Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Can’t Mass Market Passion

After engaging in some light debate on a HuffPo piece by Whitney Tilson (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/whitney-tilson/do-schools-matter_b_967425.html), I came to a new understanding of what exactly bothers me so much about KIPP and TFA type “reforms”. 

For some reason, my thoughts kept coming back to the image of the veteran teacher who inspired Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin to start KIPP.   (Was that on Waiting for Superman?) I’ve heard them interviewed about going to this woman during their time in TFA and learning effective techniques to inspire kids.  They said they were so impressed they decided to start a school based on her style of teaching.

Basically, they took a good teacher’s good idea and mass marketed it.

My understanding is that KIPP teachers are expected to adhere to very strict guidelines including longer hours, being available by phone, and are taught specific teaching techniques to use and phrases to say.  (Kinda reminded me also of that silly binder TFA corp members are given.)   Now the thing that goads me is that many teachers do many of these practices already.  I know many public school teachers who give out their cell numbers and always take a call from a student or a parent.  Most teachers arrive early and stay late anyway.  And nearly all teachers are looking to improve their teaching techniques and may use many of the same ideas.
The problem is that the KIPP model tries to make their schools “teacher proof”.   Perhaps this is why teachers turn over so quickly there, they are expendable.  It doesn’t really matter if they work them too hard, as long as they follow the given rules, teachers are interchangeable. 

I could go on about respect and dignity in the workplace, but I believe there is a more fundamental problem with this type of model.  Great teachers may use many of the techniques that KIPP does, but they may also throw all those ideas out the window IF THEY DON’T WORK.  That’s the thing about teaching unpredictable, creative, impulsive, individual children, there’s no telling what they will do!  Listen to a teacher’s stories someday about the crazy unexpected things that happen on any given day in their classrooms.  It’s all part of the magic.

However, teachers who were never properly trained, who are relying on scripted curriculum and pre-packaged phrases are not ready to capture many of those teachable moments.  Part of being a professional is always adding to your practice.  And a seasoned teacher has a bag of tricks ready for nearly any situation.  

KIPP and TFA negate the autonomy, the creativity, and the passion that real powerful teaching requires.   It cheapens it into something that can be copied quickly.  “Do a chant in class and the kids will learn!”  Fine, that probably does work for some kids.   In fact, I love that idea.  I’ve used that idea.  But depending on the kids in front of me, sometimes that’s not the way to go so I try something different.  No wonder many kids leave charters, the young untrained teaching force is not prepared for their unique learning styles.  And then they blame the child.  I believe it’s called “no excuses”.

A school’s mission should be to give teachers the best possible learning environment and then let them do what they do best.  Figure out the puzzle that is each individual child. We have it backwards in America, we underfund, overcrowd, and stack the deck against even a good teacher, then we tell them what to do and tell them they’d better step in line or risk being held “accountable”.
Did the founders of KIPP forget that veteran teacher who taught them so much?  Do they really not recognize that great teachers like that are great not because of the “right words” or “right strategies” but because of the passion and creativity they bring?  The power to inspire a child cannot be cultivated without serious effort and time as well as encouragement and support.  And they sure can’t be picked up a “Teacher R’Us” and then replaced as needed. 

Let me pull from my bag of teacher tricks now…what is needed for teachers is more encouragement, support, and maybe a gold star wouldn’t hurt.  

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