Inspirational quote on a KIPP teacher’s classroom door

I visited KIPP High School in New York City a few months ago and wrote about it.  My post was pretty generous — perhaps too generous — so I’m going to write more about what I saw there in a few small posts.

In my last post I put a picture I took of the $400 senior dues poster.  This wasn’t really that controversial, but I found it interesting that they would do KIPP style ‘spin’ on how the $400 was such a deal since it really should be over $800.  It seemed like an unnecessarily large amount of money to ask families to pay, even if it was a great deal.

I wasn’t running around snapping pictures or having a hidden camera in my hat or anything.  I actually only took two pictures, and I’ll put the other one here.

This was on the door of one of the teachers (I blacked out the teacher’s last name).  When I saw it was a quote about ‘failure’ I expected something inspirational along the lines of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, again” or Edison’s “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Messages about how it is natural to fail and how that is just a part of learning and eventually succeeding is something that I certainly approve of in a school.

But this quote struck me as kind of hostile.  I have two kids and I’d be upset if any of their teachers had this quote on the classroom door.  Maybe I’m being too critical, though.  I’ll let the great commenters that visit this site weigh in on this.

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29 Responses to Inspirational quote on a KIPP teacher’s classroom door

  1. JDM says:

    Fine if you’re coaching the wrestling team or the soccer team. Do they have those?

  2. Dina says:

    This is part of the problem. Failure is essential to learning. If you don’t ever fail you are not taking risks and you are not challenging yourself. This cult of the “one right answer,” all the time is so detrimental to learning! Try, try again seems more inspirational to me to say the least.

  3. Michael Fiorillo says:

    This quote is also representative of the mindset that places all responsibility on the individual, and none on the institutions that largely govern their lives. This narrative is embedded throughout the culture, from Oprah (BFF to so-called education reformers) to Tony Robbins to the Social Darwinists who are now taking over the schools.

    Think of the psychological damage these schools, with their regimentation and high student attrition rates, are inflicting upon children who, for whatever reasons, don’t “measure up:” not only are they counseled out of the school (a polite euphemism for expulsion), but the message drummed into them from all sides is that they’re the one’s who’ve failed.

    After all, it must be the teachers (who, not surprisingly, also have high attrition rates at these sweatshops) and students who are failures, since the party line is that corporate education reformers are omniscient, never err, and are the only one’s who care about kids.

  4. Hi Gary,
    the quote is mean spirited but what I want to know is did Mr. X really write his SAT scores and GPA on his door ? Could KIPP possibly be that vulgar ?

  5. eminnm says:

    I don’t know. I think the word “failure” here means someone who fails and then gives up because they made excuses for why they failed. If you fail once but learn from it and then keep trying (the good, educational kind of failure), I don’t think you fit in that category any more. I connected it to the tension in holding high expectations for my kids even when they DO have good excuses. Yes, I know you have no running water at your house so you had to go shower at grandma’s. Yes, I know that took a while. But yes, I know that if I let that be an excuse for why you didn’t do your homework, the only person I’m hurting is you, because you didn’t learn what you needed to learn. It isn’t fair, and it’s a constant tension because my kids do face tough circumstances. It isn’t fair that they have to persevere in spite of those circumstances, while more well off kids only have to worry about the homework itself. But if we use those circumstances as an acceptable excuse for why they just can’t do something, that is a much more ultimate kind of failure than the kind that necessarily accompanies learning.

    I guess I’m saying I don’t totally hate the quote. But I’m not putting it on my wall anytime soon, either.

  6. I hope you’re right and suspect , upon reflection, that you are. Even so, it is still another example of the relentless campaign to normalize reducing all educational activity to a number, which is in and of itself incredibly vulgar. After all, the SAT is the mother of all standardized tests.

  7. Jennie says:

    I have mixed feelings about the quote (taken alone without the posted GPA and SAT scores). I taught for 6 years in a high school that was full of kids making excuses for this and that…why they didn’t do their homework, why they didn’t study for their test, why they can’t make it to class on time, why they didn’t come to school for the past 2 weeks straight, etc. Some of them had very legitimate excuses and really had horrible circumstances they were dealing with, and some, I suspect, were lazy as hell and had parents who didn’t really care what kind of grades they brought home or whether they went to school at all–or if they did care, they didn’t have the control over their kids to make sure it happened.

    So the quote, I think it depends how you take it. If you think of a failure as one who messes up and then stops trying, then yes, an awful lot of “failures” are people making excuses. Which does not, of course, mean that there aren’t legitimate and compelling reasons why some kids perform better (in school, careers, life) than others.

    That said, I agree that posting that quote on the door like that is obnoxious and feeds directly into the cult of personal responsibility that frees up the better-funded portion of the population to not feel bad about the outcomes of these kids. The media and politicians have made a habit of blaming the teachers, and the teachers at schools like these blame the kids…and so on. The kids internalize the failure and give up trying. But that is the problem with posting this quote. Instead of encouraging the kids to try harder or try a different way, it encourages them to internalize their failure.

    Still, the single most disturbing part of it to me is not so much the quote itself (though, as I said, it is obnoxious to have it posted on the door, whatever grain of truth it may contain), but the GPA and SAT score posted directly below it. To me, it implies that failure to obtain this GPA and this SAT score equals Failure. It also implies that if you failed to achieve those scores, you not only failed, but you probably failed because you were making excuses for yourself.

    I’m all for pushing kids just beyond their comfort zone. But this is, to me, pushing it too far. There are so many negative implications here. There is, like I said, the implication that failure to get those scores is Failure and due to making excuses. There is the implication that failure to get into Rutgers is Failure and due to making excuses. The particular emphasis on that likewise implies that going to a “lesser” college is tantamount to Failure. Maybe you’re the first one in your family to graduate from high school, but your SAT scores aren’t high enough to get into Rutgers and anyway you can’t afford to go there, so you’re just going to community college, and that’s not good enough…you have failed and what do you have to say for yourself, and no more excuses, please?

    One thing I learned during my short teaching career is not to inflict my expectations of myself (or my family’s expectations of me) on my students. This is not to say I learned to have low expectations of my students, far from it. But I started off teaching with this idea that all of my students should not only graduate and go to college, but they should all leave town to go to college. And while for those students for whom this was a serious possibility, because they had the grades and extracurriculars and motivation to get scholarships, I did continue to push that (many hesitated to do it out of fear of change, or because their families were afraid for them to leave), I learned that this is not a realistic goal for all students. Some of them, even if they are very bright, are just not going to have the grades and resume and go-get-it drive to get full scholarships to colleges out of town. And their families don’t have the money to send them on their own…and even if they get tuition scholarships, their families can’t afford to pay for their housing, etc. When I realized that some of my students felt like I was disappointed in them because they were “only” going to the local community college or even the local state university, I realized I had pushed my own bourgeois expectations (and my family’s for me) onto them and that the result was not empowering them, but making them feel like failures. They were, in fact, anything BUT failures. Most of them were first- or second-generation, many were the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone go to college, and many were doing this despite their parents openly pushing them to go straight into the workforce instead of going to college.

    And then I realized how many of my friends also went to community college or a local state university and turned out just fine. For me, going off to college was “destiny” and a “right.” For many, if not most, it’s a luxury.

    The point of this long-winded comment is that our expectations should be sufficiently high to motivate our students, but should also be realistic, so that they don’t feel like failures simply because they are not doing exactly what we wanted to do or what our families wanted us to do at their age. THAT can only hurt them.

  8. veteran says:

    Maybe he should add his IQ score?

  9. Linda says:

    Or how many years he has been a classroom teacher or maybe days.

  10. Pingback: Remainders: Forest Hills HS student cuffed over “Harlem Shake” | GothamSchools

  11. KitchenSink says:

    Commentors, you are generally offensive. “Don’t blame the kids. Blame the kids.” …and…I was on the college track all the way, but these poor kids, they don’t deserve that because of their ‘unfortunate circumstances.’

    Why don’t you stop blaming and wake up to the core message on the door? That message is: stop making excuses and you can hold success in your hands.

    Do you really want to disagree that badly with George Washington Carver?

    • Linda says:

      Wendy? Michelle? Is that you?

    • Michael Fiorillo says:

      Yes, it was clever to have the quote be from an African-American.

      Carver was an incredibly accomplished man, who anticipated the current concern with sustainable agriculture, but it should also be pointed out that he was associated for many years with Booker T. Washington and Tuskeegee Institute- indeed, he is buried next to Washington – whose accommodation to racial segregation, disenfranchisement and violence in the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow era casts the quote in the context of an seemingly apolitical, up-by-your-bootstraps ideology amid an environment of intense repression. That model of Black advancement was to be widely repudiated in the following decades.

      That ideology of African-Americans advancing within their “place” in the American hierarchy was very popular with elites at the time, who leavened their acceptance of Black repression with a heavy dose of paternalism.

      It’s very revealing that KIPPsters would unconsciously (or perhaps not?) seek to revive it.

    • Educator says:

      I hear you. It can come off as a mixed message for teachers to claim that they are the #1 factor for student achievement (as defined by multiple choice tests) but then also state that poverty is extremely difficult to overcome and teachers shouldn’t be solely liable.

      But it’s also a mixed message for charter proponents to claim “look what we can do because we have no excuses” and then have a large number of students transfer out / drop out / get expelled.

      Read some of Gary’s previous blogs and look up public data for schools such as KIPP, with up to 40% of students dropping out of the charter and returning to their traditional local “failing” school.

      I’d like to ask these no excuses folks if they consider this failing and how they rationalize the high charter dropout rate.

    • E. Rat says:

      So what you’re saying is that teachers should demand that students pull themselves up by their bootstraps? And that teachers and students alike should ignore institutional racism and classism, because adequate individual effort is enough to topple them?

      Personally, I think it is more respectful of our students to acknowledge reality. I believe that doing so instills in teachers and students alike a commitment to challenging the inequities that surround us.

  12. Gary Rubinstein says:

    I think that the 99% is a bit high, anyway.

  13. KrazyTA says:

    I am not sure how inspirational this would be for the students, but I am an old-fashioned person who believes in truth in advertising and living up to one’s promises. KIPP is one of the most widespread charter operations in the USA. It also enjoys special favor among many charterites/privatizers as the exemplar of ‘no excuses’ policies. In the interests of personal and institutional integrity, I would suggest the following should be placed above every door in every KIPP center of eduproduct delivery:

    “If students here aren’t successful, if they are pushed out and counseled out because of our inadequacies, if they are trained and not taught, then we have failed and abjectly apologize for letting down our community and our nation. Profuse apologies will be offered in person by the head of this school and full refunds will be available without question.”

    Now wouldn’t that be refreshing to see?


    BTW, how is looking backward to Booker T. Washington an example of ‘twenty-first century innovation’? If they must look backward, how about a choice quote from W.E.B. DuBois? Or Frederick Douglas? Or Malcolm X?

    Or am I missing something here?


    • JConnor says:

      And I assume that to be fair it should be put above the doors of regular public schools as well then? Good then we’ll have hundreds of thousands of signs that all make all the adults feel good and smug and schools in both the charter and public sector that are failing.

  14. Teacher of 20 years says:

    The quote is NOT offensive in the least. It is meant to spur the kids into action and stop blaming everything and everyone for poor choices. “I didn’t do my homework because it Frrrrrrday, Miss, it was Friiiiiday.” “I don’t come to FREE tutoring 4 days a week because I don’t want to, but YOU didn’t help me.”

    The posting of one’s alma mata and personal stats publicly is a new trend in the schools. I have an SJU banner on my door. Not posting my stats though. LOL

    (I can’t believe I just defended the actions of a charter school.)

  15. Jessie says:

    Hi Gary,

    I think I understood the motivation behind the “open letters to reformers” series, and I found your insights interesting and valuable in both facilitating discourse between diverse perspectives and calling for greater accountability/transparency from important people in education.

    It’s less clear to me, however, what problem you’re solving for in posts like this one. Certainly, we need to keep talking about school models and charter efficacy. But this level of granularity, presented without any meaningful analysis, strikes me as petty, and even mean-spirited.

    I understand that KIPP’s high profile success (or, as I’m sure someone will correct me, “success”) invites this type of magnifying-glass-scrutiny — and we should rightly discuss what’s working and what’s not. But what is your point here? Are you trying to prove that the discipline at KIPP is overly militant? The emphasis on quantifiable success too stifling? If yes, why? What do you think would work better?

    In my estimation, these are the types of meaningful questions that move the conversation forward. But what I see here are just vacant observations rooted in fundamental bias. Given the increasingly significant volume of this blog’s readership, you’re becoming a reformer in your own right. What does this type of content say about your accountability?

    • Tee says:

      Yeah, something has rubbed me the wrong way about this post, and I finally realized what it is.

      Regardless of whether the quote is helpful, harmful, or neither to the students’ psyches, this post takes one quotation completely out of context and uses it to make implications about the teacher and classroom. Calling this quotation hostile implies that the classroom environment, too, is hostile. We don’t know the context of this quotation. Maybe the teacher has discussed it with students. Maybe the teacher explained that by “failure,” he means “giving up.” Besides, is this really that different from the “Do or do not. There is no try,” quotation that is tossed around all the time. (Yoda reference, for you non-nerds out there.)

      At this point, I pretty much despise Kipp schools and TFA, but this post really does seem petty. I would never want a generalization made about me based on a quotation taken completely out of context.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Jesse and Tee,

        I agree that it is not clear what the real point of this post is. I saw that poster on the door and it made me feel uneasy for whatever reasons so I thought it would be interesting to put it up and see if others found it interesting enough to discuss.

        I guess the bigger idea is that this is just a small thing in a larger analysis of what I learned by visiting KIPP, which I have felt a bit unsatisfied by my ‘even handed’ analysis from a few months ago. This has been lingering in me, and I plan to write more about this, but I don’t want to write one giant ‘bombshell’ post about it since I think it might be too over-the-top if I did so I’m tinkering around the edges right now with posts like this, and seeing how they are received.

        The ‘nice guy’ that I like to think I am feels a little bad about scrutinizing teachers who welcomed me into the school and gave me free run of whatever I wanted to see. I also tried to be diplomatic in that other post because I know the founders of KIPP for many years and because I enjoyed talking to the teachers there. They were very nice and I don’t like teacher bashing so I don’t want to be a teacher basher myself. But the fact is that charter schools, and KIPP in particular, are being used by ‘reformers’ to justify the closing of other schools and also attacks on the teachers at those non-charter schools so it is important to show that some of the things they do over there are questionable.

        Overall, I didn’t think they really were doing anything special over there. I don’t think they knew very much about how students learn. I don’t think they had any special methods for motivating students.

        Maybe when I finish with these small posts about what I left out of my KIPP visit post it will make more sense. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will just generate good discussion on the comments.


      • Tee says:

        Hey Gary,

        As I said, I’m pretty anti-Kipp myself, so I understand your motivation, and I would like to read a more honest version/reaction to your visit. It was more just taking one thing out of context and using it to draw judgments that rubbed me the wrong way.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        But there is a context for this quote, which exemplifies it: the intense paternalism embedded in the KIPP/TFA model of temporary white missionaries “saving” the Worthy Poor who are able to “measure up,” and the discarding (and blaming) of those who don’t.

      • Linda says:

        Yeah, hang that on your classroom door KIPPsters!

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