By Mary Grech
I’ve know that I wanted to be I teacher since I was in the second grade. Now I am almost ready to start looking for my first teaching job. I will be graduating next May with a BA in Anthropology, a minor in History, and a strong interest in education inequality issues and reform. My experience working with children will include tutoring and mentoring at an after-school program, and a summer experience teaching English in Vietnam. I will be looking for a school where I will be able to challenge myself, my students, and the status quo of the US education system, while simultaneously giving and receiving support and constructive criticism.
So as a future teacher about to make the leap to the classroom, here are some of the great reasons why I would consider applying for employment at KIPP-style school in this area:
From what I could glean from my week-long Branch Out experience, rural North Carolina is a very small but interesting place. While they have various indicators of development such as a Food Lion, a Wal-Mart, and a Chinese restaurant, they are also encompassed by great nature scenery. With Lake Gaston and many fields nearby, the rural scene offers natural relaxation. However, it is easy to see the limits of the area, ranging from a lack of weekend activities to a slow job market, high poverty, and underlying social justice issues that have lasted since slavery. The rural NC area presents the opportunity for me to tackle education inequality in a smaller community that is in a more natural setting than the larger, inner-city public schools I would also consider applying to.
The School Culture
One of the issues commonly talked about while discussing education reform is how to incorporate school culture and how to change it. The KIPP model tackles this issue head-on by establishing a school culture from the beginning. From the day students enroll in the school, both kids and their parents sign commitments that agree to fulfill set responsibilities in order to remain within the realms of the model. They are required to wear dress clothes, a college T-shirt, or a KIPP shirt in order to advocate group unity and focus. Students are taught to actively participate in the classroom without using their voices through various hand signals (raising hands when they know an answer, touching fingers when they connect with a comment or subject material, and sending love to encourage a fellow member of the pride through “spirit fingers”). Volume vocab (ranging from zero to outside voices) and CATS (Close your mouth, Ask and answer questions, Track the speaker, Sit and stay still) guide student behavior during class as well as during class meetings and lunches.
A controversial aspect of the KIPP model, “benching”, is also put into action to set the standard of expected behavior. When students have been mean or dishonest, they are confronted by a teacher, must own their action, call home, and flip their shirt inside out. For the next three days, they sit on the periphery of the classroom and lunchroom and are only allowed to talk with teachers. After three days of completing all of their homework, paying attention in classes, and reflecting on their “Bench Action Plan”, students appear of the entire Pride, own their actions, and share their reflections. While many are hesitant about the severity of this system, I appreciated “benching” as a tool for teachers to immediately discipline students without removing them from the classroom learning environment.
One of my favorite aspects of the school we were in was its curriculum. Teachers did not lower expectations or grade work easier in order to boost achievement scores. Students are given tough work that requires attention to detail as well as critical thinking. However, what made the curriculum at this KIPP school extraordinary was its focus on critical thinking towards society. Courses help students acknowledge the reality, so that they have a concrete understanding of the status quo they are set out to change. For example, the fact that the school was built on a peanut field worked on by slaves is a part of open conversation which serves as motivation as to what has been overcome and what is yet to be. In addition, the special course on the achievement gap taught to 8th graders also explains and provides motivation for doing the extra work KIPP requires. It instills onto students how to succeed in the current status of society and then reform the status quo by infusing tolerance, civic responsibility, and equality into society.
The work environment there was very supportive and energizing. Teachers had the liberty to personalize their classrooms (painting the walls, buying posters, placing furniture) and express themselves through bulletin boards. I also loved how the teachers gathered in the staff room in the mornings and weekends by playing music in a casual, but passionate atmosphere. By following the structure of a class and using all of the KIPP culture techniques, teachers excitedly talked about the personal successes and struggles experiences by staff during the week and how to upload lesson plans to the KIPP website. They were then sent off to different rooms where they found a bag of gifts and a project to work on as a department. The energy in the meeting was high; encouragement and collaboration were sought out and rewarded; and the sense of community between employees was apparent and strong. It was clear that staff members were able to joke together while still staying serious about working hard and teaching kids.
As with any place, the heart of this school’s community was its people. The students were ready to learn and inspired by their teachers, which made their goals not only reachable, but inspiring. The teachers worked like crazy, but still had fun because of their passion for education and education inequality issues. The office staff was also remarkable. As I sat grading papers in a nearby room, I heard the women in the office serve as nurses, disciplinarians, bank tellers, liaisons to parents, and intern supervisors. Their jack-of-all-trades and do-what-it-takes perspective on their role at the school epitomizes the general spirit of all the people at this KIPP school in NC.
In short, this trip exposed me to the beautiful area, means of setting school culture, challenging curriculum that promotes social change, a supportive and passionate work environment, and people who are ready to work hard for both themselves and others. Rural North Carolina will definitely be on my radar next fall as I start the job application process.