Interviews November 2008

Crusader of the Classrooms

Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the D.C. public school system, talks about her career path, what makes a good teacher, and her efforts to transform a struggling school district

Do you feel that having prior teaching experience is, or should be, a prerequisite for being an effective district leader or education policy maker?

Not necessarily, no. I think Joel Klein and Mike Bennet and Arne Duncan are some of the best superintendents around, and they were never teachers. 

Ok. One thing that I did want to get into is that teaching tends to be a fairly limited profession in terms of advancement opportunities. But a lot of young college graduates want their careers to be on a trajectory that will keep moving up. It’s something that I definitely confronted and that some of my younger colleagues confronted when we considered leaving teaching. Is there a way teaching can allow for career growth, without assuming that growth means becoming an administrator?

I think there are a lot of ways. There have been programs across the country piloted to show how teachers can take on more responsibility within their own schools. Without moving out of the classroom you can become a mentor teacher to new teachers coming in, you can take increasing responsibilities with extracurricular activities, serve on school improvement teams and that sort of thing. You can take a free period off to direct a particular project in the school. So I think there are various ways that we can actually continue to push teachers to develop their skills outside of the curriculum and the classroom—to give them the sense that they’re learning and gaining new skills.

I guess the downside of that might be that a lot of times it seems like we take the best teachers out of the classroom, with top teachers being tapped to become administrators. Why do you feel like there is that assumption that a good teacher will make a good administrator?

I think that’s the case in any profession. When I was running The New Teacher Project, when we wanted to promote we always promoted from within, and we looked at the best site managers to make them partners and that sort of thing. So that idea is not specific to teaching and education. Any field that you go into, you take the best people who are at the lower rungs and you develop them and promote them up.

I hear a lot of talk among reformers about how teaching should be a “prestige profession” like law or medicine. What are the obstacles that you think may be preventing teaching from having that status, beyond the obvious differences in compensation?

I think that as long as we have a profession that does not at all differentiate people by what they’re producing, whether it’s through compensation or evaluation or certification, then we’re never going to be a profession like medicine or law. That’s the bottom line. You know, anybody can become tenured. And everybody does become tenured. There’s no aura of selectivity—there’s no gate that you have to pass through.

Pop culture portrayals of urban teaching often have this kind of teacher-as-martyr archetype. What do you make of movies like Freedom Writers, for example, or the 4th season of The Wire, which focuses on the Baltimore public schools?

I don’t watch any TV, I don’t watch movies, so you’re asking the wrong person. I used to watch a lot of TV, but…

What about older movies like Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver, or any of those portrayals of teaching as …

I haven’t seen any of those.

Really?

Sad little life I lead, don’t I?

Well, for example, when I was teaching, I taught high school, and I remember my students coming in after seeing Freedom Writers over the weekend and saying things like, “Hey Ms. Brown, would you give up your marriage for us?”

Hah, did she get divorced because of…?

I suppose so; I never actually saw it, either! Do you think that those kinds of portrayals of teachers are helpful, unhelpful, realistic?

Not having seen them I can’t really comment so much. But what I would say is exactly what I said to you before which is, people look at me, and they say a normal person couldn’t keep up this pace, or, you’re expecting all teachers to do what you’re doing, and that’s just not possible, and I disagree with that. I think that you can have a life, you can have work-life balance—you can have all of those things and be an effective teacher if you’re really clear on what your outcomes are and you use your time well.

Along similar lines, earlier this year, The Atlantic published an essay by the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who is a public school mom in the Bay Area. She jokes that Pfizer should develop a special antidepressant—“Zokol: for when you’ve read too much Jonathan Kozol,” implying that focusing so much attention on what’s wrong with inner city schools and the achievement gap and so on can distract people from things that are working and improving. Do you think that’s the case?

Um, no. I do think it’s always good to point out the positive things that are going on—to highlight the bright lights, particularly in a dismal system. That said, I think that often falls into people trying to sugarcoat things. Whether it’s district leaders or principals or whoever, just sort of trying to put on the dog-and-pony show, when in fact, things still suck. For example, we saw a huge gain in test scores this past year, larger than the four previous years all put together, and it was important for us to say, “Yes, that’s great and wonderful, but, at the same time, two-thirds of our kids still aren’t on grade level at the secondary level. And that’s a shame.” So we can never forget or stop pounding home the realities about the significant challenges we’re facing at the end of the day. When all is said and done, that’s what really matters.

One thing that I’ve encountered personally in talking to a lot of veteran teachers is this idea that programs like Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows de-professionalize education. They see it as a kind of glorified internship.

I’ll tell you what de-professionalizes education. It’s when we have people sitting in the classrooms—whether they’re certified or not, whether they’ve taught for two months or 22 years—that are not teaching kids. And whom we cannot remove from the classroom, and whom parents know are not good. Those are the things that de-professionalize the teaching corp. Not Teach for America, not D.C. Teaching Fellows. That, I think, is a ridiculous argument.

Do you think that teacher prep programs—traditional ones, like what you see in schools of education, are even necessary? Or maybe just elements of them, like student teaching?

I wouldn’t say I think they’re necessary, though I think it’s fine to have programs like that. It’s also fine to have faster tracks, like Teach for America or The New Teacher Project. I’m much less concerned with the front-end pieces and much more concerned with ensuring that we have effective teachers in the classroom and being able to measure that in a meaningful way, early on in someone’s career.

One of the other concerns I’ve heard voiced about alternative selection models is that the teachers aren’t making a thirty-year, or even a ten-year commitment.

Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college, that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.

So you feel like teachers can be effective even within a short term?

Absolutely, and I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.

What frustrated you, when you were teaching in Baltimore? Were there ever any instances, for example, when a reform or an initiative was handed down from above and you felt it didn’t address what was really needed in the classroom?

No, but I know a lot of my colleagues felt that way when I was teaching. I taught in a school that had been taken over by a private company and I know a lot of teachers in the building didn’t like the program. They saw it as just the next thing they were being made do. I was much more open-minded—I went to all the professional development, paid attention, tried to implement those things and thought that they were extraordinarily helpful. I ended up being very successful — I think it was partly by virtue of me not knowing much, and not being jaded by how many initiatives had come before.

You’ve spoken about raising your students’ achievement to the levels you did while you were teaching. Would you say that was your greatest success as a classroom teacher?

Yeah.

And what about your greatest struggle or your greatest frustration?

Oh, my first year teaching I was awful. I was bad.

Any specifics?

I don’t know what the student achievement levels were like, I don’t know…I mean, I know I struggled with classroom management—I did not do right by those kids my first year.

Are you still in touch with any of your students?

One lives in my basement as a matter of fact.

Really? Going to college? Would they be that old?

Yes, she’s twenty.

So you keep an eye on her, give her books to read?

Ha. Yeah. 

You’ve spoken about remaining with the District as long as Mayor Fenty is in office. Where would you go from there? What do you see for yourself beyond that point?

I have no idea. I haven’t given it a moment’s thought.

Have you ever thought about returning to the classroom?

(Laughs.) No, I have not.

Rachael Brown is an Atlantic staff editor.
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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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