TFA and KIPP? I Vote No.

I know elections are approaching in the US of A. As I sit here in Venezuela, I started thinking (or got to thinking as my momma and I would say at home) about what hot topic educational issues I would vote for or against. I have decided to focus on three: a unionized teaching force, Teach for America, and KIPP charter schools.

Here is how my ballot would look:


I was once a member of TFA and worked at a KIPP school.

When you’re at a quasi-elite university that’s always looking to the Ivies to be The Next Best School instead of being happy that it’s a great school in the South, you come across people (myself included) who have achievement complexes. In other words, you come across the smart people who weren’t quite smart enough to get into the Ivies (or couldn’t afford the Ivies) so they went to the next best place.

When you’re about to graduate from said school, you find a mutation occurs amongst the people who already have achievement complexes: people who aren’t quite good enough to get into the Ivies for grad school, law school, med school, etc…all of a sudden think Teach For America looks shiny, brand new, and just. What’s never discussed amongst the students (but TFA mentions it at every turn) is that TFA can help force the gate open to that illustrious higher education degree that you want.

Let me be clear, I got certified to teach before entering into TFA and I had no intentions of ever returning to school for any kind of degree.

I was burned out by the time I limped–literally, high heels kill me–across the graduation stage. I was scarred from higher education (again, literally…my hand still bares the mark where I reached in to unjam a copier, only to have the toner–or whatever that green thing was–fall on it. I turned that paper in on time though!).

TFA, for me, was a way to have a social and support network when moving to New York City.  For instance, I met one of my best friends through TFA. We are both black and, at the time, my hair was cut short like hers.

We know all black people look alike, so all during Summer Institute people kept running up to me thinking I was her and vice-versa. When we finally met, it was only natural that we hit it off. When we sat together on the yellow school bus to “work” every day, it really threw people off.

After Summer Institute I started working at KIPP, The Holy Grail of Teach for America Corps Members. Nine months later I was no longer associated with either organization.

I won’t go into the details of it here, but I will say that Teach for America and KIPP taught me a lot about non-profit organizations running like for-profit corporations. Get sick? You better still work. Kids fail? It’s your fault for not challenging them…or mailing their homework home to them.

Pause and think about that one for a second and then you’ll understand why some of these same students do abysmally once outside of the coddle-until-I-cripple you support network that is KIPP.

One of my clearest memories associated with KIPP (besides being exhausted and stressed all the time) is walking into a corporate sponsor’s office. The secretaries wore power suits and headsets; the occupier of this particular corporate office had on Louboutins before I knew the name but knew enough to associate them with wealth, and had two computers on her desk. Others had three.

Aside from multiple copies of the KIPP-friendly book that had just been published, those red-bottomed shoes showed me just how far apart this environment of wealth, power, and prestige was from the rough, crime-ridden, waiting-to-be-saved-by-KIPP neighborhood I commuted to in order to teach.

A friend since high school who walked through the emotional fire with me after KIPP and TFA e-mailed me a blog post that critiqued TFA, and by extension KIPP. I get these e-mails every once in a while from people who know my story and sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t.

Yet this blog post hits at all of the items that ran through my head when trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered beliefs surrounding work, education as a means out of poverty, people and school systems (more like school corporations in some instances).

Working at a unionized school that definitely had its full share of problems after working in a vehemently anti-union organization such as KIPP did not make me digress as a teacher. It made me a better teacher. I was given (and even encouraged to take) professional development opportunities outside of the school whereas KIPP was so “we’re the best” you didn’t even bother to ask to attend PD that was not led by the Almighty Charter.

At Unionized School my growing knowledge base was respected and encouraged even as a second year teacher. Whereas, at KIPP, I was patronized, disrespected, and encouraged to follow a scripted curriculum that wanted me to believe having kids complete fill in the blank worksheets was rigorous.

One time my assigned mentor at Saving all Poor, Brown Children Charter School spoke to me so slowly you would have thought I was an English Language Learner. It was the only time in my life I can say I actually went cold with anger. I felt anger moving icily through my veins.

Later that week I did speak to her about it (like I was speaking to an English Language Learner who was also hard of hearing) and she got the message. She apologized. I didn’t forget, and the mentoring more or less stopped a few months later (for other, more structural reasons).

At the Unionized School I received true mentoring from a veteran old enough to be my mother (who I still keep in contact with…she can’t get rid of me). I was encouraged to participate in a program for teachers discussing educational policy and even learned how to complete action research. Yes, the unionized school had and has many problems. So did the charter school.

As someone who worked in charter schools for multiple years I can say that this myth that charter schools are the nation’s saving grace will leave people like Snow White without Prince Charming: (educationally) asleep and as good as dead.

The simplistic belief that unions are the main cause of student failure will never cease to amaze me. Knowing that my job could not be jeopardized as quickly because I disagreed philosophically with something the admin wanted allowed me to bloom as a teacher instead of being a shrinking violet who just wanted to hold a job for a day longer in order to pay another day’s worth of bills.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as there is a group there will be a lazy person in it trying to get a free ride. The group has to come together to hold said person accountable and a union is no different. It may take longer, it may be harder, but it’s false to say that a union (which is made up of people who have consciousnesses, mind you) will just blindly defend someone because he/she “is union.”

I was a union delegate my last year in union-proud NYC. I’ve seen the inner workings and can state the above from experience.

Although I’m just now getting around to reading it, I’m thankful for this blog post and I agree with it 110%. Even the author’s aside about not meeting people like me who had a license to teach but went into TFA doesn’t weaken her argument in my eyes.

I can say that as an insider.  I can say that as an outsider. I can say that as someone who wholeheartedly admits that I am extremely biased against both organizations because of my experience. It’ll affect my “credibility to critique” for sure, but I don’t care. I just needed to hint at my piece in this debate in order to have some peace.

And if TFA or KIPP ever came up on an educational ballot, I would vote “no” every time.


7 thoughts on “TFA and KIPP? I Vote No.

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