When I read Time Magazine's piece on Michelle Rhee my stomach tightened, I had trouble breathing, and I found myself wondering exactly how long I'll stay in teaching. If this is where the country is headed- if this is going to be our philosophy on education, I'm not sure I can stay in the field.
It took me a bit to put my finger on exactly what bothered me about the article. Outraged at some of her comments on teachers wasting their time on morning meetings I wanted to scream at her about research-based teaching strategies that are proven to work. I wanted to yell about how she doesn't even understand what good, proven teaching is and that she is going to ruin us.
But I realized that all of those little comments reflect what bothers me the most- her attitude toward teachers and the teaching profession. She gives no respect to teachers- and is proud of it. She talks about teachers as though we got into the profession for a cushy job and put no thought into the welfare of our kids. I'm sure when the district messes up the payroll and teachers go yet another month without pay, while working in a building that's falling apart, for a boss who doesn't know anything about the job he or she is overseeing, they are in their career because they are lazy. Or just "nice" as she describes them, as though the word disgusts her.
I know there are bad teachers in DC. Yet so little is in place to make good teachers- and Rhee doesn't seem to be planning on making it better. My own principal has commented that she can make anyone a good teacher- and I believe that. If you work at my school you are given support, guidance, coaching, advice, and the materials you need to do your job. You will work hard, you have to be willing to learn, but you will grow every day to become a better teacher. We have a structure in place to do that- and most of that comes from the respect and trust my principal gives to our staff.
I believe it should be as hard to be a teacher as it is to be a doctor. Yet we need many teachers and the only way to recruit masses of new ones year after year is to either lower standards or to make the job more attractive. Since one of these is more expensive in the short term, well, we know what has happened.
No one is going to read the Time article about Rhee and think, "wow, I really want to be a teacher!" Nothing she says makes anyone want to give up the prospects of a high paying job to go work in the trenches with no respect (I myself found myself thinking about law school once again). She makes those who teach sound like bumbling idiots. Who wants to sign up to be put into that category?
Rhee's off-handed comments about what she sees in her schools (which she mocks in the article) show her lack of knowledge and respect for the profession. Her comment about morning meeting really struck home. We do not do morning meetings for fun. We do not do them because, hey, this is a great way to waste instructional time. Morning meetings are a proven strategy to build community in a classroom, which then encourages children to take academic risks (like, you know, trying to read when they are scared to fail). This strategy is based on developmental psychology and has been studied in depth by many educators. It is a particularly important strategy for students coming from low income families. It allows them to feel safe in school, breaks down barriers, teaches cultural norms, sets high expectations, and allows children a transition time between their chaotic home life and school. Without morning meetings classes are more likely to have behavior problems throughout the day and have students not as engaged in their lessons. Yet Rhee, who does not have a background in education, does not seem to have taken the time to learn the meaning of this method. She walked into a classroom- saw what appeared to be students sitting around "not learning" (they always are- we embed curriculum like crazy in those meetings- I could always give you my SOLs for each meeting) and assumed the teacher was being incompetent.
Another of Rhee's comments was that good teachers are "in a hurry". The educational term is pacing- (Fundamentals of Education 101- if she'd taken an education course). Good pacing is essential to good teaching. It is moving quickly, not leaving any down time, using every opportunity for learning. Yet it is also knowing your children, responding to their needs and altering your instruction based on your on the spot assessments. Teachers who are "in a hurry" rarely take the time to access, re-teach, and re-evaluate. Teachers with good pacing know where they are, move quickly, and aren't afraid to move backward if needed. Rhee probably observed good pacing, yet not knowing what it was now will have all DC teachers wanting to look like they are in a hurry. Not exactly what DC needs.
I had a lot of respect for Rhee, or at least, some respect, before the article. I even wondered if I'd want to teach in DCPS when I decide I'm ready for another challenge. Yet I cannot imagine working under someone so far removed from the reality of day to day, and who has no intention of learning about it.
I would love to see Rhee come visit us. Our school is not far from the district and our population is perhaps even more in need than many DC schools. (My cousin/roommate did TFA in the district for years and was always shocked that my kids seemed so much needier than hers). Rhee should see how my county and my principal nurture teachers, embraces families, and promote good, reflective teaching. I'd be happy to show her our test scores and how we've improved as a school. I'd be happy to talk to her about what makes us dedicated teachers, and what makes us end a lesson and immediately wonder what we could have done better. I really believe that if DC wants to make improvements they need to observe school systems like mine and those around us who are, for the most part, doing this education thing right.