Over the past few years, we have had the unique opportunity to see some of our first graduates from KIPP TEAM Academy, our network’s first school, graduate from college and do great things. Courtney Lok was part of the Class of 2010, our founding fifth grade class and went on to earn a degree in Elementary Education from Rider University. She’s now back in the classroom, but this time at the head of the class as a co-teacher at KIPP Life Academy, one of our four Newark elementary schools.
Michael: Can you start out by telling me about how you got into education and how you ended up here at KIPP Life Academy?
Courtney: It really started when I was a student at TEAM. I always thought that they were great teachers, and I wanted to be a great teacher for kids that really needed it too.
It was confirmed when I did my senior project for high school at KIPP SPARK Academy, during their founding year in 2009. I spent five weeks there, everyday. It was awesome. I loved the teachers, I loved the school leader, Joanna Belcher, and it was a great environment – very warm.
When I got to college and was finally able to declare my major, I said, “elementary education, all the way.” I’ve been in the classroom since my sophomore year, getting all this experience.
Then, the summer before my senior year at Rider, a KIPP talent recruiter approached me because she knew I was interested in KIPP New Jersey and had been interning every summer at different KIPP schools. I went in for an interview with Sam [Traub], the principal of Life and Crystal Coache, the elementary recruiter and that was that. I got hired the same day and it seemed great. The only obstacle that was left was graduating from college, which seemed like the really big thing at the time. [laughs]
So, what was that transition like from being a student at a KIPP school in the early days to the other side of the classroom?
Well I was always nervous about coming back to Newark to teach, but it’s been pretty great to be on the other side of the classroom. Now I can definitely appreciate my teachers more, and think things like, “Wow, they did all of this prep just to do one lesson!” That’s crazy to me.
I also love to see those kids’ bright faces and think that’s what I looked like to my teachers. I love my kids and I understand why it’s important to build those relationships. I have a much deeper respect for the profession and for my teachers, and I love that they were able to do this in a community like Newark because we need more schools like this with committed teachers.
Thinking about last year being your first year teaching, what was the biggest lesson you learned?
First, time management. Get my work done early so I can have some me time. Then, definitely having a work life balance. I know this job requires a lot of hard work and a lot of hours and that’s something I really struggled with in the beginning.
In addition to that, I really learned to be professional. This was my first job, so the transition from college to professional life took some figuring out.
Working on a team, it’s just completely different than college. In college I had a mindset of, “I’m going to do this for myself, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.” Being a professional has definitely been something I learned like how to communicate with people differently. Not everybody is the same, so how should I approach people more effectively?
What about instructionally, what was your biggest take-away from your first year?
I struggled with classroom management last year. Execution was easier for me, but if my classroom management wasn’t great I couldn’t execute the lesson.
My lead teacher was awesome. My coach and she were great at giving me strategies to help improve my practice. They told me never let the student know you’re frustrated. Think about it logically. What can you do with this five year old so that they are not distracting? My lead is the grade level chair this year, so I’ll definitely be in the classroom more by myself and I’ll be able to execute these strategies that they’ve taught me.
What do you think has been the best way for you to learn and become a better teacher on your own?
I think it’s really important to be honest with yourself and know what you can’t do on your own. Know when you need to ask for help. I also think experimenting was really important to my growth in my first year. My coach told me to try a new technique and give it a few weeks, and if it doesn’t work, try a different one, until you find something that fits with you. It was great advice.
As a next step my lead and I are thinking about incorporating small pieces from whole-brain teaching and incorporating it into our classroom this year. We’re going to start small with some classroom management aspects of it, and see where it takes us.
What made you want to come back and teach with KIPP rather than somewhere else?
I saw different environments when I was student teaching, but they didn’t feel like a team and family in the same way that KIPP does. When I walk into our KIPP New Jersey schools, it always has that close-knit feeling to me. I wanted to work at a place that felt happy and fun.
So as a graduate of a KIPP school coming back to Newark to teach here, how do you think KIPP alum from across the country have an impact on their home communities?
I think it’s good for both teachers and parents to see that the school does make a difference. We can say to parents, I know you’re nervous about this school, but here I am; I am a product of this school system. You can trust us. You can send your kids to school here. I think that’s one way we can give back to our community.
Where do you see your career path going?
I eventually want to be an instructional coach and coach new teachers. That’s a pretty recent thing, just because my instructional coach is so amazing. Last year, I thought so many times what would I do without you. Now I want to help support other teachers.
I know there’s a progression to get there. It’s baby steps. The first step is getting really good at teaching kindergarten. I would need a ton of experience, and experience teaching a bunch of different grades. I need to learn to give feedback and give it well. But that’s eventually — a long way down the line.
Courtney is in her second year teaching at KIPP Life Academy. For more information about KIPP Life, click here.