How did this teacher become awesome?


Huge congratulations to one of the best teachers I have ever had the privilege to work with.

Alison Drake of KIPP Believe was recently awarded the President’s Award for Math and Science Teaching.  It’s a huge national honor with a nice 10K check attached and a chance to meet the President (or in this election year have a photo with Arne Duncan).

Alison is the real deal and her story makes me wonder a lot about how to develop truly, long-term excellent teachers.

Did I know from the moment she started at KIPP GCP that Alison was bound to become one of the most impactful teachers I have worked with? I wish I could claim such finely tuned ESP.  At the time I might have placed my money on a fellow first year teacher who was full of extroverted energy and flew around the classroom like a performer and had the class eating out of her hand on day one.

As a first year teacher Alison she was a total stress ball, no dynamic energy, no immediate connection with kids.  Fairly early in the year both Alison and I wouldn’t have expected a second year to happen, much lesson ten.

So what happened?

Intensive coaching at critical moments can make worlds of difference.  Early into Alison’s first year when quite literally she was thinking about quitting we were lucky enough to have  Josh Zoia arrive for a four week Fisher Fellow residency.  At the time instructional coaching at KIPP GCP was as scarce as ACLU booths at the Republic National Convention because everyone including me taught five or six hours a day.

Josh showed up and since I didn’t know what to do, I asked him to coach Alison.  This wasn’t once every other week observation; this was a planning meeting, observation, and debrief every week.  It was akin to the personal trainer.

It’s fair to say that this intensive intervention gave Alison the confidence to stay in the classroom and start to apply her fierce work  ethic and intelligence to the challenge of kids learning.

The next leap Alison took had lots to do with the liability of charisma,  Lots of hyper extroverted, charismatic young teachers quickly get used to two bad habits.

They become hooked on the addictive quality of entertaining the class and their barometer for success is solely engagement.  If you ask, how did the class go?  Their response is often, they were really into it instead of most of them mastered the aim, Jovan, Ricky, and Essence need more practice.  In the interest of full disclosure I struggle with this particular addiction every time I teach or plan.

The hyper charismatic teacher can also make a habit of not having to plan as carefully because he or she can get away with it.  Thus charisma becomes a liability if it contributes to a class with too much teacher talk and imprecise questions, explanations, and tasks.

Alison knew that teacher as performer wasn’t her sweet spot or her desired end.  She focused on planning.  Not just lesson planning but planning investment strategies, classroom culture, incentives, consequences

She uses her class routines and incentives to subtly build her kids’ cultural capital.  This meant the reward for the best Algebra group might bee a trip to a sushi restaurant one quarter and Ethiopian the next.  It meant greeting at the top of the do now came from a different language every week. It meant her first unit was about Algebra as a Civil Right and equations were taught with comparing cell phone plans.  This immaculate planning allowed the classroom to hum and Alison to spend more time with small groups and individuals simultaneously building great relationships and accelerating their math skills.

A third piece of the puzzle is exposure to awesomeness.  Both of the KIPP schools Alison has worked at (GCP and Believe) have a sizable cohort of amazing teachers.  Especially early in a teacher’s career seeing how great teachers act, think, and interact with kids helps form a new teacher’s vision.

We didn’t create these opportunities strategically.  We lucked into them.  I wonder if…

a school can differentiate its coaching more so the intensity lines up with a teacher’s needs (ideally before flame-out begins)?

it’s worth naming charisma as an occasional liability and pushing showboat teachers early on?

you don’t have models of great teaching in your school, how do you provide deep exposure for young teachers ?


3 Responses to “How did this teacher become awesome?”

  1. Paul Friedmann - teacher at Brooke Charter School - Roslindale Says:

    I agree that charisma can be a problem sometimes. Not only for the teacher who has it, but also for the teacher that shares students with the teacher who has it. Does that make sense? I think a lot of what most other No Excuses schools that I’ve been to (and from what I hear, KIPP, at least nationally, is known for) do is very flashy to boost levels of engagement. And I think this is very tempting when you have kids coming in to a school with bad experience from their past schools and they are turned off to school. I think this is really what all the chanting and songs are all about. But that can be hard to pull off if it’s not you, and a big part of being a good teacher is being authentic in front of the kids. Sounds like Alison found her niche, which is awesome. Another issue is that charisma and and flash can turn into an arms race to keep the kids hooked…sort of like pop culture seeks out the lowest common denominator which plays into the incredibly shrinking attention span of the average American. The arms race makes it hard for the humble, not so flashy teacher, and in the end the school suffers unless diversity in style is valued, and more importantly, like you said, the underlying value is not engagement for engagement’s sake, but for the purpose of kids gaining mastery.

  2. Charles Says:

    I think the critical piece here isn’t charisma itself but one of the consequences of having it–a reticence to take critical feedback and build upon it. Those with charisma may require some degree of humbling in order to begin the long and joyful journal towards true excellence. We’ve been told how “great we are” simply for being who we are and the mindset that develops from this conditioning is the true liability.

    Also, you asked why it is that extroverts often feel more comfortable being led/mentored by introverts. One aspect is certainly the absence of of a feeling of visceral competition. The leadership styles are distinct and complementary and this inspires goodwill and a growth mindset. The two great Star Trek leadership teams–Kirk & Spock and Piccard & Riker–are great and fun examples of extrovert/introvert effectiveness and I generally seek out Spock/Piccard type leaders when given a choice.

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