Role: Lead ELA teacher
School: KIPP Lanning Square Middle School
What motivated you to become a teacher?
It was actually an accident! I originally wanted to go to law school, but my senior year at Williams College I was accepted into Teach For America and was placed in a school in Camden. After my first year, I never wanted to leave the profession. I grew up in Philadelphia and I always heard people speak negatively about Camden, but teaching there made me realize that the city has so much heart. I feel at home in Camden and I connected to the students here.
As a student in Philly, I was fortunate to have a family that really valued my education and assumed I would go to college—but that was not the case for many of my peers. I wanted to make college a reality for my students, too.
After working for another year at a charter school in Trenton, I joined KIPP Lanning Square Middle as a founding fifth grade history teacher. Halfway through that school year, I was offered a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in Brazil. I spent two incredible years teaching there—and using so much of what I learned as an educator with KIPP and Teach for America.
Why did you return to KIPP Lanning Square after your time in Brazil?
I missed the kids! But I also missed working with a school team I really believed in. It’s rare to find a place where a team of people is so aligned around the same objectives. I’ve learned so much from the people I work with—and it’s inspiring to be around people who share a desire to create generational change in Camden. I work with some of the most hard-working teachers on the planet, and we feel like we’re working towards something bigger—this isn’t just a job to us.
What does it look like when your English students are engaged in the subject?
The class is all about the students. They lead the discussions. We’ve structured the class so students are in three or four small groups. They explore the text and I pop around and answer questions. I really had to develop my classroom management skills to make that happen, but it was worth it.
Right now they’re reading the Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, which is set in Elizabethan England, far from their reality. I always think about how books and literature are like windows and doors to new places and realities. I love allowing them to explore something new and different. They want to read the text out loud in English accents! It’s pretty funny to witness their enthusiasm.
When you think about your students’ futures, what are your hopes for them?
Above all, I want them to have choices. My vision goes far beyond the classroom. I want them to leave high school with options for what comes next, because there’s a lot of people who don’t have those options. I want them to go into the world and be able to think critically and express themselves well.
What advice would you give a teacher in their first year at KIPP Camden?
Don’t give up! This work is hard. There are a lot of appealing benefits to working here because we really value our teachers, pay them well and have beautiful facilities—but you have to be willing to do the work. It’s important for people to choose a place they can believe in. And if you’re heart’s in it, nothing else matters.
Melissa Whitaker is a lead ELA teacher at KIPP Lanning Square Middle in Camden, like other educators at KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, she receives at least 300 hours of engaging professional development and personal coaching throughout the school year to continually sharpen her skills.
Interested in joining Melissa and inspiring a love of literature and ideas in our students? Head here to review current opportunities: jobs.kippnj.org