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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Educating Esme: 10 Years Later

In 1999, Esme Raji Codell published "Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year," chronicling her first year as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. After garnering acclaim from a variety of major news outlets and education groups, the book sold over 200,000 copies (and a new edition was recently published).
Chicago, late 1990s. Right before Duncan, during the Vallas years. Pre-No Child Left Behind. Esme's principal was a know-nothing nincompoop; nowadays, he'd be a New Leaders for New Schools-type pushing scripted nonsense and proudly acting as a CEO driving test scores. Times have changed since Esme's time in the classroom. Below is a pertinent question posed to Esme:

Question: Do you think the profession has changed since you wrote this diary?
Esme's answer: The extreme to which educators “teach to the test” feels different today. Teachers seem to be held to a new level of stringency in terms of content, and the climate is more fearful due to the punitive responses when schools don’t perform up to standards. Who wants to work in a setting where the children and the teachers feel they can’t make mistakes or where they can’t use their imaginations? Contrary to the belief of many third graders and public figures, most people don’t become teachers because they want to give tests. When the No Child Left Behind Act and all of the ensuing manian over high-stakes standardized testing come along, I sincerely tried to ignore it, to shut my door on it, but it has really intruded on the culture of education. If I were just starting out now, with things the way they are…well, I think I might have been discouraged from the career path altogether. It saddens me to see teachers I knew to be joyous and effective worn down like the nub of a number two pencil.

The diary reminds us that teaching can be highly creative, engaging, and humanistic, not simply based on canned curriculum, computer-based programs, and teach-to-the-test pedagogical approaches. Esme's sassy charm - she insisted on going by Madame for much of her first year - was a way of keeping herself steady even during the most difficult times, and as a way of really connecting with the children on a level they deeply appreciated. She dressed up, allowed students to fully occupy her classroom, tried her hardest to support every child, and made literacy the center of the world. She was innovative in a way that captured student's imaginations and attention spans - not through testing nor technology, but through real literacy. This innovation wasn't left to the charter management organizations and edupreneurs - Esme reminds us all that real innovation comes from our teachers. Arne Duncan, sadly, cannot fathom this seemingly simplistic concept; after all, the man was never a teacher.
But the diary also reminds us that teachers choosing this path are no longer valued by an education system hell-bent on driving test scores to the detriment of nearly everything else. We'll burn out teachers by forcing them to work longer hours; we'll also drive out many of those seeking a profession focused creativity, compassion, and community by implementing "no excuses" policies and high-stakes testing.
Just a few years after the book's publication, Esme left teaching to advocate for real literacy in America's public schools and spread her passion for reading (including her website, Planet Esme).
I'll close with another snippet from a Q&A with Esme, again reflecting on how the profession has changed since her time in the classroom:
One blogger offhandedly referred to our national policy alternatively as "No Teacher Left Teaching." Even with our new president, there's a lot of holdover in that attitude. I, for one, am happy to be accountable the day we decide accountability is not a synonym for success on standardized tests. Accountability means "that which can be explained." In my own mind, then, accountability is a synonym for documentation. In other professions, like science, people are allowed to make mistakes, to have outcomes they don't expect, to be creative in finding solutions...they just have to describe what happened. Without this kind of leeway, the teacher corps will attract a very different kind of educator and our students will suffer. I also think it's worthwhile to remember that most remarkable individuals in American history never took a standardized test, and there have been and will be many people who contribute positively who aren't that good at filling in blanks. Instead they color outside the lines. But I am hopeful, because necessity is the mother in invention. More teachers are starting to say, "Hey, you're trying to make me work in a way that's not allowing me to be effective with children." And people are listening. I believe we'll hit a tipping point, and something positive will come of this.


  1. I can see the mind-narrowing effect of Test-Mania among my own 10th and 12th graders:

    There is a restlessness among the students to constantly find "the answer"-----Is THIS the answer? Is THIS it? Is THIS wrong or right? etc etc etc etc

    Too many teachers on too many overhead projectors
    giving too many notes to merely memorize, IMHO.

    Relatively simple CONTEXTUAL questions like, "How can you tell from the title of the passage whether the writer's outlook is pessimistic or optimistic?" .... These types of questions get perplexed looks from students caught in confusion over such an "involved" or "layered" answer that is not conveniently compact and
    cut & dry like multiple-choice.


    To think that there are Biz-ness-Suit-wearin' Corporate Folks who are actually making million$$ off this mis-teaching of American kids makes me very sad indeed.

    But hovering takeover threats against schools are a great gun-to-the-head.

    And to think that I MYSELF am being successfully coerced into this kind of teaching makes me feel, well, dirty.

    Wouldn't YOU feel dirty too?

  2. Anonymous9:03 PM

    i am angry that esme is making money off of a book which i had to buy for grad school. her higher that thou attitudes and her spunkiness is revolting. this book was filled with urban legend stories and each problem with a children left them crying and her smug. hypocrical on so many levels. for one, how she complained that the boy who called her a bitch wasnt going to get in the appropriate amount of trouble due to his home life but then on the other hand, letting the theif slide by. esme is the worst type of teacher, pokes fun of other teachers and then quits to something meaningful, like being a media specialist. what a joke.