Since 2009, Chrystal Griffin has been a force at KIPP, making sure students have every skill they need to lead a life of choice and opportunity. She understood that this requires having high expectations for students and then marrying it with strong relationships that enable students to forge critical alliances with teachers. Even when she was the school’s reading teacher, Chrystal was viewed as a leader by her students and her peers — a passionate coach, mentor, and colleague who always puts her kids first. As she leads the STAR community, she strives to provide students with the blueprint to success, enabling them to be self-sufficient learners that can navigate and analyze the world around them. We took the A train up to Harlem to speak with her about her vision for KIPP STAR and what makes a great teacher at KIPP.

Chrystal Griffin

As a KIPP veteran, what do you think makes KIPP KIPP?

I think what makes KIPP, KIPP is that we believe in building a student’s character so that they can leverage that to be successful academically. But then also, we believe that things like being nice are important, right? It sounds so simplistic as you become an adult. We all get captured by cynicism, but it’s just so nice to be at a place where you literally can say to someone, “Let’s be nice.” I think it’s just those very simple, yet permeating ideas, that make KIPP what it is.

How do those ideas come to life at KIPP STAR?

We are so completely dedicated to a 360-degree development of our kids, so that means thinking about social and emotional needs. That means thinking about character development in a dynamic way. We’ve really taken our time to think through our processes about how students can be meaningfully included so that they feel ownership of this process. So one such thing would be our social contract. Students literally come up with tenets that they want to live by. “We want to be respectful, we want to have integrity, we want to have healthy communication.” And its posted in every single teacher’s room. And teachers then use that language to loop kids in to the importance and the “why” of what we’re doing. It’s that kind of work that really empowers students to live a life of opportunity and choice, which are our two main goals.

And there’s the academic fortifying that we do, but we know that all of that doesn’t exist unless kids really feel like there is some sort of an alliance. And it’s that ownership work that I spoke of that helps to build that alliance so that when kids get in class they’re saying: “I want to read the hard book.”

What makes a great KIPP teacher?

A great KIPP teacher is an out-of-the-box thinker. They can see a challenge and unpack it. It’s the teacher where you walk in the room and there is a buzz, and kids are super excited. The KIPP teacher is someone who’s fiercely dedicated to students and families. A great teacher understands that an alliance really needs to be formed among themselves and their families and their students. An alliance is a special pact that you make with someone in which you tell them “Yes, I am asking you to do something, but I am here to do it with you.” I think that’s the thing that makes our kids excited to come back year after year to visit us when they’ve gone to high school and college. It’s because we have those alliances and they know that they can rely on us, and they know that we’re going to push them and support them to get whatever they need.

I think a KIPP teacher’s also a self-starter. So someone who can go into a situation and really own it. They’re not necessarily looking for fierce direction. I mean, yes, we provide our teachers with the tools to be able to succeed in whatever they’re doing, but the KIPP teacher is someone who can come in and just be like, “Cool, I see it already. I know what I want to do. I’m going to get the resources together to do it. I’m going to leverage my team and family to be as successful as I can.”

What are the most joyful things about your work?

I just love our kids so much. The ability to be so creative with them and to leverage their energy and catapult off of their energy… that ignites my work. It’s super exciting to see the innovation that our teachers do. It’s phenomenal. We had one of our eighth grade classes this year, when they were reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” they flipped their classroom and turned it into a courtroom, which is ridiculous. I never thought … I’ve taught that book like 10 times, never thought to do that.

Seeing students really take a grasp of their education and just say, “This is mine, and I’m passionate about it” and be so excited to communicate to you about it. I’ve had so many kids run to me and be like “We made soap today in science, and so what I learned is …” There’s nothing like it.