Webmaster’s note: Within the past month, the K-12 education community has been faced with the resignation of high profile DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee resigning and in NYC the appointment of Cathie Black for chancellor in NYC.
By Jude Soto
Please excuse me if this blog post is a bit halting because I am working late tonight, and I am a bit frustrated. My desk has a six inch stack of loose-leaf papers that no amount of paper clips, binder clips, or manila folders can seem to straighten out. Instead of looking like the desk of one of those anonymous yet stern teachers of the Peanuts cartoons (I am still working on sounding like an out-of-tune trumpet), my desk looks like a Nor’easter hit and rained down multi-colored Post It® notes. Mess or no mess, the deadlines are still coming. If the homework isn’t graded promptly, the students won’t have proper feedback; don’t plan a proper lesson for tomorrow, the class will be chaotic. It’s seven at night and if I don’t rush home to call my girlfriend, walk my dog, eat dinner with my widower father, exercise, ring shop, or pay bills, my sanity will the fly out the window.
Now, as Barack Obama says (over and over), “let me be clear,” this blog post is not what you think it is. This is not a blog about my tough life as a teacher, because truth be told, I always wanted to be a teacher, and could probably do plenty of other jobs if teaching were that miserable a profession. Nor is this article the beginning of my autography, because if anyone thinks a biography of a 28-year-old who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Brooklyn and works for the government is interesting, I will personally administer them the shock treatment. No, this article will be about why educrat Michelle Rhee should be one of the last people to lead a nationwide movement to fire so-called ineffective public school teachers.
There is a saying about educators, “Those who can’t teach, do.” To tell the story of former DC School’s Chancellor Michelle Rhee one might have to say “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” If you’re reading this article, you’re probably familiar enough with the spin on her rise, so let me just summarize it for you. She taught for three years in an urban public school as part of Teach for America, formed a successful non-profit organization, and then became the Washington school’s chief. Some might say she’s a hero, but I think she is a quitter.
The revelation that Rhee had as a teacher was that her then-colleagues were to blame for the shortcoming of the American public school system. Her solution has been one of the latest buzz-words thrown about people like Rhee and her political allies (most of them either never taught, or like Rhee, taught for a few years and then quit to teach teachers): teacher accountability.
In the early 1990s, in a shocking incident in a predominantly African-American elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, a teacher who was having difficulty controlling her class proceeded to tape their mouths shut with masking tape. After she had gotten her point across to the students, many of them were bleeding and crying. Years later, the teacher would humorously mention this at a gathering of new teachers, knowing that her words would likely be recorded, and she even threw in an imitation of an African-American accent. The teacher in question was never removed from the system, never suspended, nor did she make the front page of any tabloid. No, after publicly recalling this story, Michelle Rhee remained one of the leading voices against teachers. Yes, the leading voice of the “fire the teachers quickly” movement, in spite of a heinous and possibly racist act, avoided the very ax that she has so devilishly purveyed.
In December 2008, Michelle Rhee appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in a very dramatic photo. She is standing in front of an empty classroom in a dark, Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuit, clutching a broom, staring straight ahead. Taking this magazine out of my dog’s mouth, for a split second, optimist that I am, I became excited about reading a story of how Rhee was demoted to school custodian, but then I noticed that the headline was “How to Fix America’s Schools.” In a similar vein, on the inside, one of the attached photos is of Rhee with that overseer’s glare that she is so known for, staring down a teacher in full, quiet classroom. The message is clear: scare, threaten, and remove the ineffective teacher from the classroom, and things will get better for our children.
In society, what we ask of our teachers, at the very least, is that they be dedicated, be effective, and take care of our children. It is insane to think that someone who never majored in education or attended a student teaching program, taught urban children and then quit after three years, physically harmed them, and joked about harming them, is now the leading figure in the politician and business-led movement to improve the quality of the educational system by firing more of them. Had there been an administrator watching Rhee during the masking tape incident, things might have been different. Rhee would have been fired, possibly arrested, and there would be one less devil in a pantsuit on the cover of Time. But then again, with the luck she has had, she may still have had her head-scratch inducing rise to power.
I would love to tell you more. It would be a pleasure to discuss where the accountability in the school system should really lie. It would be fun to discuss the merits and motives and Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and the leaders of the charter school movement, but my pile of papers beckons to me right now. I will get this work done, and I will take care of my personal business. But if I get drained, and get tired of being that happy teacher who gives students high fives and announces that he loves them at the end of every class, I may have to leave and seek greener pastures. I hear there are some lucrative career options in educational policy.
Jude Soto has been a teacher in a low-income public high school in New York City since 2004. A native New Yorker, Soto has an M.A. in history from Brooklyn College. Outside of the academic world, his pursuits include traveling, weightlifting, and long distance running.