A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 09 2010

On Doing Too Much and Emailing Chancellor Rhee

I’m apparently doing too much these days.  My classroom is chugging along, despite the massive end-of-the-year truancy problem that our school must somehow cope with.  Yet, because I am administering a final exam that takes place over the course of three days, my students are easily irritable.  One recent comment annoyed them to no end.

In trying to preserve our momentum through the end of the year, I recently told my students that they will be expected to come to class until our very last day on June 22.  We will still have “normal” class after the finals (i.e. there will be assignments that–surprise!–affect grades).  Upon hearing this, the students grew extremely upset. They threw up their arms, made “are-you-kidding-me?” scoffs, booed and hissed, scrunched up their eyebrows in disbelief, and attempted to start a class-wide debate over the issue with the goal of overturning my decision.  Needless to say, it was quite the scene.

One student in particular, however, chose to express her dismay over the post-finals plan through a more direct and confrontational channel: an ultimatum.  KN threatened to write a protest letter to Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  When she gave her demand, she spoke with a look of serious confidence (note: I wish more of my students had this courage).  She expected that the “Chancellor card” would trump everything and leave me cowering at her feet, begging for mercy.  She was wrong.

I coolly took her up on her challenge. I told her that, if she wrote the email, I’d send it to the Chancellor on her behalf.  So, over the course of a few mornings before the first bell, KN came in to draft her email. I asked questions and gave her suggestions.  She eventually came to a final product.  It wasn’t long or complicated or even well-supported, but I didn’t want to write anything for her (primarily because I wanted her to go through the letter writing process herself and jokingly because I didn’t want to strengthen the argument against my classroom decision!).  Anyhow, I sent KN’s email to Chancellor Rhee:

Dear Chancellor Rhee,

Hi I am a sophomore at [a DCPS] Senior High School. My English teacher Mr. K is making us do too much work at the end of the school year.  We have three exams in this class; this is too much.  Then he expects for us to come to school after all this to learn about poems! Shouldn’t we be watching movies, having end of the year parties?  I’m a pretty decent student. I’m on the honor roll and I’m usually on time.  All I’m asking for is a break.

Do you agree with my teacher? What’s the point of coming to school after exams?



Within an hour, I received a response from the Chancellor:


Usually I’m on students’ sides on arguments but not on this one! Our job is to educate you to the best of our ability. This means that we need to maximize every instructional minute with you. Just because we’re close to the end of the year, that doesn’t mean the learning should be any less rigorous.  I appreciate the fact that you wrote to me.  If you’d like, I’m happy to discuss this with you in person.

Chancellor Rhee

The next morning, I printed out the email and nonchalantly handed it to KN and we began a brief conversation:

KN: What is this?

Mr. K: Chancellor Rhee responded.

KN: For real?!  (brief pause.) Aww! This is tight, Mr. K! So cool.  Wait… You sure you didn’t make this up?

Mr. K: Tricked ya!

KN: (smile turns into frown.)  Mr. K, why you always gotta be playin’ like that?

Mr. K: Just kidding. It’s real.

KN: Un-unh.

Mr. K: It’s real. Read it again.

KN: (brief pause.) Look! It says she wouldn’t mind talking to me! This is tight!  I feel special.  I’m gonna keep readin’ it over and over.

Mr. K: So you’re going to work hard even after finals are over?

KN: No. (brief pause.) Sike naw! Maybe!

KN is a small-time celebrity in our school (more accurately, my first period classroom) now.  A fellow student is begging KN to arrange a time to meet with Chancellor Rhee.  Why?  “I want a photo with her! It’s not like she’s that famous or anything, but still–she’s cool!”  Who would’ve thought emailing Chancellor Rhee could bring so much joy to students?

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7 Responses

  1. My classroom is chugging along

    If only all first-year teachers could say that! :)

  2. Loved the story; wish I had thought of that tactic when one of my students angrily threatened to sue me and report me to the superintendent when I gave him a red (half credit) stamp instead of a blue (full credit) stamp on his Do Now for being late to class.

    I wonder how much of this is replicable in a more planned way? Clearly KN’s attitude shifted. Do you think it was it because:
    1) She felt that her voice was heard?
    2) She trusts Michelle Rhee?
    3) She was mollified by a letter from someone “famous”?
    4) Her attitude didn’t truly need shifting; she was just giving you a hard time?
    5) Something else entirely?

    … In particular, I’m thinking about this in the context of how get naturally combative students invested and “on your side” as early as possible in the school year so they’ll be ready and willing to learn.

  3. As for replication, I think that, yes, it can be done. Interesting stuff happens when you throw crazy ideas at students.
    As for causes:
    1) Yes, this is probably the most important.
    2) Not necessarily. She does trust her, but primarily because she is Chancellor.
    3) Not really. I don’t think “fame” was really what it was about. It was more that someone famous would actually respond to her personally.
    4) I guess I didn’t provide enough context about KN. She’s one of my better-behaved students. Her ultimatum, although conveyed in a serious tone, was ultimately non-confrontational and just out of good humor.
    5) Again, I think that her attitude shifted because her expectations were completely blown away by the surprise email. She learned that something previously believed to be “impossible” (i.e. hearing back from someone as important as Chancellor Rhee) was actually possible as long as she tried. In fact, when KN mentioned to another student in class that she had emailed Rhee, the student was like “Of course you won’t get a response!”

    In trying to get combative students on my side, I generally try to do the unexpected. Shock students into submission–something along those lines.

    Thanks for the comment, Dan! Makes me think about what more I can learn from this episode.

    (Also I’m definitely going to adopt that dual colored system for Do Nows. I don’t give stamps if they are late and instead I say I’ll give half credit as long as they do it. But I think they like and need the visual and aural affirmation of a stamp.)

  4. MJL

    AMAZING redirect on this! This should go in a TFA playbook. And of course major props to your awesome chancellor for taking time to write back.

  5. First of all, so excited to meet you next week.

    Secondly, I recently began a disciplinary meeting with a student by apologizing to her. It changed the entire tone of the conversation. Surprise is a powerful tactic. What a shame that our students are so often surprised by being treated respectfully, as Chancellor Rhee did.

    Which brings me to my final point: I will probably cross-post this story shortly, as Ms. Rhee is frequently demonized outside of town. I myself don’t always agree with comments I have heard from her, but I have never doubted that she is first and foremost on the side of kids.

  6. Dina: I look forward to meeting you too. This whole live-blogging/Tweeting thing should be interesting. Like you, I am a firm believer in doing the crazy in the classroom. It breaks the monotony and adds some zest. As For Chancellor Rhee, I agree.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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