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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!’”
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.
Over the years, the workload and teacher expectations have gotten heavier, and some 60-hour weeks are draining. “I really enjoy teaching,” she says. “And then there are times when I’m really burned out and I don’t know how much longer I can do this job.”
Rhames knows teachers who are overwhelmed or burnt out, physically or spiritually, won’t be much help to broken students. From the moment Rhames stood in front of her first class of “bright-eyed third-graders,” she knew “I was doomed to fail them without prayer.”
That’s why she founded Teachers Who Pray, a network meant to encourage teachers to pray together weekly. There are 29 U.S. chapters so far. Although participants don’t have to be Christians to join a group, they must be seeking God and agree to pray to Jesus Christ. Rhames says the prayer groups are great evangelism tools.
“My mom passed away … and Marilyn prayed for her so many times,” said Rocio Tovalin, a fellow teacher at Rhames’ school. “My mom was a woman of faith, and I wasn’t,” but Teachers Who Pray acted as a support system when she needed “patience and love.”
Rhames says her city upbringing by “two country parents” has influenced her perspective on students and education. Her parents came from Mississippi but met at a Chicago church. They married and had eight children, raising them to “fear the Lord, or else.” Although her mother worked as a nanny for wealthy Jewish families and her father worked odd jobs (as an auto body shop owner, a custodian, a truck driver), they still sometimes had to rely on welfare.
Rhames remembers what that was like: “You can get cornflakes. You can’t get Cap’n Crunch. You can get canned vegetables. You can’t get fresh vegetables.” She and her siblings wore hand-me-downs and sometimes got new clothes at Christmas or before the start of school. Family vacations occurred when they stuffed 10 people in a hot station wagon—with the air conditioning turned off to save gas—and drove to Mississippi for a funeral.
Some of Rhames’ outspokenness might come from her father, who didn’t like others telling him what to do, and rode a bus out of the segregated South when he was 17. He was adamant about owning a home and moved his family into a neighborhood rather than an apartment complex. Rhames’ older sister had many white classmates, but by the time Rhames was in school, they were all African-American—a symptom of “white flight.”
Today, Chicago remains the most racially segregated city in America, according to a study last year by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Rhames says she sees evidence of racism every day, in the form of the Dominick’s grocery store in a black neighborhood that never gets remodeled, or in the occasional racial bullying at her school, which is 10-15 percent African-American (many others are Hispanic). After six years working there, Rhames remains the only African-American teacher: “We don’t have a single black man working in our building. … I think that’s bad.”
The lack of a role model is worse for kids without a father in the home. Rhames, too, knows what that feels like: Her parents divorced when she was in high school. Her father, years later, asked the family to forgive him. He died from cancer in January.
Above Rhames’ classroom door hangs a fish-shaped wooden wind chime she brought home from a missions trip to Cameroon. With her faith and her firsthand knowledge of adversity, Rhames feels as if she’s “on a mission field right at school.” She doesn’t witness directly to students, but works to help them improve their futures. She’s formed bonds with their parents and shares the gospel with them.
Asked for the solution to the problems of American public education, Rhames replies the problem is too multilayered for man’s wisdom. She thinks the solution is divine intervention and prayer—and hopes her nonprofit will play a role.
On Nov. 20 the Chicago teacher and blogger gave birth by cesarean section to a 7-pound, 10-ounce boy. Looking to her future with a newborn, and to the future of U.S. school kids, she’s considering whether to end her own teaching career to build prayer networks and write about education full time.
For now, with Chicago’s new school closings in effect, “I’m just praying no child gets hurt, gets hit by a car, or gets shot walking to school.”