It’s been more than 2,500 days since Philly teacher Klint Kanopka missed work. It’s a unlikely streak from an unlikely educator.
On May 30, 1982 Hall of Famer baseball player Cal Ripken Jr. played third base with the Baltimore Orioles in a 6-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, thus beginning an unrivaled streak of 2,632 consecutive games played.
Philadelphia physics teacher Klint Kanopka has been nearly as durable, except that his origin story is a lot more interesting.
It begins in a dented Ford touring van parked outside the Knitting Factory, a prominent Brooklyn night club. It was there where Kanopka, seething and alone, tapped out a job application on his cell phone.
“I’m just like screw this. I can’t do it anymore,” Kanopka said. “I’m gonna become a teacher.”
Moments earlier Kanopka — a bass guitar player in the now-dissolved punk rock outfit Reign Supreme — had nearly come to blows with the band’s drummer. This was at the tail end of a hellish tour marked by small crowds and big arguments.
Kanopka wanted out.
“I sat in the van, pouted like a little baby, and filled out the application,” he said.
After a brief pit stop at a middle school for students seeking credit recovery, Kanopka began teaching physics at Academy at Palumbo, a magnet high school in South Philadelphia.
He has never missed a day of work. As of March 3, he’d gone 2575 days — the equivalent of about seven years — without taking a single day off.
Remarkably that is only the fourth-longest streak in the School District of Philadelphia. The current record is 3,782 days, or a little over 10 years. (The champ, we’re told, was too bashful for an interview.) But Kanopka is among Philadelphia’s educational iron men, sitting on a streak that puts him in the top .05 percent of district teachers.
It’s an odd distinction for a guy who entered teaching in a fit of rage. But at this point, Kanopka — whose reaction to the streak when told of it amounted to a verbal shrug — figures he might as well keep showing up.
“At this point it’s just like, better be a darn good reason if I’m not gonna show up,” he said.
When he was young, Kanopka had no intention of becoming a teacher. He hated school, to the extent he’s never returned to his high school precisely because he so disliked it.
While studying physics at Drexel University he dreamt of becoming an academic. After graduation that evolved into a music career. Kanopka and the band would tour about nine months of the year. The other three months he picked up odd jobs, one of which was a tutoring gig at a nonprofit called the Educational Advancement Alliance. (Founded by former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, the EAA would later play a key role in the scandal that torpedoed Fattah’s career.)
Kanopka got a kick out of teaching math and science to kids. By the time tensions boiled over with his band, he’d already mulled the idea of becoming a full-time teacher. After the near-fistfight in Brooklyn, Kanopka’s mind was made up.
He fast-tracked into the classroom thanks to a now-defunct teaching fellowship.
His first day on the job did not portend a long, uninterrupted career.
The way Kanopka tells it, the principal at his first school berated him on day one for having a pot of coffee in the classroom. The kids stared at him like he was an alien. And by the afternoon he found himself sitting alone in a parked car “staring off into the middle distance being like, what did I get myself into? How can I survive this?”
But survive he did.
At Palumbo he became the school’s AP Physics teacher, helped found the robotics club, and signed up to co-coach the debate team. Kanopka does not look the part of classroom teacher. His beard is Brooklyn bushy and he has tattoos covering nearly every inch of his body (save the lower stomach and a small chunk of his right leg, he said.
Ask him about physics, though, and it’s easy to see why he’s stuck as a teacher. Kanopka loves the discipline. And he hates that so many students seem intimidated by it. physics, after all, is embedded in every part of our human experience. It’s intuitive. It connects to the way kids interact with the world.
“How many kids have opened up a cell and looked inside of a cell and been like, ‘Oh yeah here’s the mitochondria I can see them passing things through sodium channels?’ No! Nobody does that. It makes no sense,” he said. “Every kid has been like, ‘Oh if I throw this thing at this angle it goes farther. And if I throw it straight ahead it doesn’t go as far.'”
Kanopka partly attributes his streak to a genuine passion for teaching. He calls it “the best fake job in the world.”
“I show up. I make a pot of coffee. I hang out with a bunch of real weird kids all day long,” he said.
But lots of people like their jobs. When asked why he’s never missed a day, Kanopka offers a more practical explanation: Taking time off as a teacher kind of sucks.
“Trying to set everything up for a sub and making sure kids actually learn stuff and do stuff is so much more work than actually popping those Alka Seltzer cold and flu things and just propping yourself up through coffee,” he said.
Kanopka — whose candor apparently hasn’t ebbed since his punk rock days —does not think teaching is always sunshine and rainbows. There’s too much paperwork. And he doesn’t always feel he gets the support he needs. Since physics isn’t one of the tested subjects, he said, administrators tend to leave him be. It’s a blessing and curse.
But those nagging negatives don’t outweigh the joy. Even when it might be a heck of a lot easier to take a breather, he’s shown up.
Take the time his band — which reunited briefly — did a handful of weekend tour dates in Canada.
To make it work, the van picked Kanopka directly from school on a Friday and hustled up to the Ottawa suburbs for a music festival date. Sunday night, Kanopka showered in “some Canadian’s house” and slept in the van as it voyaged south.
His bandmates dropped him at the schoolhouse door on Monday morning and he scooted back inside just before the opening bell rang.
“That was single-handedly the absolute worst,” he said.
Though Kanopka isn’t planning any extended vacations, he also doesn’t intend to break Philly’s consecutive-days record.
In late May, if all goes as planned, he will take his first ever personal day.
The reason? He pledged one of his first ever students he’d attend her college graduation in person and will miss a day as part of the trip.
“[It’s] way more important than keeping up a streak,” he said.