"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 27, 2009


How do you personally feel about the future of American education?

I’m panicked, I’m worried. I think if we continue along the path that we’re going, our greatest days are behind us. But, I still believe we can turn it around. That’s why I’m still in the classroom, and I’m gonna do my best. But as long as we embrace “testing is everything,” and as long as we keep shrinking art programs and physical education programs, we’re not in a good place. Those are the things that inspire kids to do great things, so I hope we keep enlarging them, not shrinking them.

The words are those of Rafe Esquith, at the end of an interview currently freely available from Teacher Magazine in a piece called Lighting Fires With Rafe Esquith. Esquith is one of America's great teachers, winner of many awards, a notable author. The key is the impact he has upon his students.

Equith teachers 5th grade at an inner city school, Hobart Elementary, in Los Angeles. He has his kids actually performing (passionately) Shakespeare. He is more than a little "unconventional." Perhaps the best description of what he does can be seen in the title of his 2nd (and best-selling) book (published 2 years ago): Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56.

I am going to strongly suggest that if you have any interest in education and meaningful teaching - as parent, educator, policy maker, or simply citizen/taxpayer - that you take the link to the interview and print it down and save it -- NOW. The link will expire at some point, and you will not want to lose access to this insightful piece.

Let me offer a few more exchanges from the interview, with some observations and commentary of my own.

I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we are now in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books now like Algebra Made Easy and Shakespeare Made Easy. But I want teachers and parents to remember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousands of hours of patient study, and I want people to know that when kids make mistakes or have setbacks, we don’t need to jump all over them for every little thing. This is a long process. I’m hoping that from the lessons of Lighting Their Fires people will understand that I’m trying to teach things that kids will remember after they’ve left my classroom, not just for the test at the end of the year.

not just for the test at the end of the year - and yet the Obama administration wants to tie merit pay for teachers to student performance on those same end of year tests, rather than finding other ways of examining the effects teachers have upon their students. I suspect that anyone who would walk into Esquith's classroom in Room 56 at Hobart would immediately grasp the positive effect he has upon students, regardless of any results either on end of year tests examined separately, or the growth shown as compared either to last year's tests or tests at the beginning of the year.

Esquith talks about reminding teachers of the importance of being themselves. Let me offer a bit of this section, right after he mentions other teachers thanking him for that.
Because a lot of people are telling the teacher not to be yourself. That we’re all supposed to be exactly the same. We’re not. In a country that says it’s supposed to celebrate diversity, we’re not! And that’s what I want those burned-out teachers to remember. Be yourself. You’re valuable, you’re important, and you’re making a difference, even though maybe you’re in a school that doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’s a thankless job, it really is. But when you do it well, it’s a fun job.

It is not only a "fun job," it is absoluting energizing, especially on those occasions when you "hit a home run" and find a way of really connecting with the students.

Here I note that I have insisted my student teachers learn how to be themselves in front of the adolescents in my classroom, who can quickly determine if a teacher is being something different, that is, is in "teacher mode" - for many, that will serve as a barrier, because what the students really hunger for is someone who respects them enough to be genuine with them. By the way, as we mourn the loss of Ted Kennedy, perhaps we should note that so much of the response to him was that he was very much himself, which was a very caring person, in his interactions even with those who opposed him politically, which might be why he was able to find common ground on occasion and become close friends with the likes of Orrin Hatch. Effective teaching also involves the building of relationships through trust, the showing of genuine care. If in fact your real self is not caring towards the students in your charge, I strongly suggest you find another occupation, no matter how knowledgeable about your subject matter you may be.

Esquith talks about the number of former students who come back to his classroom and provide positive role models for his current students. Here I note that I teach mainly 10th graders, and I see a similar effect - they have older siblings who come back to me for college recommendations, or neighbors, teammates, those on the bus who will share their experiences in my classroom. I will not claim I have anything near the impact Esquith does - his students are younger, and for many his is the first such encounter with a caring and challenging adult not related to them. There are many great teachers in our school, and I am fortunate that almost all of my students have already had at least one such encounter before they enter my classroom.

Esquith also talks about how his classroom works:
The idea that kids don’t like school is a myth. Kids love school when it’s fun and interesting. They don’t like school when it’s boring. But you let them do things that are relevant, like play in a rock band, as we do in my classes, and capture their imagination. I think that’s what people see in my classroom─there’s a great energy level, an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together.

Note especially those last words: an atmosphere of warmth and humor and hard work all mixed together - that combination encourages students who are struggling to keep trying. If I am going to challenge my students to go further, I have to build the trust, lighten the burden with humor, affirm that I know they can do it.

A couple of quotes without comments:
I do think that the goal should be that we’re going to give every child the opportunity to be the best they can be. Right now, we’re not doing that. And as I always tell the kids, “It’s not my job to save your soul, but it’s my job to give you an opportunity to save your own soul.” I can’t make a kid smarter or better, but I can give them the opportunity to become that and show them how to do that. That’s my job, and that’s a parent’s job─creating opportunities.

I’m really hoping is that teachers, when they keep growing, they can grow into themselves. They’re so busy following the script, they stop being themselves. I think if the teacher’s a great cook, then I hope she cooks with the kids as part of the day! Work it into the lesson plan! Because that’s your passion... the good news is, in my classroom, it is absolutely my room. Even though we follow all the standards, my three particular passions, which are baseball, rock & roll and Shakespeare are all a part of that classroom. And it works really well, because I’m good at showing kids how to do those things.

Rafe Esquith is an extraordinary teacher, one of the nation's best. And yet, instead of learning from teachers like him when we make our policy, too often we listen to economists and politicians, we are far too inclined to try to standardize - and not just in how we test. When teachers are empowered - as Esquith is and as I have been fortunate enough to be by 5 principals in three different schools - they commit themselves to their students despite the barriers and obstacles, despite the restriction s of external testing and pacing guides (which often make no sense even as they are supposed demonstrate that we have 'covered" the material for which the students will be held "accountable").

We need to remember that we are teaching students, a collection of individual, unique personalities, not a class or a subject if by phrasing in the latter fashion we lose sight of those individuals. We need to be able to adjust our instruction to the persons before us.

I have a decreasing amount of hair. I'm not sure how much I can afford to lose by setting it on fire. But I know Esquith is right - it is by bringing one's own passion to the task of learning with one's students that I am most effective as a teacher. It is also by providing an environment that the passions with which the students arrive can somehow be included within the classroom as well. Esquith is an elementary teacher - he has his students for the entire day. I teach 6 periods, each of 45 minutes, each with a different collection of students, currently with up to 36 in the room at one time (and that will expand today). It is somewhat different, but still fundamentally the same - I may have less time to accomplish that, and far more specific content with which to connect them, but they are still unique individuals with different backgrounds and interests. I make clear I am passionate and invite them along for the ride.

along for the ride - that means I am traveling that road with them. That is one fundamental concept of teaching which Esquith may not explicitly state, but which underlies his entire approach, and with which I strongly agree.

Esquith will be the first to tell you he does not have all the answers. And perhaps his words may raise more questions, to which he would almost certainly say "good!" It is by asking questions that we can reexamine our thinking and improve our own actions.

Which is why this post has the title that it does.



1 comment:

  1. Thanks for picking up that fascinating Esquith piece. The next set of questions: How do we give more teachers the support they need to become more like Esquith? Is it possible that the support we give them--if founded on our vision or excellence--might become the next set of prescriptions that threaten teacher autonomy and creativity?