Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Praise for Chutzpah

Reading about DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee makes me rethink the career choices I've made. Like me, she is a Korean American woman. Like me, she graduated from college in the early 90s. Unlike me, she didn't opt for the safe choice of going to a law school to work at a law firm making a high salary. Instead, she joined Teach for America, taught at a Baltimore elementary school for three years, and then founded The New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization that recruits new teachers to work in under-performing urban schools. In 2007, DC's Mayor Adrian Fenty plucked her from relative obscurity and threw her into the fray to fix the failing DC school system.

Now she's out to overhaul the public education system. We've all stood by on the sidelines and impatiently wondered why the public education system is in the state it is in, why no one can fix it. We've pointed our fingers at the usual villains: the union, the parents who don't spend enough time with their children, tv, the politicians, society. We've sighed a quiet sigh of relief that we have the option of sending our children to private schools, even as we bemoan the ridiculously high tuition and the waste of our tax dollars, believing there's no stopping the sinking ship. Instead of standing safely ashore, Michelle Rhee has jumped onto this Titanic, enrolling her own daughters into a DC public school, and started throwing over the deadweight, greasing the engines, and adding coal to the furnace. She's taken on the politicians, the unions, the parents - with an urgency and chutzpah we don't often see in public administrators.

Whether she will actually accomplish all that she has set out to do and how many bruises she'll suffer in the process are yet to be determined. And I don't know enough about the DC public schools system to assess whether her strategy is the most effective. What I do know is that she has come out swinging, taking on the most established of establishments and refusing to take no for an answer. She is out to change the power structure, to upset what many often assume will always be. And that is pretty damn inspiring.

We need more like her. And the surprising thing is that it is not out of our reach to be another Michelle Rhee. Especially those of us with privileged education, some amount of smarts, chutzpah, any of the above. Just think of the mess we can clean up if more of us followed in her footsteps?

Maybe it sounds silly to say that a woman my own age is my role model. But she is. And I can certainly use one.

Reading about her makes me think that safe choices in life aren't always the prudent ones. Maybe rarely.

Good thing I'm only 37 with more than enough time for additional careers.


  1. I say, "go Michelle!"

    I think the DC schools system is a classic case of "if you do what you've always done, you're going to get what you've always got." I think changing things up takes someone who is radical, innovative and not threatened by her critics. It will be interesting for us all to watch what comes of this.

  2. Regarding additional careers, I recommend What Should I Do With My Life, by Po Bronson. No magic answers there, but it'll get you thinking in unexpected directions.