Michelle Rhee Has a Broom: Should She Use It to Sweep Out Experienced Teachers?

bbracey80By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

If you want to start a heated discussion in the District of Columbia, just mention the name “Michelle Rhee.” We who live here don’t have a real political vote or a real senator, and now we have one more injustice to suffer. Ms. Rhee is the chancellor of education in DC with unlimited powers granted to her by Mayor Fenty. And one of those powers is to fire and hire.

Ms. Rhee doesn’t want citizens, parents, or teachers involved in her decisions about DC public schools. My concern is that many of us, DC educators, who have given our lives — our time, our money, and our dedication — to help bring up the race without special funding or fanfare, may be out of the picture. With Ms. Rhee in charge, we’re viewed as too old and unfit.

Seeing the ads in the help wanted pages, I initially intended to work with Ms. Rhee’s  program. I had worked with Teach for America informally in Arlington schools. I used to stay three hours after school to allow my students to use technology, and the Teach for America volunteers learned my software and used my resources to teach. I still had to put in time because it was important for me to know what the students learned or did not learn. But I changed my mind about applying after hearing Ms. Rhee’s comments about “seasoned” teachers. She felt that older teachers were not up to the job.

I am the teacher who was the technology director for the 21st Century Project when it was new. I am not a newbie. I know teaching, and I know curriculum. But given Ms. Rhee’s attitude toward “old” teachers, I simply decided not to apply.

As many of my “seasoned” colleagues and I disengage from the DC public school system, we take with us valuable knowledge and years of experience as well as an understanding and love for students that can’t be measured by test scores and dollars.

I am not a stranger to urban schools. I thought that my expertise and experience would be a good match. But I decided to keep doing outreach on my own. Ms. Rhee does not want interference in her plan. She knows it all.

For three years I worked in Anthony Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington, DC, before NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was even a policy. It was difficult work, but I loved it. I left when we were reduced to teaching on benches in the gym while renovations were taking place during the school year.

I had a foundation and funding to work with the school. But it was like flushing money down the toilet to see what happened and not fun to bonnie01bmonitor. We never had enough for regular school supplies, field trips, books, art materials, and other things we take for granted in other schools. Still, I made a difference in the lives of some of the children. The school was and is a ghetto school, and it was located across from a high rise in which kids fell to their death in the elevator shafts at least once a month.That facility has, thankfully, been shut down. It was about as ghetto as you could get. The little girls sometimes traded sex for sandwiches from the men working the food trucks. Drugs were a problem in the neighborhood. The school was ancient, and on the first day of heat the smell of ancient urine would choke in your throat and make tears come to your eyes. Then you would get used to it. Well, you can get used to it. As the children must.

I worked in Ballou High School, the one with the marching band that went to the Rose Bowl parade. Nearly 80 per cent of the students are so poor they qualify for a government-paid-for lunch. The school had many people trying to help. But not much has improved. Crime and student behavior were always a problem. A rape took place on my first day of work. Getting to the school was also difficult unless one drove. Cabs would not take you there.

Teachers who teach in urban schools suffer a very different set of circumstances. Children come to us with a variety of problems. I won’t detail them all, but often the biggest is the lack of involvement of the parents and community, as well as poorly chosen resources for students. Some of the children live in environments where being out after dark is dangerous. Still, some children try to do after school programs.

When I taught in DC schools, children would follow me home and sleep in front of my door if I didn’t know they were there, and once I found a child sleeping under my car. When they came to my home, I would feed them and walk them back home. I did not keep students overnight in my home. I was asked to move from an apartment because the children followed me there to sleep in the lobby or in the halls. It was a safe haven for them when they could not get into their own homes. I was called the pied piper of Southwest, but I could not care for all of the children.

I doubt if anyone monitored those kinds of problems, the drug problems, the kids who were being mistreated in foster care. We met them all in the classroom, but we were judged in the same way as those schools where the problems are less severe.

Every set of schools has its own unique problems. Read the DC news for a while and you will see what I mean. Once a child brought me a still breathing aborted child. Life is not easy in very poor urban schools. You have to think about much more than the basics. In fact, you learn the skills of a social worker if you can.

Substituting is a good way to get a picture of the reality of the schools. I recommend it for a reality check.

In DC schools, the nurse only came once a week. So my friends who were medical doctors did duty for me by treating the students with permission from the parents.

The non-textbook equipment that I shared in school was mine, paid for out of my own pocket. I couldn’t leave my resources in the schools because they would disappear. I know that they made a difference. I worked in Arlington schools and DoDDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) in 22 countries. There was a tremendous difference in terms of equipment. In surburban schools and DoDDS there were supplies and budgets for special resources. In DC, most of the funding went elsewhere. There was no budget for field trips. We only had $40 worth of supplies so I spent a lot of my own money at the teacher’s store, the book store, and the museum for material to enhance the learning environment.

I fed the children with government cheese, crackers, and peanut butter or foods that were available, but until breakfast was started in the schools, bonnie01abubblegum was the smell of the classroom in the early hours of the day. It was strong enough to make one nauseous. The lunch was nothing special, but it was food. Some children’s parents were missing often from their homes. Here in the DC area we have had students killed and put in freezers, stabbed by their parents, and otherwise mistreated. The social network is hard to improve with those in need. People care, but there are so many problems.

Often I went to service establishments to find coats, shoes, socks, and hats for children without proper clothing. You have probably heard of the glove tree, or the coat collection, or the backpack that children now are given so that they will have food over the weekend. I even know how to find old eyeglasses when there is no other way. The Optimist group. Welfare does not take care of everything especially when parents are not involved or knowledgeable. A teenage group helped me teach students to go to the mall and to the museums, but we quickly found that they were not welcome unless we were there.

We had rats in the school that ventured out in the daytime. No fear. If the rats ate the graham crackers that were provided for students, the teacher had to pay for them. It was not unusual to find a tunnel through those crackers. The vermin were everywhere.

When I taught in DC schools, the library sent us a box of books for a month. They did not want the kids in the library. So I made them let the kids sign out the books by taking them there and complaining loudly.

Then there is the matter of science. There wasn’t anything to teach with. Science was  in a book, but a set of books had to be shared with four classes. Therefore most teachers did not teach science. We lived within walking distance of the national museums, yet most children had never been there. I was able to change that, but I found that the children were not welcome in the programs because of the logistics involved. They had to be picked up after a three or four hour session at the museum. Most parents did not drive and transportation was a problem even just to the mall.

My students could make money in drugs, prostitution, and with a five finger discount as well as the underground economy if you know what I mean. It really isn’t fun to teach where everything is a problem, but you do it for lots of reasons but certainly NOT the money.

Have you ever heard anyone say that teaching is lucrative? I have never. I also doubt that people enter teaching to bore the heck out of children. I doubt that people in DC, having been through so many changes, know what the pulse of education is. NCLB has created some problems in that teachers felt bound to teach to the test, but truthfully, DC schools have always been a problem for many reasons. Congress funds DC schools if it feels like it. Some special initiatives are poised for DC schools whether or not the schools really want them. The school board meetings can be a challenge. Ms. Rhee remarked that she did not have to put up with that “crap” (her word).

The technology in DC schools is wanting. Just take a look at the schools’ website. Sadly, I was working to create change in technology. It proved impossible at that time. Some groups make changes in a school, but the district is lacking in technology resources. Even Ms. Rhee will admit that. When ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) has its conference in DC this summer, Virginia teachers will man the technology.

Later in my life, when I worked for President Clinton and Vice President Gore, we tried to change schools in DC, too. We deliberately picked those that needed the most help. I worked with the vice president on the CyberED Initiative that had us traveling the country in empowerment and enterprise zones. We worked in Baltimore, New Jersey, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Clinton, Tennesee, Oakland, and other sites. Our job was to demonstrate, share, and let teachers, parents, and the community try out the new technologies. It was a wonderful job. It was a sharing of possibilities. We worked with community members, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Schools are communities made up of students, parents, and educators, not just a woman posing as a witch with a broom. Ms. Rhee should take that broom and sweep out the problem of thinking that the community is her enemy and that she alone can bring about change. She should use the resources available in the community, and that includes the layer of accomplished and experienced teachers.

[Editor’s note: For related articles, see Two Ambivalent Views of Michelle Rhee’s Efforts
and Michelle Rhee – What’s Really at Stake? Here’s a tip from Jim Morrison: For an update on Michelle Rhee, see Bill Turque’s 5 Jan. 2009 article, “Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training,” at washingtonpost.com.]

3 Responses

  1. Bonnie’s story is powerful, and if it is indeed true that high quality experienced teachers will be swept away, then it is very sad.

    In my experience, some of the youngest teachers I met had some of the oldest and most outdated attitudes and approaches. Some of the oldest and most experienced had some of the newest and most refreshing attitudes and approaches.

    The opposite was also true.

    Teacher quality has to be considered on a case by case basis; it is not a mere function of age or experience. More importantly, as the related Washington Post article suggests, a good staff development program can work wonders.

    In my last blog, I said the problem was that too many teachers do not see learning about instructional theory as a part of their job. When they do, good things happen.

  2. John, of course teachers should learn about instructional theory. Yet often, the courses offered seem very detached from their teaching experience, eliciting grumblings like “I wish s/he’d have to apply what s/he says in a classroom”. And if the course is imposed, the grumbling gets worse – even if the instructor is also a colleague, paradoxicallly.

    The theory courses that work well respond to a demand from the teachers and are based on their experience, in workshops rather than in one-way lectures, usually. And that’s a slow process, granted, because only teachers who already know something of instructional theory feel the need to learn more. But it can spiral wider and faster after a while.

    That’s also why Bonnie taught me more than the courses offered by the school system about instructional use of technology, which all took place in perfect laboratory conditions. She answered my questions and offered suggestions on the basis of what I could use with whom.

  3. A neighboring school system, got it right in my opinioin. Ms. Rhee might want to read this article.
    As Claude said, we who use the technology probably have ways to create the possibilities of interest, use and affinity, in the use of technology through sharing. I applaud this Superintendent, Jerry Weast.
    What a way to make change. He should be on the cover of Time.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/07/AR2009010703485.html

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