Rafe Esquith, the most imaginative and productive classroom teacher I know, freely admits he overdoes it.
He works long hours, including Saturdays. He leads his fifth graders in mounting several performances of a Shakespeare play each year. He helps former students prepare for college. This summer he gave speeches in China, took former students to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, drove their luggage 700 miles, showed students several John Steinbeck haunts, did an 11 day tour for this new book and took students on a Mississippi steamboat ride.
As hyper as he is, after 29 years teaching mostly low-income Hispanic and Korean kids in a small, rundown classroom in Los Angeles he knows what drains teacher energy and ambition. In his new book, “Real Talk for Real Teachers,” he describes this in ways I think nearly every teacher in the country would endorse:
The system, “rather than encourage and support you, . . . actively works to discourage you,” he writes. “Every few years a new ‘game changer’ is announced as the newest set of standards are introduced, but the system never really changes. Veteran teachers know that these standards are no different from the old ones. Taking a page from the politburo, leaders stand in the front of the room at professional development meetings making demands and predictions for their ‘New World Order.’ Good teachers don’t know whether to laugh, cry or quit.
“The most recent sermon on the mount has come to us in the form of Common Core Standards. I am not making this up: the presenter at our first training explained that our job as teachers was ‘to prepare the children to be a part of the international workforce.’ We were also told that the emphasis on imaginative literature was going to be scaled back because children need more nonfiction.”
Let’s give the Cluelessness of the Year award to the presenter who said that to Esquith. He has proven that a close reading of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and even Shakespeare can have a magical effect on 10 year olds from homes where English is not the first language, even though he is told such texts are inappropriate for that age group.
Standardized tests have their place. Esquith’s kids do much better on them than other students with similar backgrounds. But the best way to determine a teacher’s worth is to spend time with his students. Ian McKellen, the great English actor, became an Esquith devotee after giving a performance in Los Angeles in which a group of children in the audience way too young for Shakespeare seemed enraptured. In fact, he realized, they were mouthing the dialogue as if they already knew it.
As Esquith says in the book, “real teachers know that real teaching is not based on the Common Core, or blended learning, or the newest notebook of rules and regulations handed out at the Tuesday staff meeting.” His view of the new world order is nicely illustrated by the D.C. Public Schools announcement last year that the city’s 40 lowest performing schools would have to raise their average proficiency rates from 23 percent to a completely ridiculous 63 percent by 2017.
Esquith’s book is full of good advice for teachers, including himself, who want to raise their kids to a new level without killing themselves. He schedules more rest and relaxation into his day. His formula for great teaching is following his best instincts about what works and ignoring expert advice when it contradicts what he knows to be true.
Some schools encourage their teachers to act that way. I wish there were more schools like them.