To Ms. Harriett Ball: “Whoomp There It Is”

The impact of a good teacher is limited to the students of his or her class. The impact of a great teacher reaches into other classrooms and schools as well as lasts for decades. And every once in a while an extraordinary teacher can change the field for teachers across state borders and even across nations. Harriett Ball did just that. 

From the first day that Dave and I met her and heard the drum beat of kids learning echoing out her classroom door, we knew that we were witnessing an extraordinary teacher, and our world would be changed forever.  KIPP is here today because Ms. Harriett Ball taught us to teach. Ms. Ball was recently recognized by Wendy Kopp and Forbes as one of the world’s 7 Most Powerful Educators.

From Harriett, we learned to love to see the light bulb go off above a child’s head when he/she demonstrated mastery over a skill and to proudly shout out “Whoomp There It Is.” That’s the magic that happens when a teacher’s teaching and the students’ learning come together, and there was no better master of this magic, than Harriett Ball.

Harriett was, and remains, the single best teacher that Dave Levin and I have ever had the privilege of seeing in action. Yes, she knew how to write a lesson plan, deliver instruction, assess students’ progress, and reteach as necessary, but beyond those technical skills, Harriett had the gift of reaching both the hearts and minds of everyone in her classroom.

And I mean everyone. She was a teacher’s version of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

Or as Harriett would simply say: Send me the kids everyone is giving up on, and I will teach them.

Of course, Harriett knew how to remain in charge of her classroom, no matter how challenging the situation. One of my favorite Harriett Ball quotes I learned was: This ain’t Burger King- you don’t get it your way :)

Harriett’s contribution to all our work transcends charter schools or traditional public schools or private schools or home school, and her contribution is more important than chants and expressions. What we all can take away from Harriett’s work is a shift in mindset. There are some classrooms and schools that have a poster or banner up that reads: All Children Can Learn. That’s a nice statement, and certainly if someone does not believe it, they need to get out of our classrooms and schools. But Harriett pushed us to change one word in that expression. It’s not All Children CAN learn…It’s ALL CHILDREN WILL LEARN. It’s taking on this responsibility that no matter the obstacles, no matter the challenges, no matter the variables that are getting in the way for a child to learn, a great teacher, by taking on the responsibility, will ensure all of his or her children WILL learn. Harriett did it, and the actual proves the possible. And she was fond of saying if her two protégés could do it, who are whiter than snow and one of whom can’t keep a beat to save his life (that would be Dave :) ), then the actual most certainly proves the possible. Hundreds and soon to be thousands of children are going to and through college, because of this mindset shift that Harriett taught us, and we in turn have taught other teachers and school leaders to follow in her lead. 

More children yearning to breathe free, graduating from college.

More children believing in the possible.

More of us, the adults, believing in the possible.

That, my friends, is Harriett Ball’s legacy.

Thank you, Harriett…whoomp there it is.

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