By Nathan Woods, KIPP DC Alumnus, Whittier Middle School Teacher
“Pay it forward.” It’s an expression most people have heard of, and many live by. Especially teachers. As a former KIPP student and now a teacher myself, I also live by this credo, thanks to the amazing KIPP teachers who changed my life, and inspired me to follow in their footsteps.
I grew up in a single parent home with four brothers and sisters. My mom always stressed the importance of education so when the first KIPP DC school opened in our neighborhood in 2001, she was thrilled. My sister Erickia was in the founding class at KIPP DC KEY Academy. She really thrived at KIPP — she became a much stronger reader, her test scores went up. She did so well that my mom wanted all her children to attend KIPP. And so we did.
Adjusting to my new life as a KIPP fifth grader wasn’t easy. I had to take the bus to school. I had to wear a uniform. The days were longer. I had way more homework. KIPP teachers demanded a lot from us – in not only our academics, but in the character we were expected to strengthen and demonstrate. From the very first moment I walked into school I was told “You’re going to go to college.” No one talked about attending college like it was a pipe dream, it was an expected reality.
I spent four years at KIPP DC KEY Academy. I wasn’t always the ideal student—academically or behaviorally—but I worked hard and persevered. My KIPP teachers were there with me every step of the way.
There wasn’t a KIPP high school in DC at that time, so when it came time to be promoted to high school, I had my heart set on attending a boarding school. And even though I was no longer going to a KIPP school, my KIPP teachers continued to support me. They attended my plays, my track meets, and my football games.
And then, during my sophomore year, tragedy struck. My oldest brother was shot and killed. My family was devastated. I was very close with my brother. I wasn’t sure that I could go on. Between the emotional and the financial stress, I struggled at school. My KIPP teachers were there to support my entire family. They helped me to heal, and to realize that I had the strength to continue. Over the years my KIPP teachers have shown me again and again, that KIPP is not just a school, it’s a family.
When it came time to apply to college, guess what? My KIPP teachers were still there with me. My KIPP Through College counselor, Candice Ashton, had known me since I was in the sixth grade. Ms. Ashton guided me through the process to find a school that was the best fit for me; she even worked with the college counselor at my boarding school, and helped my Mom with the financial aid applications. This support was crucial as I continued to climb the mountain to college, ultimately enrolling in the fall of 2010 as a freshman at Syracuse University.
And as I continued my journey through college, I thought about that day when I would earn my degree, and the enormous role that my KIPP family has played in my success. I had planned to go to law school, but in thinking about all the sacrifices, and the unwavering support my teachers and my family have provided me, I made the decision to pay it forward. I decided to become a teacher.
Needless to say, my KIPP teachers were thrilled to hear my decision. And on the day I graduated my KIPP teachers who stood by me through thick and thin were there, so proud of how far I had come.
KIPP is the reason why I became a teacher. KIPP is also the reason why I chose not to work at a KIPP School. Because I wanted to pay it forward, even further, and bring KIPP’s impact beyond the walls of KIPP.
I joined Teach For America as a social studies teacher at Whittier Middle School, part of the San Antonio Independent School District. Every single day I have the opportunity to do for my 172 students what my KIPP teachers did for me—show them that no matter where you come from, you can go to college.
I see myself in all my students. Despite any challenges they may be facing, I know they all have so much potential. That is why I will do whatever it takes to help them climb the mountain to and through college. I owe so much to KIPP and this is my way to pay it forward: by making sure that all my students get all of my support, and an amazing education so they can go on to realize their dreams. Just like I have done.