America's Best Classroom Teacher

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 9:44 AM

Rafe Esquith is the most interesting and influential classroom teacher in the country, but he is not getting nearly as much glory as he deserves. He won't SAY that, of course. Modesty is one of the big lessons taught to his fifth graders in room 56 at the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, and Esquith believes that role modeling is one of the most important things that teachers do.

But on the cover of his terrific new book, "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56," Esquith hints at what he is feeling when he, a film addict, sees the latest movie based on some other teacher's life. Underneath his name on the cover are these words: "An Actual Classroom Teacher."

What does he mean by that? Well, consider some recent films about educators. "Freedom Writers," with Hilary Swank playing Erin Gruwell, is in theaters right now. Other films about teachers like Esquith who help low-income students include "The Ron Clark Story" (Matthew Perry as Clark, 2006), "Dangerous Minds" (Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, 1995) and "Stand and Deliver" (Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante, 1988). Unlike Esquith, all of these fine teachers have left the classrooms that made them famous. According to their Web sites, Gruwell and Johnson are training teachers and Clark is starting his own school. Escalante, who does not have a Web site, has retired and moved back to his native Bolivia where, at age 76, he still does some teaching.

But Esquith is in the same classroom with the same sort of kids from the same Hispanic and Korean neighborhoods he first encountered 22 years ago. As he says, even the best teachers still have a lot to learn. This 244-page book, $17.22 on, should be read by anyone interested in teachers, or teachers wanting, as Esquith always does, to get better.

He and I disagree on the necessity of the frequent and regular standardized testing that goes on in schools these days. And that makes me uncomfortable, since his understanding of education compared to mine is like Einstein's comprehension of the universe compared to that of my mixed terrier, Mickey. In my defense, if every teacher were as skilled and energetic as Esquith, we would no longer need standardized tests. (His kids score far above the Hobart average on reading and math tests.)

Here, for instance, is Esquith describing how he prepares students for a standardized math test by training them to be psychometricians:

He puts a simple addition problem on the board: 63 plus 28 equals ? Below the problem he writes the standard A., B., C. and D., leaving the possible answers blank for the moment.

"Rafe: All right, everybody. Let's pretend this is a question on your Stanford 9 test, which as we all know will determine your future happiness, success, and the amount of money you will have in the bank. (Giggling from the kids) Who can tell me the answer?

All: 91.

Rafe: Very good. Let's place that 91 by the letter C. Would someone like to tell me what will go by the letter A?

Isel: 35.

Rafe: Fantastic! Why 35, Isel?

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