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The Fire This Time

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Chloe Kannan

Chloe Kannan

Chloe Kannan likes to get outside of her comfort zone. Following an “upper middle class” upbringing in an Atlanta suburb, she took courses in sociology of education at the University of Michigan and worked with children in Detroit.

“I learned a lot about students who are growing up in poverty and what their schooling and curriculum is like,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is not fair.’”

When a Teach for America recruitment director convinced her to first “put out the fire next door” instead of working overseas through the Peace Corps, Kannan asked TFA to send her to the Mississippi Delta.

“The Delta was my number one choice because it was so high-need,” Kannan says. “It has the lowest literacy rates in the United States and the highest teen pregnancy rates, as well as high rates of rural poverty.”

After spending a year teaching seventh and eighth grade reading, Kannan was recruited by her principal to help turn around another Delta middle school where there had been 65 fights during the past year. She agreed, with some trepidation, becoming the school’s ELA department head while teaching junior high reading and language.

The turnaround succeeded, and Kannan decided she’d found her calling. “We improved everything from discipline to school culture to school climate,” she recalls. “And I realized that my principal was really critical in turning around the school. I watched her really love those kids and just put everything on the line on behalf of her teachers and her kids. So I’m hoping, within the next five to ten years, that that’s the final goal for me. I think I’m going to end up being a school leader for a really, really long time.”

To prepare for that life, Kannan has enrolled in SPA NOLA, where she says her single biggest take-away has been learning to make each administrative decision based on what it accomplishes for her students. 

“Anybody can balance a budget, anybody can learn Excel, but SPA pushes you outside your boundaries to say, ‘All right, in this given situation, what are you going to do? Are you going to take a risk, or are you going to play it safe and not do what’s best for kids?’”

Kannan says that applying that criteria has made decision-making much simpler.  For example, at the Delta schools she’s worked in, many English teachers don’t bother teaching writing because writing isn’t a focus of the state tests.

“They give the kids multiple choice grammar questions and that’s it,” Kannan says. “The idea of a child not writing for an entire school year is so scary.”

To change that picture, Kannan, after her first summer at SPA NOLA, is continuing to give her own students writing assignment. As the ELA department head, she’s sending a clear message to her colleagues about what she views as appropriate, district requirements notwithstanding.

“I don’t care if the district is saying, don’t do this,” she says. “I’m going to do it because I know that’s what’s best for kids, and that’s what’s going to help them achieve their life’s dreams. Luckily my principal supports my instructional initiative.”

Meanwhile, Kannan hasn’t forgotten about the fires burning further away. After she finishes up at SPA NOLA this coming summer, she will take up new duties as a sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher in the American School in Bombay, India.  The choice was not a random one for her – Kannan’s father is from India – but she also believes there are lessons to be learned abroad that can ultimately be applied back home.

“The more perspective you have, the better decisions you make on behalf of kids,” she says. “In five to seven years when I come back to run a school, I want to know what excellence looks like. I don’t want to have this idea based on my own high school experience. I want to say, ‘This is what was great, and we can take this back and give this to kids in poverty.’”

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