Run, don’t walk, to read this incredibly powerful speech to new TFA corps members by Ryan Hill, the amazing founder of KIPP/TEAM in Newark. My only regret is that I didn’t read it sometime in the past three-and-a-half years since he gave it. It’s one of the most powerful ed reform speeches – scratch that, ANY type of speech – I’ve ever read.
Speech to New Teach For America Corps Members, June 2006
By Ryan Hill, Executive Director, TEAM Schools (KIPP Newark)
Thank you, it is a great honor to be here. I’m excited to welcome you all to Teach For America. I’m here to talk to you about the things that I wish I knew when I was sitting in your seat, and a few of the things I’m glad I didn’t know. But first, some context for you to understand what my path has been that has led me to these thoughts.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1999, I joined Teach For America as a way to learn more about the real world before going to law school in what I imagined would be two very meaningful years. What has now become a lifetime career thus began in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, when I walked, wide-eyed, naïve, and very very unaware of what it meant to be a good teacher, into a classroom of 32 sixth graders who would make it necessary for me to learn those lessons very very fast.
The school where I taught had pretty much every problem a school could have. With no supplies, no copy machine, no books, and no help from the administration, it was one of the lowest performing schools in New York for a reason. So, in order to make sure our kids’ circumstances did not become their destiny, I set about to observe enough good teachers to allow me to help my kids go from the 9th highest to the 2nd highest tracked class in the school. Some other Teach For America teachers and I were even able to get some of our kids scholarships to top high schools in New York City. I thought I’d pretty much figured out teaching. Law school, here I came.
And then Yesenia Lopez dropped out of her public high school. And then Gerald McMillan dropped out of the prep school I helped him get into. And then Amanda Vargas got pregnant in the 9th grade. And I realized that one year was not enough, and that law school would have to wait.
So on behalf of all the other Yesenias and Geralds and Amandas, I started to look for a better way, and after asking all my trusted advisors in Teach For America land who I should turn to, I was introduced to the two Teach For America alumni who founded the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, which at the time was just 2 schools in Houston and New York, but now consists of 45 schools across the country that typically vastly outperform all their surrounding schools, and get almost all their kids into college. I then found out about and later was accepted to their training program, and the next year four other Teach For America teachers and I opened TEAM Academy, which is a KIPP School in Newark, New Jersey. That was four years ago, and we have since grown to a 320-student middle school with over 20 remarkable teachers, that has become one of the highest performing schools in the country. When our kids enter our school, they, like Yesenia and Gerald and Amanda were, are performing in the bottom 25% of the country. By the time they leave, though, they are in the top 10% of the nation, and they have earned full scholarships to the top private high schools in America. Schools like Deerfield Academy, Hotchkiss, and Phillips Exeter Academy. And unlike Yesenia and Gerald, we will continue to support them as they struggle and succeed at those schools.
To be here tonight, I had to return early from our school’s 8th grade trip to Puerto Rico, where our kids are celebrating the culmination of what has been an incredible four years of proving wrong on a daily basis the many non-believers and excuse-makers who say that kids from Newark cannot achieve, that there are too many problems at home or in the community for us to ever expect to get lasting, meaningful results with every student. It saddens me to know that had Yesenia, Gerald, or Amanda gone to TEAM Academy , maybe they would not have become just another statistic for our kids to try to disprove.
Obviously, the past seven years have taught me a lot. I’ve made more mistakes than most, no doubt, and I’ve been very fortunate to have met a number of remarkable educators, parents, and students who have schooled me in what it means to be a teacher. Even now that we’re opening more schools in Newark and I serve as the superintendent of these schools, I still teach three periods of fifth grade math each morning, because to me, there is nothing more pure, more important, or more exhilarating than the sound of a room full of fifth graders saying, “oooohhhhh!”
So I figured I’d use my time up here to tell you all the things I know now that I wish I’d known seven years ago.
Within a week of beginning teaching, I learned some quick lessons that I wished I would have known ahead of time. For instance, I wish I had known that letting sixth graders sit wherever they want on the first day of school is a really bad idea, that group work on day one doesn’t work, and that pencils are shaped like missiles for a reason. I wished I had known that kids don’t really chew their tongue all day and that really is gum I saw, and that I can now find that gum on the bottom of their desk or in their classmate’s hair. I also wish that I had known all the Spanish swear words, because I was positive that whatever Richie was saying was not “welcome to New York.”
What I wish I knew then that I know now is that I would fall in love with each and every one of my kids, but that love means being tough enough and consistent enough and working hard enough to make sure that they are sitting down and listening and not making excuses for why their homework was incomplete. That giving detention to a kid for not doing his homework because his grandmother was sick or he had to visit his dad in jail might be unfair, but that it would be more unfair of me to lower my expectations for kids who always have legitimate reasons not to have their homework done.
What I wish I knew then that I know now is that my first year would have been a lot easier if I would have sought out and observed more teachers and schools that are having phenomenal success with the same kids in the same community. I wish I had known the people I know now, the Kings and Queens of the classroom, the legends and the heroes who change kids’ lives every day while enduring – ignoring – the things that hold other teachers back – no copy machine, no supplies, 40 students in a class, fights in the hallway, an absentee administration. Teach For America alumni like David Levin and Mike Feinberg, who founded KIPP, Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan whose teaching has inspired students in rural North Carolina to dream bigger than they ever had before, Heidi Moore, one of our founding teachers who at five foot zero and 100 pounds doesn’t look like the world’s best teacher, but just watch, and others outside Teach For America, like Rafe Esquith, whose classroom in the biggest public school in Los Angeles has for 25 years been an island of perfection and joy amid a sea of barbaric chaos.
At the same time, there are a number of things I’m really glad I didn’t know. Those of you who scare as easily as I do might want to cover your ears now. The brave among us, listen on.
I’m glad I didn’t know how hard this would be. I’m glad I didn’t know that just doing my time in the classroom wouldn’t be enough. That at the end of my first school year a bunch of the kids who worked hard would still be held back because of a test and the ones who cut school and bullied other kids but happened to test well would go on to the next grade. That to help correct this injustice I would have to form a tutoring program over the summer to get those kids to pass, that after moving on to high school some of the kids who I had helped learn to read and do long division would still get pregnant and drop out.
I’m glad I didn’t know that even getting my kids into good high schools around the city wouldn’t be enough. That I would have to track, tutor, and cajole them into staying in those good schools, and that even that would only work half the time.
I’m glad I didn’t know then the stories of Khaliyah Thomas and Shan Gillespie, because I would have been too intimidated. Khaliyah, one of the founding students of TEAM Academy, who lived in a car at the age of two, who lived with a grandmother after her parents abandoned her, who moved into the home of another grandmother when that one passed away, whose second grandmother would tell her she only had her for the money, who the state would yank once again from her home, this time headed to a group home… and then Shan Gillespie, the first-year teacher who gave up the typical freedom of a 27 year-old single woman to take in Khaliyah for 9 months while we found her a home. Who sacrificed almost a year of the prime of her life in order to save Khaliyah’s, to ensure that she was safe and cared for and that our promise that we would take care of her was kept. Who then drove Khaliyah hundreds of miles to interviews at top boarding schools, one of which she will attend next year on a $36,000 full scholarship.
What I wish I had known back then is that kids can be better than even the best adults. That a bunch of 7th graders from Newark can take a field trip that involved a baseball game in Oakland, singing on the beach in Los Angeles, and tearing the roof off a poetry slam in a café on Haight Street, but that every single one would say that their favorite part was talking to the LGBT anti-violence youth group in San Francisco.
I also wish that I had known all along how many ways our kids can get hurt because they don’t have access to all the things that I did. I wish that I had known that when Kevin said he had a headache what he meant was that he had a sinus infection, and that sinus infection would become a brain infection, and that the 8-hour surgery would leave him in such a weakened state that the doctors thought he would die, that not until his teachers showed up in the ICU every day, not until all 80 of his classmates sat at his bedside joking with him for hours would the doctors see improvement in his condition. It is terrifying to think that Kevin, who came here from Ghana for a better life, whose inner drive has him sitting in our school studying until 10:00 each night, who would never hurt a fly, let alone a classmate, who has overcome a serious stutter to star in a Shakespeare play, might have died from a sinus infection. Next year Kevin will attend one of the nation’s elite private high schools, and one day he will change the medical industry that initially misdiagnosed his condition or the insurance industry that tried to bankrupt his family.
One of the things I never anticipated when I sat in your seats seven years ago was how many people would ask me the infuriating question, “why do you work so hard?” I wish I knew then, the answer I know now: The reason, I say, that I and so many other teachers work so hard is that Kevin, Khaliyah, Yesenia, Gerald, and Amanda don’t stop needing our attention at 3:00, 4:00, or even midnight, and they certainly don’t put their lives on hold for us to take a summer vacation.
Sure, these same people say, banks and law firms have people working 100 hour weeks, but they get paid much more than teachers do.
But now when I hear this, I know my answer: We may not get paid more, but we get paid BETTER. We get paid in smiles and hugs and other cheesy things, but we also get paid in decidedly un-cheesy currencies. We get paid in changed lives, saved lives, we get paid when we drop off Khaliyah on move-in day at Loomis, and when Kevin gets discharged from the hospital. We get paid in smarter and more caring kids who one day will come back and do everything so much better than we do, and then when we retire we get to kick back and enjoy the payments from the great pension of a world that has changed forever.
Finally, what I also know now that I didn’t know then is that Teach For America is more than just a group of teachers. It’s more than just a rewarding way to spend two years before pursuing law school and your “real” career, and it’s much, much more than a way to learn about the inner city. Teach For America, as I now know it, is even more than a movement. It’s an army. And unlike traditional armies, whose enemies are often hidden in bunkers or caves, our enemies are very obvious, and are everywhere. Our enemies – poverty, excuses, low expectations – are strong, but our combined force is greater. Too often, teachers fight these enemies like the movie ninjas fight Jackie Chan – one at a time, completely alone. We must fight together, rely on each other, learn from the great warriors before us. If we do that, there is no inept hospital, no absentee administration, no difficult home environment, that can possibly hope to stop us. On behalf of all of us who have both lost and won many battles before you, and on behalf of the Khaliyahs and the Kevins who we’ve helped, and the especially the Yesenias, the Geralds, and the Amandas we have failed, welcome to the world’s greatest profession, and to the world’s noblest war. Thank you.