Michelle Rhee: “The Bee Eater”

January 8, 2013

Before becoming chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools system, Michelle Rhee was a newly minted teacher in one of Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods. Her school was one of the lowest performing in the city, and as a new teacher, Rhee often struggled to win the attention of her students.

That is, until the day a bee flew into her classroom window, causing panic among her unruly second graders. When the bee finally landed, Rhee smacked it with her lesson plan, killing it immediately. Her next move still causes Denise Hall, a former student, to shudder to this day: Rhee flicked the bee into her hand, popped it into her mouth, and ate it.

“It freaks me out, just talking about it, the bee story,” Hall recalls in the above clip from The Education of Michelle Rhee, which premieres tonight on FRONTLINE.

The move paid off. As Rhee put it, “You can ask my kids, they’ll tell you, ‘She was strict; she was mean.’ But in the end, they all knew the reason why I was doing everything was because I believed in them and I cared about them.”

During her time in Baltimore, Rhee learned the importance of having a good teacher. The home lives of her students never changed, she said, but because they had a teacher who set high expectations of them, they soon set high expectations for themselves.

Years later, Rhee brought that same philosophy to her new job in Washington, but instead of setting high expectations on students, she set them on teachers and principals. It was an experience that launched Rhee onto the national stage, making her one of the most admired and reviled education reformers in the nation.

The Education of Michelle Rhee airs tonight on most PBS stations (check your local listings here) or you can watch it online, starting at 10 pm EST.

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