January 10, 2013

And My Limousines Are Black

Watching Frontline's interview with/expose on Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chancellor, education reformer, and "educator," helped me to see just how lucky I am to work with and research actual educators. Unlike them, Rhee did not study education in college, nor does she have any advanced degree in education. She was spawned by Teach for America, given the very brief training that organization provides, and then taught in the "worst" school in Baltimore. As is typical of TFA graduates, she spent only three years in the classroom, but used the experience to leverage something better for herself -- an educational consulting firm/Michelle Rhee professional networking organization. Which led to her job as chancellor. How 'bout them apples.

In the interview, Rhee refers to the 2nd grade students she taught, briefly, in Baltimore as "my kids," a sentiment that any actual educator who has spent some time in the field knows is usually a new teacher's mask for insecurity. She also became infamous for a classroom episode where she, in a straight up act of aggression, killed and ate an annoying bee in front of her class of seven-year-olds. She could not, after all, swat and swallow the annoying and unruly students in this urban elementary school.

Rhee presents herself as being compelling because she is a lonely warrior in a fight for student success. Of course the only thing compelling about this is that Rhee repeats the mantra so often you start to think she is simply hypnotizing herself into believing her motivations are good.  Or worse -- that she is trying, perhaps, to wrestle some deep anger into a positive sales slogan. Because again, its not like she could kill and eat those pesky "urban" kids.

But the thing I found most fascinating about her self-presentation is how removed it was from the actual experience of being an educator, particularly in an urban school. Setting aside what one thinks the core function of a school is for a moment, one thing most urban educators do share is the experience of having to be many selves in many situations to many people. And this is done in a manner entirely unlike the self-shifting one has to engage in in a corporate setting. This is done in a work environment where the actors are relatively powerless and not rewarded well, and where the subjects they have to respond to are not present by choice and range in age, developmental level, skills, etc.

And yet there these teachers are, morphing themselves on any given day into social workers, disciplinarians, narcs, protectors, legal counsel, sex educators, emergency workers, advisers and guides, resource managers, stand-in parents, what have you. The strength it takes to be that flexible and responsive is not easy to comprehend, and is not generally respected by leaders like Rhee who pin their personal success on having a very fixed self-identity.

The Rhee interview also made me think of another interview, one with a surviving first-grade teacher from Sandy Hook, who struggled after the fact with the professionalism of her decision to tell all the children she had hidden in the closet that she loved them all so much. She said, in the interview, that she knew this was maybe a violation of some kind, in terms of keeping a professional distance as an educator, but at that moment of total fear she could only think of this: if I were a six-year-old and very afraid, what would I want most to hear? And, she thought, what if the last words these children ever heard in their lives were whatever words I spoke? So she just told them, repeatedly, that she loved each one of them.

Aside from the amazing compassion and awareness she displayed (and the remarkable control of her own fear in that moment) what I appreciated about this teacher's story was that it conveyed so powerfully exactly what good educators can do. They can allow themselves to be in others, without risk to their own identities or their integrity.

That this teacher was concerned about how this ability would be perceived by those who assess the the profession in the manner that Rhee obviously does speaks to the patriarchal nature of education reform initiatives, on the one hand, and to the limited nature of how "reformers" like Rhee think about the self. It is likely this is something Rhee found out in her brief and contentious tenure as the leader of an urban school district -- that equating a static, immovable self with strength is both limiting and destructive.

When I watched Piers Morgan's recent interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist and gun fan Alex Jones, I could not help but think the same thing. Jones and his ilk speak of the traumatic consequences that will befall us all if we don't stick to "who we are," a static and unchanging notion of self that must be defended at all costs, against all imagined tyrants. I could not help but listen to his rant as a projection of his visceral fear of self-flexibility, as if his very sense of self was under threat, so much so that near the end of the interview his fear compelled him to mock the British accent "identifier" of Piers Morgan.

I really saw Jones' self-presentation in the same light at Rhee's. Both seem to be fighting for the definition of self to be inviolate, and both seem to make a living by aggressively projecting this need onto everyone around them.

Plus, I think Alex Jones would have happily swatted and swallowed Morgan if he had had the chance.

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