I received an email from a teacher who resigned her job at Success Academy. She was very unhappy. She wanted to explain why she couldn’t stay. Like everyone who leaves Success Academy, she requested anonymity. I get these emails from time to time. Occasionally, I meet with the unhappy young people (both women and men). They sound like people leaving a cult. Even after they have left, they still refer to five-year-old children as “scholars.” When they start calling them children, I will know that they are completely de-programmed.
This young woman writes:
I left my job at Success Academy because I couldn’t, in good conscience, be the teacher they wanted me to be. I have a lot of trouble writing and talking about my experience with Success because it truly makes me ill. Thinking about the way teachers spoke to children, with such disgust in their voices, makes my stomach churn. Thinking about the way my leaders spoke to me, with that same disgust, leaves me feeling just as sick.
I was immediately targeted by the leaders at my school for being too soft. I didn’t deliver consequences enough, and I didn’t hold high enough expectations of my four and five-year-olds. I couldn’t get them to walk in two silent, straight, militaristic lines with bubbles in their mouths and their hands glued to their sides. I wasn’t “aggressively scanning” for “defiant” children on the carpet—that is, children not sitting on their bottoms with their backs tall and their hands locked in their laps. I owned up to all of this with my leaders. I admitted to them that I have a hard time with holding such young children to such high expectations. And to build off of that, I found it simply wrong to hold every single scholar to the exact same expectations. You can’t give a fish and a bird the same task and expect the same results.
But that’s precisely what Success does. They don’t care what the circumstances are: you will stand like a soldier, you will sit with a bubble in your mouth and your hands locked, you will do all of your work neatly and silently, you will “silent laugh” and “silent cheer” when you find things funny or exciting, you will transition from your seats to the carpet “swiftly, safely, and silently,” and if you don’t, you’ll do it again until it’s perfect, even if that means missing recess or blocks time. My biggest mistake was admitting to my leaders that I found this system to be too harsh. The moment you speak out at Success, they come after you. They call it a “mindset” issue. They threatened to put me on a performance plan without giving me any examples of what I was doing wrong, instead simply berating me for these same issues week after week until I would slowly break and obey them. I worked tirelessly to please my leaders. I had never quit a job before, and am an incredibly hard worker, so I was determined to make this work. I wrote long reflections on my days and reached out to veteran teachers for help. I was quickly reprimanded for this as well, though, being told that if I needed help, I should just go to leadership—that I should never make my struggle apparent, or talk about it with anyone at school. This is all part of keeping up the facade of Success. The bright classrooms, the stunning bulletin boards, the perfect posture — everything must look perfect. It all boils down to the same principle: these people care about the wrong things. They feel the constant need to prove themselves through their appearance and their high scores, and in turn they don’t allow for any of the genuine elements of childhood and education to take place in their buildings.
I spent much of my time at school crying in the bathroom and the stairwell. I cried from the emotional harassment I faced from my leaders, I cried from simply watching my scholars go through such grueling days and intense ridicule, and I cried because I was exhausted, stressed, and anxious, constantly feeling like I wasn’t enough and that I couldn’t be enough. When I helped my own scholars work through their tears, I would often ask them what they were feeling, and they would say “scared.” They told me they were scared to come to school. I was, too. We all entered that building each morning in fear. This all being said, scholars at my school smiled. There are happy children at Success. When they do well academically, or when they get a prize or a “time-in” for their success, they smile. When they do have recess, they laugh audibly and smile. But the fear, anger, and sadness deeply overshadows these small instances of joy. You can’t structure joy. But leave it to SA to try.