Tuesday, December 02, 2008

“Rhee-rhee-rhee-rhee-spect, just a little bit...”

The latest issue of TIME magazine features on its cover, the bold and allegedly sassy new (well, a year and a half, so she's sorta new) Chancellor of Education for the DC public schools, Michelle Rhee. She's kicking tails, she's taking names, she's whipping teachers into shape who can't teach children to read.

To the extent that there is credence to the story (and for those who care about public education, it is a story worth reading), she also has something to learn herself -- in this case, about civility:

Rhee is, as a rule, far nicer to students than to most adults. In many private encounters with officials, bureaucrats and even fundraisers--who have committed millions of dollars to help her reform the schools--she doesn't smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation...

Some people come to Washington, gaining positions of authority for a short time, under the banner of a "reformer." It often happens, that such a crusade eventually devolves into an excuse for bad behavior and high drama. Sometimes, after a year or two, they determine they've done all the saving (or damage) they can, enough to write a book about it, or hit the high-paying lecture circuit. Or they get a "consulting" job on K Street, where these "outsiders" can continue to mooch off the public trough for years. But until the sun sets on their attention span, they can make you think they can make a difference. Sometimes they do. Not always.

Ms Rhee, if you're reading this, I'll be fair to you (and include the Charlie Rose interview from last July). Some of the teachers under your oversight could use a good scare, to say nothing of a few board members and mid-level administrators. The DC public sector has been a wretched hive of corruption and patronage for years; ask anyone who's ever had to get their license renewed at the District Building. If Johnny can't read by the time he graduates from high school, it may be because his parents can't read, but that didn't always stop immigrants to this country, and it shouldn't have to stop Johnny.

Real leaders do so by example, not by making spectacles of themselves. To put it another way, your challenge is to show them how an educated person is supposed to act. They, in turn, are better positioned to show students how an educated person is supposed to act. This goes a long way towards students becoming educated at all. On the other hand, what if you offend a few good teachers in the process? They might decide after spending out of their own pockets for pencils and notepads, that they've taken enough $#!† from everybody else over the years, and Madame Chancellor can find herself someone else to blame. In the end, your legacy would be a stern-looking face on the cover of a newsmagazine, and little else. So put down the Blackberry for a minute, cut back on the caffeine, and start acting with half the class you expect from everybody else (including those who have even less than you). You think you have all the answers? Try asking the right questions first, while there's still time. And remember, all those losers posing as educators know how to outlast the latest bureaucratic diva. They may not know much, but they know that.

Rhee is aware of the criticism, but she suggests that a certain ruthlessness is required. "Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable," she says. "But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?"

If you have to ask, would any explanation matter?

For those in the rank and file who want reform as badly as you do, it is not just inconvenient to be lumped in with the riff-raff, it is infuriating. You only make their job more difficult. And unless you plan on taking over for all of them, you need the good teachers more than you do a pair of BlackBerries. (The story mentions her being known to carry two of them. Really.)

Who knows, one day you might thank me for this sage advice. Not that I'm anybody important, really; just a guy who's seen upstarts like you come and go in the Nation's capital for nearly thirty years. Any number of political prima donnas ride into town, shoot first and maybe ask questions later, or otherwise make a lot of noise, and then leave after twelve or eighteen months, never having to live with most of the decisions they make. I'm also a guy who had to watch his son go through a neighboring public school system. If you play your cards right, the difference you're already making (and we're not arguing with success here) could still be in place after you leave for greener pastures. That's the part they don't write about, but it's the part that really matters, because it's the part that doesn't always happen. Your attitude will determine whether or not it does.

So you see, you learned something new today. And isn't learning something the whole damn point of you being here?

Class dismissed.

(COVER PHOTO: Robyn Twomey for TIME. Used without permission or shame.)

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