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TOUGH BUT REWARDING CAREER: Rhames in the classroom.
Scott Strazzante/Genesis
TOUGH BUT REWARDING CAREER: Rhames in the classroom.

Teacher on a mission

Education | Award-winning blogger Marilyn Rhames is a blunt Chicago teacher with an eye toward educational and spiritual reform

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

CHICAGO—Sit with the seventh- and eighth-grade students in Marilyn Rhames’ reading and writing class, and you’ll hear her read A Raisin in the Sun with the Southern drawl she picked up from her parents but usually hides. You’ll hear her compliment, encourage, and joke with students, calling them “friends”—or somberly warn how lying “ruins your reputation.” Or she’ll inform the class she’s out of patience with their goofing off.

“There’s a lot of talk,” she says during a class assignment to type blog entries on iPads. “That’s your last warning. … Thank you. You know I love you.”

Rhames, wearing mini braids and a black suit jacket, smiles and tells me: “They call me bipolar, because I’ll yell at them, and then I’ll be like, ‘But you guys are great!’”

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On the June day I visited Rhames, a teacher at a brick K-8 charter school on Chicago’s South Side, she gleefully announced to a circle of eighth-graders that she was pregnant: “I wanted you to be the first group to know about it.” She had just told her own mother and two daughters, ages 11 and 7, the night before.

This fall, Rhames’ baby bump had grown round enough to wipe the dry erase marker off the whiteboard. Rhames is marking her 10th year teaching at Chicago Public Schools, but her influence hasn’t stopped there. She’s in her third year writing a widely read (and highly opinionated) education blog, Charting My Own Course (blogs.edweek.org/teachers/charting_my_own_course/), hosted by the Education Week website. She recently became a co-host for Taboo, a new show on the BAM! Radio network about topics teachers are usually unwilling to discuss publicly—such as what to do when you dislike your students.

In September, BAM! Radio named Rhames the year’s top education commentator/blogger at its Bammy Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Asked what makes her blog so popular, the teacher shrugs and says, “I’m an honest person.” Her first post two years ago drew attention because she criticized fellow educators—another taboo practice in the profession—for treating students and staff poorly. Though Rhames calls herself an “education reformer,” she has even higher aspirations: promoting prayer among public school teachers through her nonprofit, Teachers Who Pray. 

Rhames, 39, is a former journalist who covered the 9/11 terrorist attacks while working for a New York City newspaper. Her husband, Kevin, used to produce albums for the late thug rapper Tupac Shakur, but now serves in urban youth ministry. After the couple moved to Chicago, Rhames decided to begin teaching. But a few years into the profession, she became disillusioned by principals who flirted with married staff and ran schools with their own interests in mind. “People are not thinking about the kids,” she thought. “They’re so selfish.”

Those first years helped her understand that when educators misbehave, kids suffer. For the past six years she has worked at a charter school, and more recently begun writing about education policy and her life as a Chicago teacher. Fellow educators often comment on her blog, criticizing Rhames for her support of charters or her opposition to union tactics. Others praise her.

Her views are not easily placed in a box. She has opposed both the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel in turn. She criticized last year’s teachers union strike over contract negotiations, but says she would have supported a strike this summer over the closing of 49 elementary schools in high-crime neighborhoods. She laments that the closings—which the district said were necessary to stem a budget crisis—are forcing some kids to walk 10 blocks to school, sometimes through rival gang territory. When Chicago Public Schools announced it would lay off 850 teachers and staff in June, Rhames wrote, “The politics here are sickening. … I am fed up with my city.”

The charter teacher says her Christian faith influences her criticism (or praise) of Chicago education. Education issues are rarely all-or-nothing propositions, she says, and “any reform needs to be done in a spirit of collaboration.” While some Chicago schools might have needed to be shut down this summer, she calls it “unethical” for Emanuel to close nearly 50 and expose school kids to danger. She supported Emanuel’s 2011 effort to increase the length of the school day, but not the cash bonuses he gave to schools and teachers who waived union contracts to do so.

“It was basically a bribe,” she says. “As Christians we know we have to do things with grace and honesty. And if those things are missing, we do more damage.”

Besides politics, Rhames blogs about school mishaps (she accidentally sent her co-workers a romantic text message intended for her husband), the challenge of working with students from impoverished or violent neighborhoods, and the Bible’s influence on English literature. Some days Rhames wakes up at 4:30 to grade papers or write on her blog. At school she supervises dramatic readings, deals with frustrated parents, fights a broken printer, herds students through writing assignments, and catches some playing Minecraft on their iPads. 

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