By Rafe Esquith
Viking. 319 pp. $26.95
Rafe Esquith’s “Real Talk for Real Teachers” is a perfect antidote for teachers demoralized by bureacratic interference and the testing mania. Esquith is no self-appointed guru sitting in some cubicle in a think tank or a state department of education. For the past 24 years, he has taught fifth grade at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, and that classroom experience with all its joy and pain inform the entire book.
Each of the 25 chapters consists of vignettes from Esquith’s experiences, followed by bulleted bits of advice titled “For Your Consideration.” Esquith is obviously an idealist who believes that teachers can change lives, but he is also a pragmatist who gives advice on how to play the game in the face of mindless bureaucratic interference. Though he despises high-stakes testing, he accepts that it is here and advises how to prepare kids for state exams and still develop critical thinking and love of learning. He cautions teachers against cynicism, reminding them that principals and local superintendents are victims of state and federal bureaucratic interference just as much as teachers.
Esquith’s chapter titled “Leave Some Children Behind” will have teachers nodding in agreement and should be required reading for policymakers and school administrators. Esquith argues that “schools systems, under fire from all corners, have become desperate to please everyone.” Teachers in this country, as many of my students who have come from schools in Africa and Asia have told me over the years, simply do too much for their students, creating in them a sense of entitlement that will not serve them well once they leave the shelter of school.
As much as I agreed with Esquith’s advice, I felt that “Real Talk for Real Teachers” would have made a stronger impact had it been cut in half. Many of the vignettes go on too long and make for tedious reading. There was also a problem with Esquith’s tone; his “real talk” often gets patronizing, and there is something slightly self-aggrandizing and smug in his inclusion of letters from former students and other teachers profusely praising him.
Those problems aside, Esquith’s is a voice from the real world of schools that should resonate deeply with today’s teachers.