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Michelle Rhee

Groundbreaker & Educator

Sacramento, CA

I decided to be me and not worry about the role others’ thought I should fill.

When I took over as chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public school system, I knew I’d face criticism. I was just 37 years old, so people would say I was too young. I’d never run a school district before and hadn’t even been a principal, so critics would say I was too inexperienced to manage the $1 billion annual operation. I am a Korean-American raised in Ohio, so some would assert that I was ill-equipped to deal with an urban school system whose student population was more than 80 percent African-American.

I saw those criticisms coming, but what I didn’t foresee was the very palpable, biased perception and characterization of me and my efforts based solely on the fact that I am a woman.

News reports about my efforts to reform the city’s schools would describe me as dressed in “sleek black pants” and “tight sweaters” and wearing Manolo Blahnik heels. Would they write about me that way if I was a 50-year-old white man? I wondered. Of course they wouldn’t.

It became common that I was portrayed negatively as a hard-edged Dragon Lady – someone who was harsh and uncompromising. My demeanor and actions didn’t fit in with the way my colleagues and critics viewed the world because I wasn’t subservient and delicate the way, perhaps, some think an Asian woman ought to be.

Well, that’s not me. Just ask my husband, or ask my kids. “Your natural state-of-being is a scowl,” they tell me.

So, I was faced with a choice: Should I try to soften myself in some way? Should I appease those who took offense at my blunt style? Was it hurting my efforts to butt heads with city council members, principals, labor unions?

To answer those questions, I looked at the list of things I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to shut down schools that were failing the city’s kids. I wanted to increase teachers’ pay based on their performance to keep the best ones in the classroom. I wanted to put an arts teacher, a music instructor, and a guidance counselor in every school.

There are too many important things to worry about, I thought. I didn’t have time to worry about what people thought of my management style or clothing choices. So, I decided just to be me, and not worry about the role that others thought I should fill.

It was liberating, and in the end, it was also what was best for the school district and the students I was hired to serve. The challenges at hand demanded a tough woman. What’s more, I never had to confess to the news reporters that I was wearing fake, knock-off Manolo Blahniks. I couldn’t afford the real ones!