The world’s most famous teacher blasts school reform

The most famous teacher in the world is not a fan of high-stakes standardized tests,  Teach For America or the Common Core State Standards. But he loves teaching and teachers, and he has written a new book giving advice to colleagues at all stages of their careers.

He is fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith of Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. I feel comfortable calling him the world’s most famous teacher given the following about the father of four and grandfather of two, who has taught at Hobart  for nearly 30 years and written several best-selling books:

*When he goes to China he is so popular he needs security guards to protect him from the crush of the crowds.
*He is the only K-12 teacher to be awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts.
*Queen Elizabeth made him a member of the British Empire.
*The Dalai Lama gave him the Compassion in Action Award.
*He has turned down requests to have a Hollywood movie made about his work.
*A documentary, “The Atticus Finch of Hobart Elementary,” was made about the famous Shakespeare program he has run for years at Hobart, where all of his students appear in at least one full-length production a year. The English actor Ian McKellen actually noticed some of Esquith’s young students mouthing the words to a Shakespearean play in which he was performing in Los Angeles.
*He has been given the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and Disney’s National Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. He’s gotten more awards and honors, but you should have the idea by now.

Esquith’s new book is called “Real Talk For Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: ‘No Retreat, No Surrender!,‘ ” and it goes on sale today. The book provides encouragement and advice to teachers at every level on how to invigorate their teaching and survive the mind-numbing waves of school reform.

Esquith is known for being a tireless, highly creative teacher in a high-poverty school where students come to school carrying the burdens of living in tough conditions, but many of whom go on to top colleges.

Here are excerpts of a conversation I had with him about the new book, teaching, school reform and more. I spoke to him recently when he was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he and his wife had escorted 30 students to watch the performances. As an example of the trusting relationship he develops with young people, he said: “We don’t need more chaperones. If the kids need chaperones they shouldn’t be on the road.”

Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith

Q) Hi. Good to talk to you. I hear you are really famous in China.
A) I am incredibly famous in China. I spend about three weeks a year there and I have to have bodyguards because there are so many fans. They are so frustrated with the testing system there…. In the United States, professional development is usually just some publishing company talking to you about some book they are selling. It has nothing to do with the education of children. In China, it’s the government bringing me in to try to help teachers learn how to do their jobs better. I give them credit. They are trying to improve.

Q) Why did you write your new book with advice to teachers? What do you really want teachers to take away?
A) I want young teachers to understand what they are getting into. They are swallowing this line that they are going to save every kid. And when that doesn’t happen they are crushed and they give up.

I am not saying this to be conceited, but I’m a very good teacher and I want them to know that I fail all the time. There are factors beyond my control. But I have to understand there are issues of family and poverty. Sometimes even if you do reach a kid it’s not going to happen in the year you have them. They aren’t going to sing ‘To Sir With Love’ at the end of the year.

And to the veteran teachers who really understand what’s going on, every month it’s a new [school reform]  flavor of the month. The Common Core [State Standards initiative] isn’t going to do anything. They are spending tens of millions of dollars but it isn’t going to do anything. In my classroom you still have to put a period at the end of a sentence…. I don’t need a new set of standards to make that clear to me.

Q) What do veteran teachers want to know?
A) Every meeting now seems to be geared for the beginning teacher, so I wanted to write for veteran teachers too. Veteran teachers ask, ‘What is actually going to be useful to me as a teacher?’

I have a chapter called ‘Keeping it Real.’ If you ask most kids in school who are doing an assignment, why they are doing it, they will say, ‘Because my teacher told me to.’ In my class, if you ask a student, ‘Why are you writing this essay or doing this problem,’ they will say, ‘Because I will learn a skill and my life will be better.’… I tell my students, ‘Of course I want you to do well on the test at the end of the year, but the real test is what you are doing in 10 years.’  My students aren’t doing anything for me. Their values are inside. They are doing it for themselves.

For example, if my kids are learning about baseball and you ask them what they are doing, they will say they are working on concentration. You can’t throw a baseball without focus. And I say to them, ‘When in real life do you have to have focus: Well, if you drive a car or do surgery, you have to have focus.’ This is meaningful to teachers. So that’s what the book is about.

Q) What’s the most important advice you give to teachers?
A) The No. 1 rule of teaching: You have to be the person you want the kids to be. I am always the last one to go home. They see I work hard.

Q) Where did you start teaching?
A) I started in 1983, at an Idaho elementary school. In my first book, I jokingly called it Camelot. There were 300 middle class kids who all had two parents and went after school to swim practice. Everybody spoke English. They all did well and I thought I was a good teacher. Really. Two years later when I challenged myself to come to Hobart, I was shocked. I met kids who were absolutely as capable — they could have been you one day — but you knew they wouldn’t be. I was at a school were only 32 percent of the students finished high school. That’s when I saw the tragedy of all. Shakespeare says that tragedy isn’t just bad. It’s something that could have been good that goes bad. I got angry.

Q) What is different about public education today versus when you started?
A) The obsession with testing. We always gave tests, but basically now it’s the entire day. Basically if it’s not on the test don’t teach it. Teachers spend hours and hours and hours trying to figure out what’s going to be on the test. They will teach that there are four chambers of the heart, but not why we have a heart or why it works…. The data you are looking at — I feel like the emperor has no clothes. Somebody has to say this stuff. I think teachers will feel better to see in print what they think all the time.

So the obsession with testing is one big change. Also, the economy has declined, families are hurt and I deal with many more family problems. Some of them are really difficult… Most of the parents I deal with try hard for their kids. One of the myths is that poor kids have parents who don’t care. That’s crap. They care.

But I definitely deal now with more poverty and family troubles and the effects of poverty. I had a great kid this year. His father is gone. His mom works from 5 in the afternoon to 5 in the morning, so he doesn’t really see her. He comes home to an empty house. For teachers to be expected to have the same results as teachers in Finland where there is much less poverty, it’s absurd.

Q) What are the biggest effects of living in poverty that you see in your students?
A) Nutrition. Absolutely huge. I have students who don’t have dinner the night before they come to me or they have a bad dinner.

Sleep. People aren’t discussing this. Students are often in home situations where they aren’t being monitored, and it’s not because they have bad parents — they are trying to make a living — but students aren’t learning the importance of sleep. I  really work with the kids on that issue.

Q) How do you help them?
A) One of the ways to combat the effects of living in poverty is to provide children with a really stable force. It’s not that I have all the answers. But I dress the same way. I have the same mood every day. I want to be the safe haven where the child knows he can go every day.

Q) Doing homework can be hard for kids who have no support at home.  Where do you stand on homework?
A) I’m not a big fan of homework. I don’t give a lot of it. My students stay until 4 or 5 o’clock every day working on Shakespeare. So when they go home they have maybe 30 minutes of homework and are in bed by 8 p.m. Then they are fresh the next morning and want to do well. Making sure your kids are healthy — that’s part of being a teacher. You help students internalize the value that sleep will help them feel better.

Q) Tell me about an extraordinary experience you had with a student.
A)  I had a student, Joann [Cho], who did change my life.  Now she is the director of my music program. She got a PhD in music…She married a fabulous guy. She brought the guy to me before her father. That’s how close we are. During her wedding, she walks over to me in her wedding dress and said, ‘ If you need me to come in Monday to help with the kids I can come in.’

The way she surprised me had a huge effect on me. It was back in the ’90s when I was starting to understand the value of music. I was a terrible at teaching music. We were trying to figure out a song in my classroom and it sounded terrible. Joann had been in my class for months, this tiny little kid who never said anything. But she raised her hand and said, ‘Can I show you something?’ She sat down at the keyboard and played the piece with an entire orchestral arrangement. She said, ‘Rafe we can’t do this song because you are doing it for men to sing and we have to change it for our voices.’ She was a prodigy but nobody in our class knew it until then. None of the kids in her classes for five years knew it. We were in fifth grade.

What she taught me was the value of humility. She doesn’t show off…. This is what I learned from Joann. She was the vision of what I was trying to do. Then I had to spend 15 years trying to get there. She was my muse.

Q) You mentioned the Common Core a little earlier. You are clearly not a supporter. What do you think about some of the other parts of the school reform movement? How about Teach For America and its five-week Summer Institute that serves as the training for all corps members?
A)  They [TFA corp members] are in my room all the time. Good kids. Nice. Bitter joke: TFA really stands for ‘teach for a while.’ Like all other teachers there are some great ones who are there for the right reasons who want to make a difference and some who want to pad their résumés. I certainly don’t think anybody can be a great teacher in five weeks. I hope this book helps them think a little bit about what they are getting into.

They [TFA corps members] are obsessed with test scores. It becomes all about this: If you have a kid who gets a 75 on a test and then the kid gets an 85, you are a good teacher. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because of my test scores….  They [TFA leaders] are incredibly defensive about hearing an alternate idea. What’s said is that they are constantly throwing data and money showing they are successful. But they are really not. They are no more successful than any other teachers and if you read their blogs a lot give up in horrible frustration.

Q) You have long used the slogan in your classroom, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” That is now the motto of the KIPP network of charter schools. 
A) Yes, Mike and Dave [KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin] followed me for a year, and used all my slogans. And I have to be careful. They are nice guys. But I don’t think they captured the spirit of what I’m doing. We don’t agree about how you get kids from A to B…. ‘Be nice’ in a lot of these schools means being obedient. Of course I want my kids to listen to me but not because they fear me but because they trust me….

Mike likes to tell the story about how he got upset when a kid was watching too much TV. And he went to the house and took the kid’s TV away. But my approach is to get the kid to turn the TV off by himself. In my view it’s the long run that works, not the short-term fix…

One of the expressions Teach For America borrowed from me is, ‘There are no shortcuts.’ That’s in my classroom on the wall. If you want to be a guitarist it takes thousands and thousands of hours of disciplined practice. You don’t’ get to be Eric Clapton in a week. But it’s ironic that an organization that believes there are no shortcuts trains teachers in five weeks.

The point of my new book is that it takes years to be a good classroom teacher. It takes year to be good at anything.

With Teach For America, I just want to tell them that there’s another problem. Most TFA teachers don’t stay in the classroom long. I want them to know that Room 56 matters. What we do matters. But the kids see teachers shifting back and forth, leaving for other jobs, wo why would they believe anything matters if their teachers keep leaving?

I’ve been a teacher at Hobart for 28 years. Can you imagine how many times I’ve been asked to leave? To start my own school, to make the movie? If I leave the room, the students will feel it.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · July 16, 2013