The Quitter Who Leads Us: A Teacher’s Take on Michelle Rhee

November 15th, 2010 · 12 Comments

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.

Tags: African-Americans · Barack Obama · Education

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tony Herrera // Nov 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Michelle Rhee reminds me of an Asian grade school teacher I once had and unless I’m mistaken her name was Ms. Kawagima.

    Ms. Kawagima had a volatile temper and she could explode at any given moment, unleashing a verbal assault onto her poor unsuspecting students.

    This so called “teacher” once became so upset at the fact that I had sharpened my pencil on both ends. She must have felt it as was proper to scold me for that transgression and as she stood over me repeatedly stating how stupid it was for me to sharpen a pencil at both ends. While she stood behind me, she took my wrist and forcefully motioned my hand towards my face while stating “this is why we don’t sharpen pencils on both ends”..while the pencil came dangerously near my eye.

    It’s been some some 4 decades since I attended school grade and it took this post on one lousy educator, Michelle Rhee to make me remember another long forgotten lousy educator, Ms. Kawagima.

  • 2 chalan // Nov 16, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Michelle Rhee will surface again some where at a higher salary with much fanfare as a saviour. The end results will be the same; questionable successes, lots of fanfare for herself and then a resignation when people began to question the smell in the room. Teacher prep programs need to re-evaluate how they are running their programs, school districts need to require continued training for hired teachers, unions need to join the fight to better train and improving the standards of the teaching and learning and not just protecting their turf, parents need to become more involved and demanding in the education of their children AND unions and politicians need to stop politicizing education.

  • 3 Paul Garza // Nov 16, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Thank your for this revelatory and thoughtful piece. I wish this appeared in Time. We can only hope.

    I do believe in teacher accountability but I think it must be measured and toned.

    I think charter school can be helpful to our system if they provide true alternatives for our students and not just become ‘academies’ that pick the winners. I have seen too much of this in Latino communities. Our community has a lot of winners – we just aren’t helping the other half get what they need. Why don’t charter schools focus on the children that aren’t successful in regular schools rather than cherry picking those with highly motivated parents?

  • 4 Southern Cali // Nov 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Bravo Jude Soto for your voice. All you said is true. Memories came flooding back of my Mom, a retired school teacher, who worked 30 years before escaping the K-12 educational system. It began deconstructing in the early 1980s. But its worse now because they have leaders who come up with glitzy policy phrases, who haven’t a clue how to teach and I believe never really cared to do so.

    Good luck Garza with the charter schools. They don’t pay their teachers (ex. Los Angeles, Memphis, Baltimore, Chicago). Friend of mine worked in a LA Unified charter school and did not receive pay for the last six months of the 2009-2010 school year. She asked to return to the traditional LA school setting. Why? When she agreed to transfer to the charter school she was told the door remained open for her return. Oh well, the superintendent furlowed LA teachers and cut positions. Even if LA traditional schools had a position available, she discovered her three years service in the LA charter school would not count towards retirement. What did she do? Exactly what Soto or my Mother would or my friend did–kept teaching the kids for free so they could complete the school year and move to the next year of schooling.

    Since 1989 school systems hire the politically correct curb appeal leader of the day. Currently, you hire someone to lead with some media savvy, little documented teaching experience and no management skills. And its little chance you can accurately access their effectiveness when they are move around every three years. That is the tenure of Rhee and her compatriots. Why? It takes that short time before they….

    ….Run The Budget in the Red (actually purple is the new color) Snipe, Snipe, Snipe Teacher Jobs while Increasing Classloads. My sister and other teachers in Georgia today found out that instead of receiving her December paychecks on time. They will receive them two weeks late. For additional holiday cheer they announced today also that they will furlow them (days you don’t work and without pay) for an additional two more days this calendar year. Total decrease in paycheck for the year 15% before taxes. Well you don’t have to look to the south for enormous class sizes. Go to San Bernardino where the average classload is 40 to 45 children in kindergarten.

    In my own awkward way I am saying that there are Rhee’s throughout the U.S. who haven’t a clue or commitment to educating our people. And they travel from state to state like con artist destroying our children and its hope for a better life.

  • 5 Richty // Nov 17, 2010 at 6:10 am

    “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

    haha, agreed.

  • 6 Morton Liebowitz // Nov 17, 2010 at 7:19 am

    I think it is important for people like Michelle Rhee to wind up in the administration of the public school system. If she was a good teacher, she would still be teaching, and then where would the District of Columbia’s school system be?

    If you look at the best school systems in the country (according to Parenting magazine) you will see a few commonalities between the best school systems and their leadership:

    1. Spokane, Wa – Susan Chapin (President)
    She is currently employed by as the Infection Control Coordinator at Sacred Heart Medical Center. She has been a RN for nearly 30 years and manages to run the best school system in the country while only working part time. Her knowledge of education: Had 2 children in the system and she herself was a product of their school system.

    2. Lexington, KY – John Price (Chairman)
    Mr. Price is the president of Price, Stagner and Co. His career was spent as a CPA. Educational Background: volunteered with the district’s Experience?Based Career Education program, also was a PTA member and eventually president. (note: Superintendent Dr. Stu Silberman was an educator for 37 years)

    3.Boston, Ma. – Dr. Carol R. Johnson (Superintendent). Yes, she was a teacher, principal and district administrator. However the Chairman of the School Board is Rev. Gregory G. Groover, Sr., D.Min. Being a pastor has been his only profession.

    4.Louisville, Ky – Dr. Sheldon H. Berman (Superintendent). He was founder and President of Educators for Social Responsibility. He then became the head of the Hudson School District, than the Jefferson County School District. He was a Harvard Grad.

    5. Charlotte, NC – Chairman Eric C. Davis. He was an engineer / graduate of West Point and he has also served as chair of the City of Charlotte Privatization/Competition Advisory Committee. Who better to lead a Public School system? Now I must add that Superintendent Dr. Peter C. Gorman has been a teacher, principal and district admin. He also holds an MBA.

    Within the top school districts the board of education directors come from private industry backgrounds with a few sprinklings of good old fashioned educators. The reality we must face is that educators running education is a dying trend. More and more privateers will be taking over school districts and dare I say improving them. There is a direct trend (which I did not go into) between amount of money spent on public education and the education being received. In Lexington, Ky – a relatively poor school district – education is a top priority and the students reap the rewards. It is Price who ascertained those funds and the education improved.

    Let teachers stick to teaching, and let business savvy, politically appointed, private minded individuals run the school systems. It is a balance that is ultimately better for the children.

    – Morton Liebowitz

  • 7 Richty // Nov 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    We probably need a balance between someone who is good with management and someone who has actual experience in the education system.

  • 8 Paolo Jimenez // Nov 18, 2010 at 10:19 am

    I’m actually wondering why there isn’t more attention being paid to her negative educational experience. It has been mentioned that she does not have educational experience, but the above mentioned story, that she was only a teacher for a short-time, that she taped the mouths of her students, and that she made fun of their “black” accent, should be mentioned more in the media. If it was anyone else accused of such an act, I’m sure they would be fired instantly(think Imus). But for some reason, she gets a pass AND a promotion? How strange!

  • 9 Paolo Jimenez // Nov 18, 2010 at 10:21 am

    And one more thing: I do believe putting tape over student’s mouths is grounds for placement in the Rubber Room. So she should probably do her time in the Rubber Room before accepting her promotion, that would be fair!

  • 10 Jorge // Nov 19, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Schools can only get worse in the future

  • 11 Paolo Jimenez // Nov 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

    We don’t want to take the attitude that schools are just going to keep getting worse, although the future seems much like the present. I think it would be better to view this as something that can be fixed in the future. Different waves of political ideology surface all the time and sometimes these new ideas enter into the realm of education. Changes can be made to the system, but if these changes really don’t work, eventually they will probably be exposed. With time, things might go back the other way, and they might start to hire former teachers or principals to run the school system. At the moment, it looks like more of a business model is being used, and one that is full of people who are not familiar with education. But elections are every four years, so its better to stay positive.

  • 12 Juan D. // Nov 22, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    It appears as though there have been more articles related to her in the news lately. None have mentioned what you mentioned as to her experience taping children’s mouths shut. But they have mentioned that she took money from coca cola while running a school and some other negative stuff. Too bad that Opera came out for her defense, Opera tends to hold a lot of weight with people.

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