Dominique Young captivated audiences as an 8th grader in a 1999 60 Minutes profile of KIPP. She went on to graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park, and spent time as a professional singer before returning to her roots at KIPP and becoming a teacher for the organization. Seven years later, Dominique is now a seventh grade reading teacher and soon to be Dean at KIPP Infinity in West Harlem. We sat down with Dominique to learn about her transition from KIPP student to KIPP teacher and leader.
What made you decide to return to KIPP NYC as a teacher?
I was working in the corporate world and I hated it. I had always jokingly promised Dave Levin (co-founder of KIPP) that I would go to college, become rich, and give money to KIPP because of everything my education had done for me. After college, I realized that the best way for me to give back to an organization that contributed so much to my life was by giving them my time and energy. This was more meaningful than money.
What do you remember most about your KIPP teachers? How has that influenced you now that you’re the one in the front of the room?
When I was a student, there was always a clear message from teachers – “We are not going anywhere.” I think that is one of the most powerful things I took away from KIPP—This idea that no matter what, no matter what the issue is, we are here for you. Even when you were trying to get under a teacher’s skin, they made it clear, “I’m not going anywhere. There will be consequences, but at the end of the day we are here for you.” The teachers were always there to help me to and through college. That message rang true every single day of my career as a KIPP student, and now I try to show my students the same thing: that I have their backs no matter what. Whether it is something inside of school or something outside of school, whether you’ve disrespected me and we have to do something to repair the relationship, I’m not giving up on you. I’m not going away.
You have a powerful connection with students because you can say, “I sat in your seat and walked in your shoes.” What advice do you have about building relationships with students for someone who did not grow up in New York City and did not attend a school like KIPP?
I think that regardless of where you are from, developing strong relationships with the students is the key lever to students’ and teachers’ success. For me, part of my relationship building stems from growing up in the same neighborhoods as my students. I’ve had a lot of similar experiences, but this commonality is definitely not the only part of me I share. I share my college experience. I speak about my professional experience as a teacher. I share that I am a musician which is a huge part of my life. Students want to hear me sing or watch my videos, and that’s a way I connect with them. These things have nothing to do with where I grew up or where they grew up. I am candid about who I am, allowing a relationship of trust between us to develop.
My advice to teachers is that the kids need to know who you are regardless of where you are from. What are the customs of life where you’re from? What are the things that you love most about your childhood? What’s your favorite kind of music? Share that kind of information with students. Notice the small things about your students’ lives. Notice what makes them unique. Paying close attention and noticing the small things builds bridges and allows students to feel seen, heard, and valued.
After five years teaching at KIPP Infinity, how have you grown in your ability to build relationships with students?
Earlier in my teaching career I leaned heavily on sharing my experiences as a KIPP student and being from the same community. I have learned that there are many other nuanced connections that can foster a strong relationship with my students besides the fact that we share a similar background. I try to learn about each student as an individual so that I have more access points to building bridges. We may relate to the same character in a class novel, or cheer for the same basketball team, or share a special relationship with our grandmother, or enjoy the same food. Being a KIPPster and being from New York City is certainly a huge part of who I am, and it’s a huge part of who our students are. But, we are also much more than that too, and I want to honor all that our students are and all that they aspire to be.
ps: We love that Dominique brings her musical expertise into the classroom as well. Check out her skills along with the KIPP Infinity staff in a parody of “Work” that encourages students to show their work when doing math.