The Bee Eater (Book review)

This was a badly written book about an inspiring woman; Michelle Rhee.  Michelle is a fiery Korean woman raised by immigrant parents in America to be tough and hard working. She fits the stereotype of a typical Asian over-achiever, with one peculiarity – she has a passion for kids and education. After graduating from an Ivy League university she decided to enlist in Teach For America (TFA). For those who don’t know, this is a highly successful American program which takes the best and brightest graduates in any field, gives them basic teacher-training and then places them as teachers in disadvantaged schools. The program is highly regarded and is always over-subscribed. Most TFAs teach for 2 years and then head back to their original career path, usually morphing into a highly-paid cog in the beautiful capitalist machine.

As far as the book is concerned, TFA is where Michelle Rhee cut her teeth on education, learning to manage and teach kids that come from highly dysfunctional and disadvantaged backgrounds. The vignettes about Rhee’s time as a TFA reveal her to be highly motivated, tenacious, capable, creative and original. She takes her best-performing kids on inter-state outings, creates a “shop” where students can exchange credit (awarded for good behaviour/performance) for things like sweets or stationery. One story tells how she literally ate a bumble-bee (hence the Bee-eater) that was disrupting her class, mainly out of sheer frustration at the classes lack of discipline and order in the early stages of her teaching career. The book focuses on her time as the chancellor of Washington DC public schools, where she came in guns blazing and left no stone unturned in her attempt to turn-around the dysfunctional schooling system. She fired hundreds of underperforming teachers who could not improve student learning outcomes.

Some of the take-away points for me were as follows:

  • Vested interests make change difficult. The unions and (surprisingly) the parents resisted Rhee’s reforms, ultimately leading to her being pushed out after her first (productively disruptive) term.
  • Change is possible. In spite of the numerous challenges and obstacles she faced, Rhee managed to win a number of significant victories that are likely to have long-term impacts on education throughout the country, especially holding teachers accountable for student outcomes and challenging the commonly held notion that teachers are unique in the sense that they all deserve tenure. Doing what needed to be done and letting the chips fall where they may made Rhee unpopular but it did get stuff done.
  • Don’t piss too many people off too quickly. If Rhee did it again I imagine she would have done it slightly differently. She would have still implemented all her reforms but would’ve perhaps been more diplomatic about it, and hired a decent PR person (PR people are always necessary when you have high public office).
  • Passion is contagious. Both for the reader and the other personalities in the book, Rhee’s never-say-die attitude combined with intelligence, passion, stubbornness, righteous indignation and the unwavering conviction that change was necessary, made me excited to find out what happened next, and no doubt inspired all around her.

Unfortunately the book isn’t well written which is mildly distracting. By constantly referring to himself in the first person and commenting on almost everything (particularly at the end) the author seems to believe that we care what he thinks – which we don’t, why should we? For those who don’t know him (like me) his unsubstantiated claims about what should or shouldn’t have happened, or who was or wasn’t right are quite irritating and reminded me of first-year essays where students claim all sort of things like “In my opinion, Walmart shouldn’t come to Africa” without substantiation, as if their opinion in the absence of substantiating evidence matters for anything – it doesn’t. As someone who does like to throw in the occasional pronoun, much to my supervisor’s chagrin, I made a mental note to go on a “I-my-diet”. Using the personal pronoun should always be accompanied by reasons for that held belief, and preferably sentences should be structured to exclude them entirely – readers should focus on the content and your characters, not on the author, unless that is the express purpose of the text. Otherwise,  feed your ego elsewhere.

All in all I did enjoy this book – primarily because there are so many parallels with South Africa’s education system. Rhee’s passion, drive and determination ooze off the page and inspire the reader to be likewise. I’d recommend this book to anyone who cares about their country’s education and sees the need for uncomfortable reforms. It will encourage you and remind you that change is possible. Thanks Joy Oliver for recommending this book!

Rhee has subsequently founded StudentsFirst – check it out here.

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