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

January 9, 2013

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.”

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...