The Mentor who Shaped Me

In this LinkedIn series, professionals thank those who helped them reach where they are today. Please share my post on my mentor, Harriett Ball, from LinkedIn here. Use #ThankYourMentor and @mention your mentor when sharing.

Every once in a while, an extraordinary teacher comes along and changes everything. For me and my fellow KIPP co-founder, Dave Levin, that teacher was Harriett Ball. She was more than just a mentor to us: she was the kind of master teacher whose impact was felt well beyond her classroom walls. KIPP is here today because Harriett Ball taught us how to both teach well and find joy in the classroom.

In the fall of 1992, Dave was a struggling first-year teacher at Bastian Elementary in Houston, Texas. One day while walking the hallways, he heard a drumbeat echoing out of a colleague’s classroom door; it was students tapping out a rhythm while Harriett taught them their times tables. Standing at six foot one and commanding a classroom with a booming alto voice, Harriett was both respected and beloved by her students. She brought joy to the classroom by teaching math lessons to the tune of her students’ favorite songs.

Harriett changed the game for Dave the first time she stepped inside his classroom. After watching him awkwardly try to manage a difficult class, she said, “Dave, let me teach this lesson and you’ll see how it’s done.” In 30 minutes, she taught the kids more math than Dave had taught his students in weeks. By about minute two of that lesson, Dave decided he’d found his mentor.

At that time, I was also a first-year bilingual teacher in a nearby Houston school trying to find my way in the profession. When Dave came home to our shared apartment, he told me what had happened and that I needed to meet Harriett. The next time I had a professional development day, I headed down to Bastian to see what Dave was talking about. And just like him, I was in awe.

While Harriett was a master at hooking kids on learning though songs and mnemonic chants, her true strength was in something much more nuanced: mastering the art of building relationships with students. She could engage and relate to any kid — even the ones with the toughest exteriors would open up and show their fragility to her. Because Harriett earned their trust and love, they didn’t mind it when she held them accountable. Her lessons were fun and engaging, but they also pushed students to think critically about the principles behind what she was teaching them. We learned to love seeing the light bulb go off in children’s heads when they understood a challenging problem in her class.

Harriett soon agreed to take us under her wing, and she did not shy away from giving us honest feedback on our areas for improvement. She mentored us with an unflinching insistence that kids deserved the best when they came in for every lesson. When she saw one of us teaching something in a way that was not right, she would stop us right there in front of the kids, kindly coach us on how to teach it correctly, and have us reteach it on the spot. We were motivated to meet her high standard of excellence, which translated into our students wanting to do the same for us. Harriett’s focus on helping us improve and grow as teachers is something we took to heart when we became middle school leaders.

Inspired by Harriett’s example, Dave and I recruited 47 students in 1994 to become the inaugural class of KIPP. Even our name, KIPP – Knowledge Is Power Program – came from one of Harriett’s math chants. We drew heavily on her emphasis on building relationships with families, from visiting them in their homes to recruiting them to KIPP by making ourselves available via home phone or toll-free pay phone (it was last millennium) for after-school homework help.

Now, when we look to hire teachers and leaders, we ask: “How willing are you to get to know your kids both in and out of the classroom? Will you have high expectations and expect students to meet them, being the constant instead of the variable?” If a teacher’s heart is there, the sky is the limit for students.

Sadly, Harriett is no longer with us; she passed four years ago. But visit any KIPP classroom and you will see that her legacy lives on in our KIPP network, which now consists of 183 public charter schools educating 70,000 students nationwide in grades PreK-12 and 10,000 alumni who have gone on to college. You will see that there is rigor in the classroom, but there are also smiles on the students’ faces, smiles that only come from the joy of learning. That was Harriett’s ultimate gift to us, and to the KIPP students as well, who still benefit from her example and belief that ALL of us WILL learn.

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