Sunday, December 8, 2013

Uncommon Schools (interview)

photo courtesy Katie Yezzi

Katie Yezzi, the Founding Principal of Troy Prep Elementary School, is a graduate of New Leaders for New Schools, a nationally acclaimed program dedicated to training effective urban school principals. Troy Prep is part of the Uncommon Schools system of charter schools. Ms. Yezzi is also a co-author of Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.

What’s it like working for a charter school?

There’s greater accountability in exchange for greater freedom. This means that we have more autonomy in terms of hiring and budget than a district school, but we have to have better results than the schools that already exist in the area. At Uncommon Schools, that’s a trade-off we embrace: if we’re not doing something better than the local public school, there’s no point in having a charter school.

It’s also important to remember that charter schools are all over the map in terms of quality, design, and mission. Uncommon Schools have less in common with some charter schools than we do with many district schools.


How do you use testing?

3-4 times throughout the year, we give tests aligned with our curriculum. In and of itself, that’s not remarkable, but what we do with the data is what’s different. Teachers really look for what the results show about what kids know and don’t know. 

Just as important as the analysis is developing an action plan. We figure out what we need to do to help students learn fractions, for example. There’s no point reteaching a whole unit on fractions if the misunderstanding was specifically about converting to mixed numbers. 

Our use of data really connects us with what the students need, not what we think we need to cover so we can cross it off the list of objectives.

photo courtesy Troy Prep Elementary


How did you become involved with Uncommon Schools?

I started teaching in the suburbs, and I realized that I loved teaching. Then I shifted to teaching in the inner city, and I realized that I loved teaching those kids, and that their success was much more dependent on having great teachers. I made another shift to school leadership because I realized that I wanted to go beyond supporting the kids while they were in my own class. I wanted to support them with a great school. 

In the public school system, I worked with great people, but the levels of bureaucracy meant that decisions could become frustratingly mired in adult politics. The more I worked in school leadership, the more I felt like charter schools allowed for the greatest ability to quickly make the changes that needed to happen for kids to be successful.  

Uncommon Schools do great work preparing low-income kids of color to succeed in college. When I had the chance to open a new school, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

What do you look for in a teacher?

I always look for people who are flexible, open to feedback, mission-aligned, and positive. And of course they have to love kids! 

We also talk about sustainability a lot. When I was working at a district school, lots of my colleagues got burnt out and left after a couple years. At Uncommon Schools, we have a higher workload, but we love our jobs and know we’re making a big difference for the kids. Loving your job and feeling successful is what keeps you going even if the work requires more of you.  

At Uncommon Schools, there’s a different mindset, a different way of thinking about the work. It’s not competitive, it’s not “shut your classroom door and you’re on your own.” We’re focused on always getting better ourselves and always helping the kids to do better. 

I do observations almost every week, and I meet every week or two with each teacher to talk things through, give feedback, and maybe have them try out something they want to do better.


photo courtesy Troy Prep Elementary

Has your perspective changed since you became a parent?

It has helped me understand the kids I work with because I have kids the same age. Right around the time Troy Prep was founded, my daughter was starting school and learning to read. So I saw the process first hand.  

It’s also helped me in working with parents. I know that parenting is humbling; it can be really hard to get kids to do homework. 

When I work with parents, I tell them about my own experiences and reassure them that if you’re consistent, you can help your child be successful.

Do you have any advice for parents of elementary school children?

First, read with your kids. Read, read, read, read, read. It’s the best gift that you can give them.

Second, get them to bed on time. Kids who get enough sleep learn better, behave better, and feel better about themselves and the world.

Third, don’t be afraid to be the parent. Some parents of this generation feel obligated to make their kids happy at every moment rather than setting them up for long-term happiness. Sometimes you need to say no. You need to not give in to bad behaviors.

Finally, be selective about their access to technology. Yes, they need basic computing skills, but they tend to pick them up incredibly fast. There are some good literacy games (like tracing letters and rhyming words), but kids should have very limited screen time.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

I think it means teaching in such a way that you’re really present and responsive to the students you’re teaching. The more you practice, the more confident you feel about how and what you teach. Then you can focus less on implementing the lesson and more on being present for the kids.

Do you have a mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you in your work?

I run, and in the summer I play Ultimate Frisbee. That’s how I burn off the “stress thinking” that just spins around and around making lots of noise.

It’s great to have something you love to do, something fun that uses a completely different skill set. Our work as educators is so demanding, and it’s where we spend most of our time. Having an athletic pursuit reminds me of being a whole person.

related posts:

Mindful Teachers, Mindful Parents, and Mindful Schools

Restorative, Not Punitive, Responses to Youthful Wrongdoing

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