Returning to KIPP: Alumna and Founder Chat About Coming Back to Teach

Ryan Hill is the Executive Director and Founder of TEAM Schools, a KIPP region in Newark, NJ. Courtney Lok was once a student in Ryan’s fifth grade class and is returning to her alma mater to teach next fall. Read the discussion they had about her journey back to KIPP below.


Courtney Lok: Mr. Hill, you were my fifth grade teacher. Now I’m coming back to teach at the school you founded. How do you feel about students like me coming back to teach? Did you always want TEAM alumni to come back to the classroom?

Ryan Hill: We’re all so excited – but not surprised – that you’re coming back! Ever since you were in fifth grade at TEAM in 2002, you have been a model for other students of what it means to help both your fellow students and the KIPPsters who come after you, so it’s not surprising to any of us that you’ve chosen this path.

It’s great to see so many alumni become teachers. As you know, what we’ve always told our kids is that when you get to the top of the mountain and hold that college diploma in your hand you have the opportunity to reach back down the mountain to help others climb up. You and your classmates who are reaching back down the ladder to help your successors and acting as role models for future generations are doing exactly what we’d hoped you’d do.

Here’s a question for you: When did you first know you wanted to become a teacher? When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher at TEAM?

Courtney Lok: I did my high school senior project with SPARK Academy (TEAM’s first elementary school). I was so amazed by how much the students knew and their overall love for learning! I knew I wanted to be a teacher at TEAM after my first field experience in college. I kept thinking to myself, “Why doesn’t this school operate like TEAM?” Regardless of those feelings, I love every opportunity I get to work with children, whether in or outside the KIPP network.

Mr. Hill, what would you say has been the biggest change at TEAM over the years? What sorts of changes should I be ready for?

Ryan Hill: Well, one big difference is that we are way, way better now at training teachers, and particularly new teachers. When we first started, we pretty much had to hire people who were already highly skilled in the classroom, so it was very rare for us to hire someone straight out of college. Since then, we have learned a lot about training people who are new to teaching, and what kind of support they need to have a successful first year and a successful career. So now we can bring in people like you, who don’t necessarily have as much experience but were top achievers in college, who really believe in our kids and are hungry to learn how to be great teachers.

This does not mean, however, that you’re in for an easy year. Teaching is an extremely challenging job, especially in your first year. No amount of training can totally prepare you for all the lessons new teachers need to learn—there are some lessons only experience will teach you.

I’m curious: You knew you wanted to be a teacher – but why stay in Newark? Were you considering any other options?

Courtney Lok: I wanted to stay in Newark for a couple of reasons. First, this is where my family is and I’m not ready to leave them unless they are ready to pack up and move with me! Second, I know firsthand that Newark’s children need dedicated teachers that are willing to work hard for them. My teachers worked extremely hard for me, so I have to give back to my community and to my school. I definitely was not considering any other options! I love my TEAM!

courtney 2002

Ryan Hill: You have an interesting perspective to share with the other teachers in this building. How do you think having the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a KIPPster will help you manage your classroom?

Courtney Lok: That’s a tough one! I would love to say that because I was a KIPPster, I would have some amazing secrets that would allow me to run a classroom. But really, I think I’m just like every other teacher in the building. Classroom management is hard to master!

One more question for you. TEAM has now gone from 1 school to 8 schools as of next fall, and you’re expanding to another city in New Jersey. What do you think is next for TEAM?

Ryan Hill: What’s next for us is getting better at teaching and supporting our students while we get bigger. Specifically, we will have our first class—your class—graduating from college this year, and we have put a lot of energy and resources into increasing our college completion numbers beyond where they are, to levels that are more in line with what the wealthiest students in America achieve. This will require a combined effort at improving instruction and aligning with college readiness from Kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as bolstering our alumni support system. As you’ve seen, we are committed to helping our students work through the challenges they face until they’re in a position to achieve whatever dreams they may have for themselves.

Last question for you: what do your family and friends have to say about you coming back to TEAM?

Courtney Lok: My family and friends are all very proud of me and are excited for me to take this next step. They know that I have wanted this for a long time and are genuinely happy to celebrate my success.


To learn more about teaching at TEAM, KIPP schools in New Jersey, click here >> 


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