Heads of the Class

An edifying conversation with the founders of KIPP Schools. It's mid-October, which means that all across the...

An edifying conversation with the founders of KIPP Schools.

It's mid-October, which means that all across the country, kids are back in school. While it's no secret that public education is in need of repair in the United States, there are a number of inspired, incredibly effective schools and teachers doing hero's work. KIPP Schools (part of the inaugural GOOD 100) , the astoundingly impressive Gates-Foundation-backed charter program founded by Teach for America alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, continues to bring real results to kids across the country. We spoke to KIPP's founders about how the schools get such good results, and just how hard it can be to try to teach.GOOD: You guys both did Teach for America. Would you say that KIPP's design grew out of that experience?MIKE FEINBERG: Definitely. When we were Teach For America corps members, we were very bad at teaching. However, we made a commitment to being the constant-not the variable-for our students. And that motivated us to be committed to try to become as good as teachers as possible to benefit our students.G: What do you mean you were bad at teaching?MF: Most new teachers suck and I would say I was probably one of the more sucky of the new teachers. I had no classroom management skills, and I was taking a bilingual fifth grade class, which made it even more complicated. My butt was getting kicked daily by 32 pre-adolescents, which was an incredibly humbling experience for me. It brought me to tears on several occasions.DAVE LEVIN: I think teachers' training and teachers' preparation is a huge issue. By in large, too many teachers begin their professional journeys unprepared for the real challenges. And I think that's just the nature of it.G: What changed for you guys?MF: I found some amazing mentor teachers like, Harriett Ball, who took us under her wing and taught us how to teach and taught us that our struggles weren't inevitable, that they could be fixed. And that we could improve. We became better teachers, better classroom managers, better disciplinarians, and better motivators. We started seeing things a little bit better and that made me a little more confident, and pretty soon I was doing what I hoped was a decent job teaching.G:Harriett Ball helped get you to the point where you founded KIPP schools. How did turn that idea into reality?MF: The idea happened in late 1993, one night, when we stopped blaming other people for why our kids weren't doing well and accepted the responsibility ourselves. We wrote up the ideas on paper that night, and it was a given in our minds that we weren't simply doing an exercise; we were writing a plan to action. So we tried to get permission from the district to [implement these ideas], and in a couple of cases we got some permission to start doing something. Where we didn't get permission, we went ahead and did it anyway and asked for forgiveness on the back end.G: Once you'd established that first public charter school in Houston, how long did it take to know if it was working?MF: I would say lunchtime on day one. When the kids started running back to class after lunch, because they wanted to go back in and learn more.G: These days you guys are running an organization, but I hear you still make a commitment to interact with the kids.DL: Exactly, yeah. Mike and I spend most of our time out teaching principals and teaching teachers, but I look for every opportunity to get in the classroom.MF: The best way for any school leader to have a pulse for his or her school-the academic pulse, the emotional pulse, the cultural pulse-is by spending some amount of time teaching the kids. When I was running KIPP academy, I was also the fifth grade math teacher and the seventh grade basketball coach.G:What's the most important thing a teacher needs to know?DL: The really fundamental component is to have a relationship with the kids. In terms of motivation, as teachers and as educators, we have to remember that we're in a marketing war for the hearts and minds of our kids. And I think that's really critical. There are a lot of real things out there that are competing for the thoughts of our students. Our job is not to throw up our hands about it, but rather to really dig in and figure out what we can do.