Self-Serving v. Service: Teaching in a Celebrity Culture

I taught high school English for eighteen years in rural upstate South Carolina, and two students remain with me.

One student on his year-end final exam his junior year proceeded to ignore the exam and write a profanity-laced criticism of me and my course. He turned it in and calmly returned to his seat to wait out the exam period. Once I realized what he had written, I asked him to step across the hall with me where I asked him for an explanation. His anger soon rose up in his throat and he began to cry as he explained how he had felt ignored and unfairly criticized to the point that he gave up during the year.

I told him I wished he had come to me earlier with those feelings, but also said I was sorry. I then met with my principal and arranged for that student to have a little more time to make up some work so he could pass that year. Instead of failing junior English, he was able to enter his senior year, where he joined my soccer team, graduated, and eventually entered college.

Another student in his junior year essentially skirted by all year, barely completing work and rarely fully engaging in class. While we were studying Thoreau, however, he approached me and asked if I could let him borrow a full copy of “Civil Disobedience,” which I did. At the end of the year, despite his grades falling below passing, I awarded him a D and asked if he would enroll in my Advanced Placement Literature course his senior year. After some negotiation with the principal, he was allowed in AP once his parents acknowledged they understood the risk based on his grade in junior English.

This student earned a B in AP Literature, graduated high school, completed college, and eventually earned a Masters in Philosophy.

I think of these students and many, many moments like these every time I see Michelle Rhee.

With each of the above situations, I did not put on a suit and hold a press conference. Despite being a writer and writing numerous books, I have yet to pen a volume with a picture of me on the front cataloguing my success with students.

With the most recent and renewed flurry of Rhee media blitzes, I feel compelled to note that Rhee’s pursuit of her own celebrity is a disturbing example of the plight of teaching in a celebrity culture.

Self-Serving v. Service: Teaching in a Celebrity Culture

Rhee’s Students First has released an evaluation of states’ education policies. With each media report, a photo of Rhee is sure to grace the article. Concurrent with the release is news of yet another book by Rhee, her stern pose on the cover of course, and a Frontline special on Rhee with the tagline: “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers.”

The great irony is that Rhee is self-serving, tracing back to her Teach for America roots, and there is no such thing as bad publicity for a self-promoter. The Frontline tagline is a great example of framing Rhee as both credible (“most admired”) and challenged—although no one ever makes a clear case of just who supports Rhee other than Rhee and the people paid by Rhee and the organizations and people who benefit from Rhee’s celebrity (absent that list, I believe the number of people who “admire” Rhee is relatively close to zero).

Other than Rhee’s new book of self-promotion, the SF grading of education quality accomplishes not proving an accurate analysis of education in the U.S. but solid evidence that Rhee and everything Rhee is about “self.” The SF report measures state education policies against SF agenda points. How much more self-serving can an organization be? (In fact, this is the ideological think tank playbook designed to mask agenda-driven policy as credible scholarship.)

SF’s ranking is so ridiculous, the list of challenges are nearly impossible to catalog: Ravitch and Jersey Jazzman provide a good start.

The corporate reform hucksters and self-promoters like Rhee envision a world where self rules, where life is a competition, and where incentives produce outcomes. This world believes in merit pay and measurement because those things have feed their own over-sized egos.

But teachers are primarily about service, not self-serving.

We don’t want merit pay, and we don’t want to fight among ourselves or with others for the essentials of life.

For teachers, the idealized vision of the Invisible Hand ignores the very real world where children cannot wait on the whims of the market.

The bad news is, in the U.S. self-promoters tend to win because they are the ones creating the battles.

And with this blog of mine, Rhee has won again since I have used her name and indirectly promoted her work.

I regret that deeply, just as I regret her newest move to claim a word I hold dear, “radical.”


7 thoughts on “Self-Serving v. Service: Teaching in a Celebrity Culture

  1. Pingback: Et tu, Liberal Media? | the becoming radical

  2. Pingback: Paul Thomas: What is the Difference between Service and Self-Serving? « Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. Your post caused me to reflect on several students I’ve taught in the past. Several have contacted me by email, FB or LinkedIn. One of the coolest letters I got was from a former student (middle-schooler) who loved my Washington DC History course. She loved it so much that she went to school and earned a Masters and then a PhD in history. You know, even though you mentioned Rhee and seem to regret it somewhat; we both have something she doesn’t have: respect and admiration from former students, and memories that you can’t put a price on.

  4. Nice post. Now, take this quote from Steven KIng, and substitute the word “teaching” wherever he says “writing”.

    Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
    ― Stephen King, On Writing

  5. Thank for this. I have been a special educator in NYC public schools for 12 years, and have been grappling with the frame of values that is seemingly holding up this educational “deform”. As I look for patterns in statements and policy agendas set forth by StudentsFirst against the seemingly insurmountable backlash of parents, educators and concerned community members, I see the grotesque figure in the middle of the frame that Rhee and her kind are holding up. Through a system based on compliance (based on patriarchal ideology) that stems from British rule over the colonies, slavery, Jim Crow legislation to the New Jim Crow, many still hold ideas that the ills of society are to be blamed on those who could not work hard enough to bring themselves up. This ideology is also grounded with beliefs in rewards and punishments (rewarding with merit pay & bonuses/ punishments of losing jobs, public humiliation & school closings) What cognitive research (peer reviewed, federally backed! and decades) has shown is that extrinsic rewards and punishments actually hinder critical thinking and creativity. Extrinsic pressures actually force the brain to narrow it’s thinking. Rewards only work with rudimentary type of activities and are actually counterproductive to higher order thinking skills.

    I try to remind myself of what true reformers looked like, sounded like and acted like. Many came to mind: a true reformer brought people together! They did not think that they knew what was best, but collaborated to establish common understandings. True reformers empowered OTHER people, through engagement in collaborative problem solving and developing powerful professional learning communities. Rhee stated on Frontline that “this is not a Democracy,” and that she had to make tough decisions. Even if we really were not a democracy, her agenda to improve the education and lives of children were approached in the wrong way.

    I actually dreamed (after Frontline) that Kenty selected someone else, an experienced chancellor into the DC school system years ago, and this person sat down with principals, teachers, students and parents, to collect information about what was working and what was not working. In doing so, at the district and school level, stakeholders could begin to tackle the issues that were problematic. Through this collaborative process, each individual had a role and staff felt a sense of accountability to each other and to their school communities. As teachers, parents, students and administrators started to address the common issues through targeted programs and systems, they would have opportunities to reflect and discuss their effectiveness through a consensus process, a democratic process. They reached out to access community based resources to enhance the overall well-being of their students, and parents were afforded opportunities to revisit their own education.
    The true reformers need to find a way to hold a frame of engagement up next to the one being presented by deformers that is based on compliance, so that they can see for themselves what they are being misled to believe as true change making.

  6. excellent, post! makes me harken back to my best moments as an educator…you can’t form the kind of relationships that really matter in education, that really help students grow by focuses on testing

  7. Pingback: Assembled Pieces Reveal Disturbing Reform Picture | the becoming radical

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