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Surviving "no excuses" teaching in KIPP charter schools, part 2

[Editor's note: The following report is the second feature for Substance by School's Matter editor Jim Horn of an on-the-record teacher sharing her experience in a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school. While there are only five of these in Chicago, there are a total 224 KIPP schools across the country.

Two thousand Chicago children are enrolled in KIPP schools, according to the KIPP website.As Jim reports in his Jan. 2019 Substance piece, "KIPP's 'no excuses' model amounts to a punitive regimen of unceasing test prep and behavioral neutering more suited to penal institutions." Jim invites other KIPP or KIPP Model teachers with stories that need to be shared to contact him at james.horn@cambridgecollege.edu.]

Another KIPP Teacher, Fatima Sader-Aleshaiker, Shares Her Story

Fatima Sader-Aleshaiker spent two years and four months (2014-2016) as a KIPP teacher in New Orleans at KIPP Central City Primary. Beginning as a special education teacher without preparation or experience, at the beginning of her third year she became the sole adult in charge of a kindergarten class with 25-plus children. When she pointed out the unethical, illegal, and miseducative nature of this arrangement, she was marginalized and fired within weeks. Her voice now joins the growing chorus of former KIPP Model teachers who are stepping free from the shadow of shame that KIPP so efficiently instills in both students and teachers whom the KIPP organization ejects. Fatima Aleshaiker grew up in a middle-class family in Irvine, California. Like many other cooperative and compliant students who do their homework, get good grades, and remain under the radar. By the time she graduated, Fatima had achieved a kind of invisibility that helped conceal what she was good at and what she was interested in. After graduating from Irvine High School in 2004, she worked in an after-school art program while attending a state college, where she discovered she had a knack for working with young children. In 2005, Fatima transferred to college in London, where she started to really enjoy learning. Even though she was drawn to the arts, her immigrant parents wanted her to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

She graduated with 1st Class Honors at the University of West London in 2009, with a double major in Sociology and Psychology. Two years later, she earned an MA in Cultural Studies, again with 1st Class Honors, from Goldsmiths, University of London.

In 2011, she took a job in Bucharest as a kindergarten English teacher for a year, where she fell in love with kindergarteners. She returned home to Irvine in late 2013 and worked with children with autism as a teaching assistant at a middle school, while doing private tutoring on the side. She was not certified, and she knew she would need teaching credentials to be a career teacher.

Fatima was attracted to the cultural life of New Orleans. When she looked into teacher certification programs there, she discovered something called Teach NOLA, which is a local branch of The New Teacher Project (TNTP). Teach NOLA offers an expedited route to teacher certification. Students in the program begin their teacher preparation program in May and, after 5 weeks of training, they find placement as teachers among the dozens of charter schools that have replaced public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (The charter conversion is 90 percent complete, and the last public public high school, McDonogh 35, will become a charter school in August 2019.) With 4 out of 10 teachers each year leaving the stressful “no excuses” NOLA charters, high turnover means ample openings, as well as regular understaffing of schools. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, research shows that the constant churn of school personnel and higher turnover have been accompanied by declines in teacher experience level, quality of credentials, teacher satisfaction, and a decreasing number of African-American teachers. Having left the U. S. just before Katrina to attend college, Fatima describes herself as having been “very naïve” about teaching in the “no excuses” charter school environment of New Orleans. She signed up for Teach NOLA and began looking for an apartment.

Teach NOLA’s $4,400 tuition payment entitles enrollees to continue to take courses during their first year of teaching, so that by the end of the school year, most are ready to apply for state certification.

As is common among Teach NOLA students, Fatima found employment with KIPP a few weeks after she enrolled. KIPP Central City Primary (KCCP) hired her in July 2014 as a special needs teacher for third grade, even though the extent of her experience and preparation for special education was limited to working as a middle school teaching assistant with children with autism the year before in California.

Just days after being hired, Fatima got her first exposure to KIPP culture at KIPP’s 20th Anniversary Summit held in Houston. The KIPP Summit, held annually in July for all of KIPP’s teachers, includes promotional videos, vendor exhibits, testimonials, skits, music, recorded messages of support from celebrities, and professional development meetings. She described the Summit as “a whole week of KIPP everything.” Even though KIPP administrators regularly complain to their faculties that funds are not available for substitute teachers when they are sick, each year KIPP spends millions of dollars on the Summit:

Summits are often held in popular tourist destinations such as Orlando, Miami, or Las Vegas. In 2011, for example, the KIPP Foundation’s 990 nonprofit federal tax return showed that $1,008,633 was paid to Opryland Hotel in Nashville for hotel and hospitality during one Summit, while almost $4 million was spent on travel that year. Most Summit expenses are paid by the KIPP Foundation, but then KIPP recoups some of that money from each KIPP franchise, which must pay up to $30,000 each year to use the KIPP brand name. In 2011, KIPP, Inc., collected a total of $2,050,256 from individual schools in these licensing fees. During a general session at the KIPP Summit, Fatima remembers several thousand teachers being asked to self-identify their years of teaching experience. She estimated that “more than half the stadium” stood when asked which teachers had zero to one year of teaching experience. As the number of years of experience got higher, however, fewer and fewer teachers stood, so that just a handful acknowledged ten or more years in teaching. She would soon come to understand in very painful ways why the average KIPP teacher has only two years of experience.

Fatima describes her KIPP summit experience as the “beginning of me getting KIPP-notized,” an immersion into an intense acclimatizing process that indoctrinates new teachers in the core beliefs and attitudes of KIPP. She returned from Houston at the end of July with the other New Orleans KIPP teachers to begin “Culture Week,” a time at the beginning of the new school year that initiates the students’ own KIPP-notizing process.

During Culture Week, Fatima learned that every student movement has to be regulated with maximum efficiency, which means that hand signals come to replace language whenever possible. She learned to write down her routines so that students come to “know exactly how to maneuver their bodies” and to position their feet and hands” with “hands by sides, walking feet, eyes forward.” Controlling their voice was a central goal, too. Older children at the K-4 KCCP were told, “voices off, eyes forward.” Fatima learned about the student “lines” that are strictly monitored in the hallways, and she learned that KIPP teachers judge other teacher’s effectiveness by the degree of perfection in the “lines.” If the prescribed distance between single-file students falters, or if students waver from the tape guide on the floor, more practice is required until all errors are erased: I remember I was spending such a long amount of time working on my lines. I would do line practice back and forth. Back and forth, back and forth and it’s like I know how I’m supposed to see it. I know how it’s supposed to look, but it doesn’t look like that. . . .when you walked through the hallways other teachers can see your class and they can gauge how effective you are as a teacher based on your line. And if your line is really noisy, sometimes you’ll have teachers saying, you better get your line in order. During “Culture Week,” Fatima also learned that every non-compliant student behavior must be corrected immediately, and that failing to do provides another indicator of ineffective teaching. KIPP supervisors with their clipboards often enter classrooms without speaking and record head counts of students who are complying with teacher commands, such as “eyes on me.” The percentage of non-compliant students is recorded, and teachers are later provided with follow-up reports on the need for corrective action. Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, which serves as the No Excuses “school Bible,” includes Lemov’s zero tolerance Technique #36, 100 Percent: “There’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100%. Less and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation.” The KIPP Model aims for total compliance among students and teachers, alike, and questioning rules and methods cannot be tolerated. Fatima’s experiences at KIPP Central City Primary (KCCP) substantiate this reality.

Often referred to as “performance character,” student attitudes and behavior are a higher priority at KIPP schools than academics. As KIPP co-founder, Mike Feinberg, once told an audience at Tulane University, “KIPP teachers believe their job is 49 percent academics and 51 percent character.

Fatima noted that it’s as if KIPP is “presuming that these kids come in with no character, come in with no discipline and no work ethic, and that we have to instill this in them and teach them that only a good work ethic is going to give you success.”

Even though leaders of KCCP said they valued “truth over harmony,” Fatima found that questioning KIPP practices and value was risky behavior. Not only was Fatima eventually fired for insisting that adequate resources be provided to her students so they would not fall further behind, but she had experiences, too, of being ostracized for speaking out against excessive control. When second grade teachers, whose pupils were ending recess just after kindergarten recess began, came up with a plan to restore order by blowing a whistle and yelling “freeze,” Fatima’s resistance earned her a growing mistrust among other planning team members:

All the kindergarten teachers were resistant to this practice because it was kindergarten recess, and our students needed this time to run around. Try making 100+ 5-year olds freeze while outside on the playground in the middle of playing. This was also extra (unnecessary) work for teachers. Even though we were on duty supervising students, this was essentially our only other break aside from a hasty 30-minute lunch. Whistle-blowing and yelling “freeze” at KCCP are not the only practices that are reminiscent of police practices. Children are required to put their hands on top of their heads when receiving directions:

. . .we’d say put your hands up top to kind of show we can trust you now. I can’t talk to you because your hands aren’t on your head. Because if your hands aren’t on your head, I don’t know what you are doing with your hands. I can’t trust those hands. We would have to know where their hands were. So your hands are on your head if I’m going to give you direction.

Marching children in single file lines and the constant focusing on maintaining silence led Fatima to view KIPP’s student control methods as “punitive, constant micromanaging of . . . voice, movement, and body. Those were the three things we had to make sure we controlled. Their voice, their movement and their body.” The KIPP Model’s zero tolerance student discipline policies are inspired by Chester Finn’s appropriation of “broken windows theory,” which is spelled out in Finn and Kanstoroom’s foreword for a 2008 book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism:

The [No Excuses] schools are preoccupied with fighting disorder; they fix the proverbial broken windows quickly to deter further unruliness. Students are shown exactly how they are expected to behave—how to sit in a chair without slumping, how to track the teacher with their eyes, how to walk silently down the hall, how to greet visitors with a firm handshake, and how to keep track of daily assignments. Their behavior is closely monitored at all times and the schools mete out real rewards for excellence and real punishments for rule-breaking. (p. x) At KIPP, “broken windows” schooling is not just some arcane theory. During Fatima’s two years and four months at KIPP, she heard the “broken windows” term come up repeatedly in meetings:

I remember it would come up a lot in meetings. They talk about the broken windows theory, and I remember writing it down because I didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up later and then I was able to see what they meant by that, what the parallels between the broken windows theory and “the small stuff.” So we’re supposed to sweat the small stuff. So if a kid is meant to be seated and their hands folded and they’re not, that’s like a broken window. We say, oh that kid, his legs are thrown about— I have to address that before it trickles, and all the other kids are sitting like that. So we had to constantly stop instruction to fix the visible non-compliant behaviors . . . .You can’t let one kid do something that they’re not supposed to be doing because then all the other kids are going to start doing it. Fatima found that KIPP’s laser focus on compliance and punishment did not match the progressive rhetoric that she heard during professional development sessions and staff meetings. During her first month at KIPP, for instance, she remembers a professor from San Francisco, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, who came to share ideas about social justice:

. . . he said the right things. He talked about issues of race and inequality. He was very real, and I thought, OK, that must mean that the school sees things in the real light, and that’s good. I like that. But we never heard from him again. We never saw him again. I would always ask myself, I wish he would come here. I wish he would come in the classroom just to see it.

When I last interviewed Fatima in August 2017, she was very skeptical of organizations like KIPP with pre-packaged, top-down solutions to educational problems complicated by “generational poverty and institutional racism”—problems whose long, complex histories that are brushed aside as if historical realities are simply offered as excuses:

I know that our school was trying to give us cultural sensitivity training and teach us about the impact of institutionalized racism. . . And we had some great speakers come. They talked about just the importance of having different role models, so having African-American role models for our students in the classroom. The importance of that and the importance of who they’re surrounded by and who they see as authority figures…. I thought that that was what made my school very different was that ours had invested time into at least [to] talk about that intellectually. Have conversations about it.

Fatima provided examples of how those conversations were never translated to actions that would seriously challenge the inherent institutional racism of the KIPP Model. One example focused on the school leadership practices. When I asked Fatima what image came to mind when she unexpectedly thought about KIPP, her response was immediate, and it points to the paternalistic social control ideology that undergirds KIPP:

I get this image of my principal, who was a white man, not from New Orleans, standing up on stage in front of all of these children, 98% black African-American, standing up there and him basically pumping the kids up with the KIPP chants and all. . . . That image in my mind is very unsettling, because it just shows me that as much as we are showing these kids are pumped and everything [about going to college], you look at the image and there’s this white man overseeing a crowd of young black kids telling them what to do. . . As much as we have talked about these things and are so aware in our practice, we still have the White man leading the kids and leading everything. And he is, at the end of the day he’s the owner. He’s the top. He is the head honcho. . . .I always thought, well why couldn’t the Dean of Culture? She’s African-American. She can do it. Put a woman in charge. . .

So, when I think of KIPP, I think of that: it sounds great, it feels great, it looks great, but then actually it’s the same thing. It’s the same old hierarchy and the same old boys’ club. . .So that’s the kind of image I get. It’s just completely a contradiction, a complete contradiction. And that breaks my heart because I don’t want people to fall for that.

Another example of KIPP’s rhetoric not matching up with its oppressive school practices centers on the school curriculum at Fatima’s school, which offers a monocultural model mirroring the realities of two white middle class children, Jack and Annie, “a white suburban brother and sister duo:”

Our curriculum was based around the Magic Tree House Series, [which features] two super white kids travelling the world, and I think that is an insidious way of reinforcing racial roles . . . We’re teaching these kids to see through the eyes of super white kids. . . . I don’t think that that’s empowering. Even though KIPP presents itself as educational organization concerned with challenging inequity and inequality, KIPP compounds the problem of school segregation, by both race and class. For instance, middle class KIPP administrators who are disproportionately white and middle classs would never consider sending their children to their own schools, which are poor, black, and brown. Only Fatima’s vice-principal at her school had enrolled a child in KIPP’s kindergarten and first grade—but then moved the child to a private school. She pointed to this hypocrisy as another example of KIPP’s policies not matching its rhetoric:

Why aren’t the children of the administration at the school? Why don’t you see white kids at the school? Why only African-American students and students from Honduras and lower income? Why is that? Why are we segregating the students that way? How are we dismantling any sorts of ideas [about inequality] in these kids’ mind when we’re essentially recreating it in front of their eyes? That’s why I was happy to see the other kindergarten teachers were black and two of them were from New Orleans, and I thought that was great. The [students] see somebody like them, from their city teaching them. Not like me, a light-skinned person not from the city. But the majority of the teachers are like that [white]. That really needs to be addressed. I mean there were hundreds of teachers before the RSD [Recovery School District] came in who were laid off. Teachers that were from New Orleans, people of color who had been teaching here. And then they were laid off and then you got this influx of young college kids from TFA, with even less experience and very little cultural relevance and understanding. It never made sense to me and, I never figured out why these kids [recent college graduates] are better than teachers who’ve been teaching for many years. They say some of them have their certifications, but all of these young teachers just got certified over the summer. Over the summer like in one month. That’s negligence in my opinion. When you’re giving these students very inexperienced teachers, that’s negligence. That’s not being naive—you’re being negligent, because you wouldn’t do that to your own kids. You’d do better. So that’s the institutionalized racism just recreating itself. They’re [KIPP’s] not actually changing anything. They might talk about it. During Fatima’s first year, she co-taught with a third-grade teacher. At the same time that Teach NOLA was supposedly teaching her how to work with special education students, she was assigned to be the case manager/special education teacher for 12-15 third grade pupils. Part of her caseload included a very high needs child who had been kicked out of his alternative school and who was known as one of the most difficult pupils. She was behind academically and had experienced a great deal of trauma in his short life. She told Fatima, “I want to kill myself.”

“Poor child, he deserved so much better,” Fatima said.

The child made repeated suicide threats by hanging over the railing of the stairs and and saying she was going to jump, which Fatima reported to the school administration. They never took her reports seriously and never intervened: “Eventually the next year they realized that our school didn’t have the resources for him, and he was sent to another school.”

During Fatima’s second year with KIPP, her school was under-enrolled, and she co-taught with another teacher. She and her co-teacher had 20 students in their classroom, and this allowed Fatima the latitude to work closely to address the needs of children requiring extra help. More importantly for the school administration, it allowed Fatima and her co-teacher to maintain total compliance and, thus, avoid the chaos that broken windows theorists predict when any rule infraction goes unpunished.

During Fatima’s second year, which was also a low-enrollment time, she co-taught in a kindergarten classroom: So we had about 20 kids for two teachers, which was actually a very positive . . . because we were able to really like home in on which kids needed extra work on their sounds, what kids needed extra work on their numbers, on their handwriting, and we could hold small groups, and we could really like manage their behavior, because there was two of us in the classroom. It was a very smooth year. Fatima’s students demonstrated strong growth in both language skills and math skills, and she finished her second year feeling entirely confident and energized. It wasn’t until Fatima’s third year that things changed for the worse. She got her own kindergarten classroom that she had dreamed about, but the number of children and the ironclad demands of the KIPP administration created a pressure cooker atmosphere that created big problems and false impressions.

Fatima found that KIPP’s unrealistic expectations led to exaggerated claims among administrators that, in the end, produced self-defeating results:

Something that always stands out to me is that in my second year, when I first started on the kindergarten team, I’d been transitioned from third grade to kindergarten. I had been doing SPED and so my principal was like, Ms. Aleshaiker is going to be in charge of doing all the RTI meetings for kindergarten. And I did not have the experience or level of education or preparation to do that kind of thing.

But the way he would talk to the other teachers was like, Ms. Aleshaiker is a specialist. She’s an expert in the field of SPED. And I’d been doing SPED for one year, like legit teaching SPED, one year. . . .I think that that gave me an insight into so how. . .these teachers that have no experience [are being hailed as] expert in the field and the best teacher[s] in New Orleans! Really? A lot of these teachers don’t have a lot of experience. We are here doing our best, don’t get me wrong, we have really great intentions, but that’s a lie. That was a flat out lie. With a single teacher in each of the four kindergarten classes, and no one to share responsilities for behavioral needs or emotional meltdowns, or children who simply needed to use the bathroom, instruction was constantly interrupted and always behind schedule:

. . . a common problem I had was—I would get a portion of the class with me and as soon as I get this side of the class with me, something happens on the other side. And then I have to come and fix that side and it was literally, I’m playing whack-a-mole. And I just remembered there being all this stuff in my head constantly—I had so many things that I knew I needed to do. I just felt like a machine that was overworked and that this steam was coming out.

All four of the kindergarten teachers had special needs children with IEPs among their 25 or more pupils, and yet a single staff person served as case manager for all four kindergarten classes, as well as three first grade classes.

Even though Louisiana’s state statute establishes a maximum of 20 children per teacher in kindergarten, all of KCCP’s four kindergarten classrooms had one teacher in each room during the 2016-2017 school year. They all had more than 20 children and sometimes more than 25:

. . . across all four classes, they all had about 25 plus with one teacher, and I think all of us were new teachers. None of us had taught kindergarten [alone]. So we were all like first year kindergarten teachers on our own for 25-plus kids. And 25-plus kids, a few in each class with a lot of behavior and learning disabilities and severe behavioral problems.

Some of Fatima’s kindergarteners had been to pre-K, but some had not. These children were unaccustomed to the structure and boundaries of the classroom, and KIPP kindergarteners have a school day that lasts almost 9 hours, from 7:15 to 4:00:

So a very long day. . . . I remember how afraid I was for the safety of my . . . kids and how I felt like I cannot be a good teacher in a classroom where my kids are physically unsafe, where I cannot manage every single child in that classroom. I still had kids who were pooping on themselves, who would poop on the rug, and I’m expected to make sure that they are cleaned up and taken care of, but also managing 24 other kids, and teaching, and prepping. But all of that other stuff. So it was almost like, I was stretched so thin. It was extremely exhausting. It was extremely exhausting.

During the four months that she was teaching alone, Fatima was carefully preparing her lessons without benefit of a plan period, but she rarely got very far into her plan. She couldn’t teach for managing the many issues of 25+ kindergartners, and she felt inadequate, overwhelmed, and scared something bad was going to happen that she couldn’t avoid.

She had very little latitude to make her own teaching decisions, but the frequent chaos in her room demanded constant weighing of options and decision making, which, in turn, created more stress:

There was very little room for me to make my own decisions really. I had a schedule I had to stay on it, and my coach would tell me I should be able to walk into your classroom at any point in the day and you should be teaching that lesson: ‘if I walk in at 11:00 you should be teaching math workshop.’ A lot of times just to stay on schedule I’d have to skip lessons because I’m constantly just trying to keep those kids from chaos—I felt like there was a lot of that balancing. So, should I make sure that the kids are safe, but OK, maybe not teach the lesson, but staying on schedule so that when my coach comes in, she can make sure that I’m on it, I’m doing reading right now. I just remember my heart always feeling heavy and like it was about to burst because I just felt so much pressure constantly. I think that was probably anxiety, but I had it constantly. From the minute I’d wake up, because I don’t know how the kids are going to be today. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, literally until the end of the day and even until after the kids because I kept getting pulled into meeting after meeting after meeting, and it was always like how poorly you’ve been doing. So it was like I was being run over by a steamroller almost every day. After a particularly chaotic incident where a child kicked another child so hard that all the other children fell silent, Fatima reported to her principal that she felt as though her classroom was not safe and that she needed help. Her principal responded by telling her to imagine being in a burning building and calling the fire department, only to find out the fire truck was stuck in traffic. He was making an analogy that he was driving the truck and she could not count on him to put out her fire. Nor could he send any other relief. She would have to put out the fire, herself.

And she would have to do so without a co-teacher to help, because KIPP had no plan to hire more teachers. When she suggested that a smaller class be established for children with special needs so that they would be able to receive the instruction and attention they needed, the principal balked.

Fatima’s school did have two behavioral interventionists who floated between classes, and after Fatima asked for more help, one of them tried to check in more regularly. But the interventionist grew resentful of being asked to help, and she created a scene when Fatima one day asked her to remove one of the students, who was having an aggressive and noisy outburst during a math lesson:

. . . she came in, and she confronted me in front of the class and said, that’s your job. You’re supposed to take care of her. You take care of her. You go and stand by the door and hold her. This, while in the middle of a math lesson with 24 other students on the rug.

Fatima’s mother came for a visit in October, and she was alarmed at how unwell her daughter was Her mother worried openly about her health. Fatima said, I was working like crazy hours, like I would be there from like seven to seven and coming in on weekends, too. And prepping my week’s worth of lessons, and I would get through barely any of it. And I was just putting in so much energy and effort, I’d come home, and I was so exhausted all the time.

Usually buoyant and optimistic, Fatima said that, by October, she “was really losing it, just feeling like I had given up on the school helping me.” Fatima’s anxiety grew, and she was often nauseous before school. She “really felt unwell all the time.” During the Fall 2016, Fatima was seeing the same therapist that some other KIPP teachers at her school were seeing, and she was taking two anti-depressants. She had called a suicide hotline becaused she felt SO low: “the counselor flat out told me that I needed to reconsider my job because of the amount of distress it was causing me.”

One of her colleagues had other recommendations: This is a really exhausting, tough job and whatever you need to do at home to make you get through the next day, that’s what you’re going to have to do, whether it’s rolling up joints, smoking this, drinking that, whatever you need to do to self-medicate. Fatima began to share her frustrations with her coach and the principal. She stopped pulling punches:

I would say look, if this class can be run by one teacher and it can be done, then I'm not that teacher. Because I'm struggling, and if I'm not a good teacher then you need to get rid of me and put a teacher who can actually teach because you’re wasting your time. Don’t bring these kids to school and put an ineffective teacher in front of them. And they’re like, no! You’re not an ineffective teacher. You’re a great teacher. We’re going to help you to be able to get there. The other three kindergarten teachers were suffering, too, even though they did not admit as much to Fatima when she had a rare opportunity to chat with them. . . .they would admit how tough it was for them, too. We would talk as often as possible. Although in hindsight it was deliberate that the teachers would be never alone be with each other without the presence of a coach, or supervisor. So one of the kindergarten teachers and I would talk on the phone after work and share our grievances. But they all expressed how they knew the school wasn’t going to help them, and that they better not say anything.

In front of supervisors or coaches, the other kindergarten teachers would say, “yeah, my class is great,” but Fatima could hear them regularly screaming, and she could hear their kids screaming, too. Fatima admitted that she started screaming as well:

I had to start screaming, too. And that’s what I hated about it. I started hating it. The only thing I can do – well, not I can do – but the only thing that I would start reverting to is just I would have to scream, because it would get so loud in my class or sometimes I would have to just go there . . . .It was not the type of teaching that I ever imagined myself getting into. That’s not the type of teacher I am at all. And I'm not that type of person. . . . I felt like I was jammed into the corner and sometimes that was the only thing that I could do. . .

Fatima continued to seek help in managing her class so that she could teach. She had two children, a boy and a girl, who were particularly disruptive— running, yelling, getting on top of furniture, marking on walls. Fatima’s time was absorbed in dealing with the disruptions. Once she sought suggestions from a curriculum specialist who worked for the company whose curriculum the school used. The specialist suggested having the students sing more and to meditate. After the meeting with the principal when she was reminded that the fire truck was stuck in traffic, Fatima’s coach began to observe her more, take more notes, and offer less feedback than she had before.

My coach had asked me in the beginning of the year how I wanted my feedback and I had maintained that I always wanted it to be as immediate as possible. My thinking was that if I’m doing something wrong tell me immediately, interrupt me if you have to. By this time, however, my coach was observing in the back of the classroom and writing feedback on her computer and then emailing it to me at the end of the week. So sometimes I’m getting feedback on Friday on a lesson I taught the previous Monday.

She urged Fatima to videotape the students so they could see she and the principal could see what was going on.

In October, Fatima had another meeting with the principal and her coach. Fatima was eager to share the video evidence that neither the coach or the principal had ever seen, but when she got to the meeting, she found the agenda changed. The principal and coach had a list of three management strategies that they wanted Fatima to focus on with her students. As with other suggestions she had received, none of the strategies was new to Fatima. Frustrated, she announced that she had researched the state statutes, and that Louisiana state law is clear that kindergarten classes with one teacher may not have more 20 children. She said:

I was just really frustrated, and I do remember getting very emotional in that meeting. I shed a few tears, because I felt like I wasn’t being heard. I felt like my kids were being disrespected by the school. I took it so personally, because this was offensive to me that they were treating the kids that way. Do you see what I mean? To treat the kids in a way you wouldn’t even treat your own kids. And I remember I brought that up. The principal was like, OK, maybe you need to calm down. We’ll meet about this later.

The following day Fatima felt “stressed out” and “depleted.” She did something very rare; she took the day off. Because her KIPP school does not hire substitute teachers, it means that one of the two interventionists, has to step in to substitute. This means, in turn, that other classes have no one to turn to when an interventionist is needed. The decision to take the day off was accompanied by “a lot of guilt that some kids weren’t going to get intervention that day.”

Fatima’s school had two interventionists for math and reading who circulated among the four kindergarten classes to teach basic skills to students, such as “writing their names.” These interventionists were former kindergarten teachers, who had been promoted and given “offices upstairs” away from the classrooms. Whether or not this physical distance made it easier for the interventionists to sometimes not show up for students, the result was that children who were behind often remained behind because they were not receiving the one-to-one instruction from interventionists whose primary task was to get these childen up to speed.

Two weeks later Fatima had another meeting with her coach and principal, and she once again asked that another adult teacher or aide be assigned to co-teach her class. She distinctly remembers the “principal kind of scoffing at me, like don’t we all wish we had two teachers in every classroom.” From that point forward, Fatima remembers visits by her coach coming irregularly and without feedback, except for emails that criticized her and that came days after the visit. More importantly, the help from the interventionist became more unpredictable, so that pupils who needed extra help were not getting it. Just before the second interim assessment in early November, Fatima was assigned a new student who did not speak English. Even though the previous year Fatima had administered a math assessment in Spanish to a new boy from Honduras, she was instructed to administer the math assessment in English. She said the new student simply stared at her during the entire assessment. Predictably, she failed. Fatima’s other students, too, did poorly, even though they had performed very well on the first interim assessment in September.

On the Friday of the same week Donald Trump was elected President, Fatima was fired. The principal presented to Fatima the results of her second interim assessment, followed by a list of shortcomings, which included the inability to use feedback positively and appearing quiet and withdrawn during faculty meetings. The principal did not mention Fatima’s insistence on quality instruction for the KIPP kindergarten students or her research into Louisiana state statutes regarding kindergarten class size.

Getting fired concluded a very bad week that included a breakup with her partner of two years and a friend fighting for his life in the ICU after being the victim of a shooting.

The principal told her to leave and to clean out her classroom the following day on Saturday. Fatima had bought so many things to make her classroom what she had always wanted it to be that other teachers had come in to admire how beautiful her class looked and to ask for help in decorating their classrooms. It took Fatima and four other people to get her things removed in the time that KIPP allotted. Before she left, she wrote on the board in large letters, “Ms. Aleshaiker loves all of you.:”

. . . if there’s any message I can get across to my kids before I go, the last thing I can tell them is I love them. And I love you and I'll always love you and it’s not to do with you. It had nothing to do with you. I didn’t want them to think I left because of them, because that was the one thing I told myself. I vowed as hard as this gets, I will not leave my kids. I will not leave in the middle of the year. I will not do that to them. In the end, Ms. Aleshaiker had no choice in the matter. Days after she was fired, a father of one of her students called her up in tears trying to figure out what had happened to his child’s teacher. When she met with the parent,

. . . he wanted to know why. I tried to tell him when I met up with him why, but without blaming the school. Because his kid still goes there, two of his kids go there, and I don’t want to talk bad about the school. I don’t want to talk bad about the principal, but I just said it didn’t work out and I had to leave. I did try and make it apparent that it wasn’t my choice, because it wasn’t my choice. I asked Fatima what she would now tell a friend who was considering going to work at KIPP. Her response was unhesitating and emphatic. She said KIPP is not what it appears to be with its high gloss media image and its beautiful promotional materials. Beneath the surface is a structural reality that implicitly claims that the neediest students should accomplish more than other students, with less resources. She would tell a friend who asked that the “least experienced teachers” with little preparation are given classes of unmanageable size and then told they can succeed if they work hard enough and are nice enough: I know you know the phrase ‘work hard, be nice,’ and I really feel like I see the dirty side of it is—we’re going to throw a lot of work at you and you’re going to work hard, but you’re not going to question it. Fatima keenly felt the irony of being fired for doing what the KIPP narrative demands, which is to “advocate for our kids.” She said that even though she fell short in other areas, her advocacy for her pupils could not be challenged: “If there’s one thing that I'm doing right it’s advocating for my kids that this [was] not a safe classroom, and it’s legally not OK to do this. There’s a reason why it’s written in the law, especially for the kids in there with IEPs and with needs that weren’t met.”

The other three KIPP kindergarten teachers kept their jobs, Fatima believes, because they kept their suffering and their students’ suffering to themselves: “. . . they said, ‘I don’t want to lose my job.’ And I said, well if I lose my job—I can’t do this and keep my mouth shut and be like everything’s OK. I couldn’t.” Had the school leaders decided to utilize the numerous teachers and other adults in the school who were not assigned to any classroom, the misery among the kindergarten teachers and pupils could have been mitigated and, perhaps, Fatima’s traumatic exposure to KIPP’s more obvious displays of ruthlessness avoided. Fatima Aleshaiker’s KIPP experiences fit a pattern that is all too familiar: an energetic, idealistic young teacher joins a publicly-funded corporate enterprise that will go to any length to enforce non-negotiable performance demands that she finds either unreachable to achieve or unsustainable to maintain. She finds that she is useful to the enterprise as long as she does not threaten its organizational structures or policies and as long as she maintains production standards. When she falls short on either count, she is seen as an obstruction to organizational efficiency or cohesion and, thus, quickly discarded, with neither malice nor consideration.

At the time of Fatima’s firing in 2016, both the principal and coach who made the executive decision were scheduled to leave the school the following year: “The principal was planning to leave KCCP to open a KIPP high school, and my coach was going to law school the next year with plans to become a lawyer.”



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