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Teacher Fetish: Reflections on Michelle Rhee in Wonderland

March 15, 2013

In this piece Robin West reviews Michelle Rhee’s autobiographical vehicle for promoting her educational ideology. Titled Radical: Fighting To Put Students First, the problem with the book—and with her philosophy as I’ve grown to understand it—is her teacher fetish. The book’s subtitle is misleading, as Rhee puts teachers front and center, if not first.

By teacher fetish I mean that Rhee both herocizes and degrades teachers. She sincerely wants all teachers to be heroic, to give up extraordinary amounts of time and energy for merely ordinary, or less than ordinary, rewards. She sees the greatest teachers as saints, and therefore wants saints even while, as an administrator, she acted nothing like one in relation to teachers. She wants saints in an educational system that was constructed to accommodate mere humans.

But saintly ideal inevitably leaves every teacher wanting. And this is how here teacher fetish degrades the profession. No one really measures up—neither senior, experienced professionals nor acolytes. Experienced teachers are tainted by the students who have inevitably failed, through no real fault of the teacher. Teaching has always been an imperfect process. The human variety evident in student populations is expected, in Rhee’s view, to be met with a standardized system that can somehow measure the extraordinary in teaching. But being an extraordinary teacher means that those individuals are great at relating to students in non-standard ways. Those ways can’t be measured, strictly speaking, in tests of accountability. Those tests will always be imperfect, measuring only part of the skills needed to be a good teacher. And when a teacher doesn’t measure up in some way to that imperfect test, the teacher, ironically, will be labeled imperfect. With their integrity degraded, they’ll be discarded. As the number of discarded teachers increase, the profession is inevitably degraded.

While there’s no disputing that it would be great to have the profession filled with teacher heroes and teacher saints, that isn’t going to happen in our imperfect world. Like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, Rhee wakes up every morning dreaming “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – TL

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