A former KIPP teacher in New Orleans finds her voice
I was never much of a champion, to be honest. KIPP defines a successful teacher as someone who keeps children quiet, teaches children how to answer each question on a test composed of arbitrary questions, and then produces high scores on this test. Mind you, I was teaching Pre-K and then kindergarten at a KIPP school in New Orleans—and these were still the metrics by which I was being evaluated. Since my definition of a successful early childhood classroom looked very different from silence and test prep, I had to figure out how to survive. I lasted three years.
By year three it had become very, very difficult for me to hide my disdain for the way the school was managed. In the previous two years, I’d fought hard for the adoption of a play-based early childhood curriculum, only to see it systematically dismantled by our 25-year old assistant principal. When this administrator told us that our student test scores would be higher if we used direct instruction, worksheets and exit tickets to check for their understanding, I lost my shit. I’m sorry, but five year olds don’t learn that way.
I was fired a week later. Well, to be fair, I was told that I *wasn’t a good fit*—most likely because I talked about things like poverty and trauma and brain development, and also because at that point I knew significantly more about early childhood education and what young children actually needed to grow and develop than the administrators who ran the school. And that made me a threat.
How did I survive as long as I did? During my time at KIPP, I made a point of seeking out other critically-minded educators. I met veteran teachers through the United Teachers of New Orleans and new teachers interested in educational justice through the New Teachers’ Roundtable. I also read as much as I could about how teaching can and should be. Critical pedagogy, liberatory education, anti-bias curriculum—you name it, I was reading it. And while it was nearly impossible for me to implement anything I was learning, my mindset was shifting.
I also channeled my energy into working with teachers, families, students and community groups to resist corporate school reform in all of its machinations. I also spoke truth, as I saw it, to my bosses at KIPP. If I had to be a shitty teacher at KIPP, I wasn’t going down without a fight.
And the truth is that I was a shitty teacher at KIPP. For one thing I was a terrible disciplinarian. I couldn’t control the kids the way that my administrators wanted me to. There was a lot of chaos in my classroom, and a lot of yelling—because I was so confused and frustrated. As I quickly found out, you can basically only control kids in the KIPP way if you never question the value of control. The kids sensed my doubt and chaos ensued. And chaos was inevitably followed by my yelling.
Ironically, now that I’m teaching 3rd grade English at one of the few remaining traditional public schools in New Orleans, I’m much stricter than I ever was at KIPP. For example, every night my students answer an open-ended question in their journals for homework. When they come to class the next day, a few of them share what they wrote and get feedback from their peers. Their courageous honesty leads to incredible discussions about bullying, and gender roles, racism and deep dark fears of all sorts. But I recognize that my strictness makes those conversations possible. I’m super, super strict about how to listen respectfully, and about how important it is to take turns giving feedback. I’ve discovered that it’s actually very easy to be strict when you deeply believe that what you’re requiring kids to do is for their own good and for the good of the community.
As I’ve let go of the priorities KIPP set for me, it’s been liberating to define my own values and priorities according to what makes sense for my classroom and my students. I started the year giving tests sporadically but I’ve given those up completely. Formal assessments don’t give me any new information, and they only serve to make kids who’ve already been disenfranchised by the schooling process feel even more frustrated. And I no longer plan formal units. Instead I define some general themes—last semester we explored self, family and community—now we’re learning about the history of African-Americans, starting in Africa and working our way to the present through literature, poetry and essays. I let the kids’ interests determine what we zoom in on.
I also expect my students to read independently any time they have a free moment. I’ve built a library of culturally-relevant picture books and graphic novels and chapter books, and by literally making them read at the beginning of the year, have been able to create a culture of reading. I’d say that the majority of my kids have come to realize that reading is really awesome and they voluntarily read all the time now.
One of my goals as a teacher is to create and facilitate a space where we all care for each other. How I handle things in the classroom needs to reflect this priority. So my students and I stop and talk about things—a lot. Somewhere along the line I developed this radical idea that children are humans who should be treated with dignity, and that the classroom should, ideally, be a place they’d want to be even if schooling weren’t compulsory. This idea that my students are human beings with thoughts and feelings, and that these thoughts and feelings should be at the center of what I do in the classroom, comes from my mentors here in New Orleans and is a radical shift from the silence and test prep that rule at KIPP.
Rebecca Radding came to New Orleans as a Teach for America corps member. She currently teaches third grade English at Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School.
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