What Are Those Teachers Doing That I’m Not?

By Jen Keyte, Instructional Sharing Senior Manager, KIPP Foundation

Beginning teachers are like sponges. In the early years, they learn thousands of lessons, both big and small: The calmer you are, the calmer the kids are. Never ask rhetorical questions. Planning matters way more than you thought. Never talk over students. Relationships are critical. Set goals. Make positive phone calls home. Celebrate and laugh with your kids.

For me, though, the most important lesson of all didn’t come until my fourth year as a teacher at KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy. This was the year I joined KIPP, and the year when I deeply realized that what I had suspected all along was actually true – that as a teacher, I held the potential to actually transform the lives of my students. And with this potential came an unbelievable amount of responsibility.

Let me be clear. As a college senior applying for Teach For America in 2001, I believed in the potential of all students. I was certain that teachers had the potential to transform the lives of students from low-income communities, and I wrote all about it in an essay that led to my acceptance as a 2001 Teach For America corps member in Newark, NJ.

Fast forward to my first year in the classroom, and as I experienced failure for the first time in my life, I began to question that very belief that led me to teach – the belief a teacher could actually transform outcomes for kids. For the next three years, I struggled to prove to myself what I had originally believed. I saw small successes with students, and built lasting relationships with kids and their families, but overall, I couldn’t see the bigger picture to know what type of impact I was making.  I didn’t know how much growth was meaningful, or how my students were performing compared to students in other classrooms. I didn’t fully understand the extent of my own impact. Teaching felt good and it was fun, but was I really putting my students on a different track in life?

By the end of my fourth year as a teacher, and the end of my first year at KIPP I could say with 100% conviction that I had been right all along – that it is the teacher standing in front of the room who will determine whether or not students succeed. Why did it take me so long to return to my original belief? Because when I started working at KIPP, I had more access to data. And not only my own data, but the data from KIPP schools across the country. I was able to look closely at our annual KIPP Report Card and pinpoint spikes in achievement. I looked at the results of my fellow KIPP fifth-grade math teachers, and saw that students were able to achieve at levels I had thought were possible, but I didn’t know yet how to get my students there. Looking at the results of my colleagues’ students forced me to ask myself the most essential question of my career: “What are those teachers doing that I am not?”

Kids are kids – whether they are in New York, Texas, or California. If students around the country were making dramatic gains in achievement and mine weren’t, there was only one frightening difference – me.

Surrounded by excellent teachers who believed in their potential to transform the lives of students and their families, I started asking that essential question. I visited other KIPP schools and classrooms and I asked teachers who were getting results how they were doing it.  Ms. Jackson in San Jose, who had impressive results, told me “I just don’t move on until every student gets it. I can’t.”  I learned from her to think of each student’s progress individually. My colleagues in Houston were experimenting with Understanding By Design, a framework for planning, that eventually helped me think more critically about what my students needed to deeply understand rather than simply do. I knew I had to set the same goals for my students as these colleagues were setting for theirs, and I had to take responsibility for the results.

In the years that followed, my results climbed from the district average of 50% of my fifth graders scoring proficient/advanced on the rigorous California Standards Test (CST) in 2005 to 85% scoring proficient or advanced in 2007. Teachers truly do determine student outcomes. This became easy for me to doubt as I struggled my way through those early years, but once I proved this truth to myself, there was no denying it. Teachers are our mission keepers. Our mission at KIPP is to prepare underserved students for success in college and life, and ultimately, this mission rests in our teachers’ hands.

My challenge to my fellow educators is to ask that essential question. If there are teachers whose students are performing at levels that are certain to transform their lives, ask yourself – “What are those teachers doing that I’m not?” Get in their classrooms. Look at their goals and their plans. Pick their brains.

To kick off this challenge, KIPP is planning to feature ten highly effective teachers this summer. We are currently busy capturing their practices and ideas on video to provide a virtual glimpse into classrooms that work for kids. The featured teachers will also share course resources such as assessments, unit plans, and lesson plans.

Click here to meet KIPP’s 2012 Featured Teachers, and stay tuned!