School & District Management

Post Magazine Writer Tries to Figure Out D.C. Chancellor

September 25, 2009 3 min read

Sharp-tongued Michelle A. Rhee doesn’t just direct harsh words at teachers she finds less than adequate.

The District of Columbia schools chancellor is just as apt to issue brusque directives to her long-serving, loyal colleagues, like the one who told The Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher about the time Rhee told her to dump her boyfriend. Or the wealthy benefactor who complained that she treated him with no respect whatsoever, but ponied up money to help support her reform initiatives anyway.

In a 4,800-word profile of the chancellor that is the cover story in this Sunday’s Post magazine, Fisher shares those telling anecdotes to, as he puts it in an interview, “look at what really drives her and how much of this public image is really who she is.”

Fisher talked with District Dossier this week about his access to Rhee (who, until recently, refused to speak with the Post’s Bill Turque, the beat writer who has aggressively covered the chancellor and her initiatives); the challenge of writing about someone who has had thousands of inches of copy written about her; and what he figured out about the 39-year-old leader who has both dazzled and chagrined folks inside and outside the education community.

Fisher spent part of five months reporting on Rhee. He was privy to her senior staff meetings, her meetings with parents, and question-and-answer sessions with teachers at schools. She agreed to let him talk to her parents, as well as friends and colleagues who’ve known her for years. Off limits were her two children and her love life. (Sorry folks, Rhee won’t spill on her relationship with former NBA star Kevin Johnson, a charter school founder and mayor of Sacramento.)

“In the end, I concluded that what you see is what you get,” Fisher told DD. “When I talked to her friends and people who’ve known her for decades, it all sounded quite consistent.”

Fisher said he steered clear of her superstardom in the education reform world (that story has been done over and over), and focused on figuring out why Rhee has behaved as she has since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty appointed her as chancellor in 2007. Fisher spent a lot of time exploring her complicated relationship with teachers and why she’s taken such a combative stance toward many of them. On that, Fisher said the chancellor “rocks back and forth.”

“I heard her say that she wishes she had reached out to teachers and connected with them and massaged them a little earlier,” Fisher said. “But then I heard her bluntly say that she has no patience for people counting the days until retirement and who don’t give beyond what the contract may call for. You see real and deep anger from her when she’s talking about teachers who are not putting in the extra days, going to kids’ houses, and reaching out to parents.”

Fisher also gets to the bottom of how Rhee came to agree to pose holding a broom on the cover of Time Magazine last December and said he concluded that she’s impulsive and somewhat naive, but also “so driven by what she thinks is right and moral, that she really doesn’t get sometimes the way she is being perceived.” (Don’t miss the outtakes of that same shoot, particularly image #4)

So whether you are rooting for Rhee or not, the piece is a must-read. Fisher offered this insight too: “I think she’s realized that her personality is what’s really turned her into a rock star in the education reform world, but it’s also damaged her effort to push through what she wants. It’s been a real learning experience for her. This is a person who does not like to admit making mistakes.”

Before DD let Fisher off the phone, we asked him to give us the over/under on how long Rhee will last, especially now that the City Council is challenging her and Fenty on several fronts. “It doesn’t look like Fenty’s going to have to break a sweat to win the election, and as long as he’s around, Rhee will be too.”

UPDATE: Here’s a washingtonpost.com Q and A with Rhee talking about teachers’ unions that I meant to include earlier. And over at Teacher Magazine, my colleague Elizabeth Rich has this wrap-up on Rhee’s latest controversy.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Director PEAK Academy Hapeville campus
Hapeville, Georgia, United States
Camelot Education
Technology Product Manager
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Camelot Education
2021-2022 Teacher (Districtwide)
Dallas, TX, US
Dallas Independent School District
[2021-2022] Founding Middle School Academic Dean
New York, NY, US
DREAM Charter School

Read Next

School & District Management The Key to School-Based COVID-19 Testing: Cooperation of Parents and Communities
As schools launch broad testing to track cases of COVID-19, the success of their efforts relies on addressing the concerns of all concerned.
7 min read
Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles on Dec. 9, 2020.
Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School & District Management Interactive A Year of COVID-19: What It Looked Like for Schools
This timeline offers a look at how a full year of living and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
Education Week Staff
13 min read
Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.
Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.
Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
School & District Management Most Principals, District Leaders Predict Their Schools Will Be Fully In-Person This Fall
EdWeek Research Center surveys track the growing trend to get more students back in school buildings as soon as possible.
5 min read
Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif on Feb. 25, 2021. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday, March 1, 2021, between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's legislative leaders.
Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif., last month. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
School & District Management Opinion Will the Hybrid School Concept Continue After COVID-19?
In an effort to move from triage to transformation, schools should look at how they continue the hybrid model after the COVID-19 vaccine.
7 min read
Hybrid FCG
Shutterstock