students because it makes the school look bad.”
Finally, this KIPP teacher agreed with KIPP’s focus on trying to motivate children for college, even though she found their approach “a little bit. . . overbearing.”  She noted, too, the countervailing influences that work to neutralize KIPP’s stated goals.  On the one hand, KIPP optimistically hastens children toward college, yet on (or with) the other hand, students are gripped in a negative behavioral vice that detracts from learning how to become autonomous and thinking young adults: 
When we talk about KIPP and its limitations on getting kids to college, it makes sense…[and yet] we taught at this middle school how to have kids walk in a straight line and how to open a textbook and rewrite a problem silently with the proper notation. We're not teaching them how to be young free-thinking independent adults. I think that's really a disservice that's happening at those schools.
Lemov, D.  (2010).  Teach like a champion:  49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miron, G., Urshel, J., & Saxton, N.  (2011).  What makes KIPP work: Study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance.  New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.  Retrieved from http://www.ncspe.org/readrel.php?set=pub&cat=253
Weber, M., & Rubin, J.  (2014).  New Jersey charter schools: A data-driven view, part 1.  Rutgers Graduate School of Education.  Retrieved from http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/save/corefiles/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NJ-Charter-School-Report_10.29.2014.pdf

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