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NEW VOICES: A First Year in Teaching ...

Caitlin Sullivan '07 shifted from work at a fine non-profit (DC's CityBridge) to a role on the frontlines of teaching. Here, she reports on those first months at work. She will join our 12/14 Happy Hour.

Caitlin Sullivan '07
'Looking Back on a 1st Year of Teaching (in DC)'

Three papers, an oral presentation, two exams: a typical week for fall
mid-terms at Princeton. When I was a freshman, my residential college
advisor told me that this crunch week in October was arguably the
toughest one of the entire calendar year.

As a first-year teacher at KIPP DC: KEY Academy, I now embrace the
adrenaline and pace of fall mid-terms week every day. There are a
couple complicating layers, though. The first is the gratitude I feel to
be learning to teach in such an exceptional setting. I am so lucky to
have landed at a school that has soaring expectations and full
confidence in its students, families and teachers. The second is that
the stakes of my work are now exponentially higher than what I was
responsible for as an undergrad. A few years ago, the consequences
of turning in a half-baked paper were restricted to my transcript. Now,
eighty-seven 11 year-olds are testing me, as they should, at every turn.
They will only be sixth graders once, and the urgency of now makes
me strive to be at my best at all times. 

KIPP DC: KEY Academy, the original school of KIPP DC's network that
is now seven elementary, middle and high schools across the District,
invests heavily in a culture of teamwork, grit and life-long learning.
Throughout these past four months of teaching sixth grade science
and social studies, KIPP's ethos has sustained and empowered me
just as much as it has my students. The natural extension of telling
our kids, "No Shortcuts. No Excuses." is to go above and beyond to
make sure all children are learning. Now more than ever, I am
convinced that no school can be great without outstanding leadership.
KIPP DC: KEY Academy is not only led by a stellar principal but also
supported by two vice principals who are committed to developing
our team of teachers.

As the only first-year lead teacher in the building, I have not always
known the best way to push myself in order to maximize results; my
mentor teacher has been my compass. From day one, the bottom line
has been student growth. And so I'm constantly re-calibrating where
I spend time and energy to make sure my priorities are aligned with
this ultimate goal. Above all, I have consciously leaned into every
professional uncertainty or misstep as a moment to get better and
stronger for our kids. KIPP's main professional development text
this summer, Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, fortunately
bolstered this mentality. A growth mindset has been one of the many
tools I have latched onto this year which will no doubt be useful beyond
the classroom.

The biggest challenge so far, aside from the grind of long (13+ hour)
days at school, has been balancing the urgency of now with the deep
belief that mastering (or even managing!) the craft of teaching takes
time. It would be unproductive to beat myself up for being less prepared
and composed than my veteran colleagues. But at the same time, our
sixth graders deserve a full complement of teachers who are at the top
of their games. So the sooner I climb the learning curve, the better.
Even after spending two years at CityBridge studying and supporting
high quality teaching, I had little appreciation at the start of this year
how many different discrete tasks teachers handle. Leading a class is
the tip of the iceberg. The "other stuff" -- parent phone calls, lesson
planning, grading, special education modifications, positive incentive
systems, demonstrations, field trips, make-up quizzes, extra credit
assignments, designing a learning-friendly classroom, homework help
and observations -- is what makes teaching transformative. I have found
that the more I give at the front end into all of these different channels,
the deeper my relationships with students. And those connections are
the key to learning that lasts. The kicker is that there's always more to
give! For me, it has been a joy to commit whole-heartedly to work I
have found, depending on the day, to be exhilarating, frustrating,
empowering and humbling.

I would love the chance to talk shop with any current, former
or prospective Tiger teachers. Email

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