Everyday Superheroes: 3 Lessons from my Transition to a Charter School
In education, the polarizing documentary Waiting For Superman dominates conversations on the charter school movement and failings of the American school system. Suddenly, charter schools like KIPP and Harlem Village Academies were propelled into the consciousness of mainstream America. Regardless of your opinions of these education ideologies, you cannot deny the growing movement and increasing number job opportunities at charter schools. I am in no way presumptuous enough to believe I know the ins and outs of the charter schools, but I do believe that my experience has left me with a relevant perspective on the transition from a traditional public school to a high-performing charter network.
1. Work hard… but really work harder.
There is no denying that I worked my butt off during my first two years of teaching. During my first week of teaching, I stayed so late that the janitor accidently locked me in the gates of school. Luckily she lived in the neighborhood and happened to drive by as I stood helplessly in the courtyard, calculating the best way to scale the fence. After a while, I established my reputation of being the first in the parking lot and the last to leave by tutoring everyday and teaching the after school program. Naturally, I thought the transition to KIPP’s extended school day would be a breeze, given the fact that I was already working past 6 or 7. However, teaching from 7 to 5 is different than teaching from 7 to 3 and teaching afterschool programs from 3 to 5. I know it seems like there isn’t much to differentiate, but teaching full classes from 7 to 5 left me far more fatigued. I was able to let loose a bit working the afterschool program, but I had to be en pointe until 5:01 PM at KIPP because my students would smell exhaustion from a mile away. I am assuming this is why you see so many young, single teachers in charter schools. It takes Superman-like energy and I see why many struggle with juggling the demands of teaching and a family. Although the attrition rate is high in most charter schools, the pro side is that upward mobility is based on merit rather than tenure. Particularly in startup school environments similar to mine, you can take on various leadership roles as long as you show initiative and follow through on your responsibilities. Despite my hard work and demonstrated excellence in the traditional school, I was nearly pink slipped on account of the wonderful last-in-first-out policies that were unofficially implemented.
2. Have a positive growth mindset otherwise you won’t make it.
I was accustomed to doing things on my own timeline and prioritizing things as I saw fit. However, most of the time in a charter school, you are directed to follow certain guidelines and will likely be more closely managed. With my Teach For America experience, I was already used to evaluations on a rubric and frequent unannounced observations. At my old school, I had received perfect evaluations and there is no way I am a perfect teacher so I embraced the honest, constructive feedback. For example, I was having difficulty with a particular student’s behavior. I tried everything in my arsenal of management tricks, but finally enlisted the help of my teammates and found a solution. In addition, I’ll be very transparent and admit that I developed some bad habits as a teacher in the traditional setting. The last month of school is generally filled with end-of-year celebrations, field trips, and an occasional showing of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. In an effort to eliminated wasted instructional time in the charter school, I taught lessons until the last minute of school. We set higher expectations for students, so naturally teachers should be held to higher expectations as well. Needless to say, I am a much better teacher today because of my time at KIPP.
3. It’s amazing to work with a team that share same beliefs about students.
I believe, in general, charter schools recognize the value of a highly effective teacher and invest resources in seeking out talented human capital. Charter networks often employ recruiters to funnel teaching talent into their pipeline, in the same way for-profit firms recruit college grads from a top-tier school. Knowing I could enter any classroom and glean excellent instructional strategies was definitely a draw for me. The breadth of knowledge that was available to me was incredibly encouraging. From the moment I joined KIPP, I could feel the palpable energy of hundreds of people working towards the same goal: to get our students to be college ready. In our first onboarding session, cleverly dubbed “KIPPnotizing” (a fitting portmanteau of KIPP and hypnotizing), I listened to Mike Feinberg’s moving anecdotes about his journey as an educator and became a believer. At the end of the session, Feinberg even goes as far as to extend an invitation to take the red pill or blue pill. In my traditional public school setting, I found teachers who shared the belief that all students can and will learn, but I also encountered numerous people who laughed at my so-called “ignorant optimism.” However, at KIPP, with the values and credo splattered across every flat surface as far as the eye could see, I knew exactly what to expect in terms of how people intended to operate within the organization. Obviously I wasn’t that naïve to think things would always be sunshine and roses, but I, for one, always lived the KIPPism of assuming the best in others. We did not always see eye-to-eye on how to get there, but at the end of the day, we shared the same vision. Teaching is hard work, but knowing you work alongside everyday “superheroes” can be powerfully motivating.
All in all, as someone who embraces challenges and seeks out uncharted territory, I believe that making transition from a traditional public school to a charter school can be highly valuable. If you are considering becoming a teacher after graduating from college or if you are transitioning careers, then you should consider joining the charter school movement. If you are already a teacher and looking for a change of scenery, then you should definitely consider joining the charter school movement. Whether you are looking into Aspire, Uncommon Schools, or Achievement First, you need to do your research, because the actual results and culture can run the gamut. Because of my differing experiences, I am able recognize very important characteristics about myself as a teacher which in turn allows me to leverage my experiences as I market myself professionally.
Erica Wong left landlocked Kansas for the sunny beaches of southern California to attend Pepperdine University. While in undergrad, she worked as a nanny for affluent Malibu families and worked as a Jumpstart volunteer in low-income Mars Vista schools. These dichotomous experiences sparked her interest the achievement gap and led her to join Teach For America. Erica taught 5th grade reading at Scroggins Elementary, where she achieved 100% passing on the state assessment, before joining the faculty at KIPP Voyage Academy for Girls in Houston, TX. Although she knows that teachers have the biggest impact on student achievement, the edtech space has piqued her interest in its potential to disrupt a very broken system. When taking a break from championing education equity, she indulges in her epicurean curiosities, suffers from serious wanderlust, and cheers for KU basketball. For questions or comments you can reach out to her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @ewwong.