In my recent foray into the field of education, I am doing the best I can to listen to as many great teachers talk about their journeys in education as well as read as many books and articles as I can on how to be an effective educator. One book I found on the bookshelf of the rather vacant education section of the Mission Valley Barnes and Noble in San Diego is called “The Bee Eater” by Richard Whitmire.
While I would not consider this to be top writing, it gets the job done and the subject is quite fascinating: Michelle Rhee.
For those who may not know, Michelle Rhee was the Chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public School System, one of the worst school districts in the United States. Appointed by D.C. Mayor, Adrian Fenty, Rhee took over the helm of this school system at 37 years old, without any prior high-profile school administrative experience. Yet, this Teach for America alumni had one mission: to fix the D.C. school system from the inside out by hiring great teachers and removing those teachers who were not producing necessary results. While Rhee had a great many supporters, she made just as many enemies.
This in itself could settle for a blog post, but I want to focus on another aspect of Rhee’s career: her early career teaching.
The book does a great job giving the reader little more than a bird’s eye view on the first days of Rhee’s career. Unbeknownst to most people, Rhee was actually advised to give up a career in teaching after she was first observed handling a classroom. Later, we read how, after heading home for a break, Rhee’s father stepped in to push her to head back to her chosen profession, no matter how hard the task.
Yet, it was in these moments where Rhee’s toughness and perpetual pursuit of excellence was refined. While Rhee was always somewhat of an over-achiever, her first teaching experience in the inner-city of Baltimore, Maryland was the first time she had ever failed at anything. This was her first experience in giving everything she had to give, yet coming up short. However, Rhee never gave up. As a matter of fact, Rhee pushed harder.
Some great excerpts from the book:
“After the first year was over, the roommates all agreed they needed a break and took off for a cross country trip to the West Coast. Except Rhee. ‘Michelle stayed back, working nonstop over the summer, preparing for the next year. I remember her sitting on the floor with a pile of things to do, trying to build a learning center with manipulatives,’ says [Rosemary] Ricci… If the children weren’t behaving and weren’t learning – if they were being disrespectful – Rhee blamed herself… The fear of failure was there but more terrifying to Rhee was the fear of never becoming a successful teacher” (The Bee Eater, 31).
Michelle Rhee was a hard worker who never gave up. From the her first role as a teacher to her role as Chancellor to her current as founder and CEO of Student’s First, the national organization working for education reform.
No matter what you may think of Michelle Rhee, her philosophy or her politics, we can all take a lesson from her when it comes to the perpetual pursuit of excellence for the betterment of our students.