On fire

The best classroom teacher in America is Rafe Esquith, who teaches fifth grade to immigrant students in Los Angeles, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Esquith is most famous for organizing the Hobart Shakespeareans, a troupe of fifth graders who perform the works of the Bard all over the country, and sometimes abroad. . . . His fifth graders rehearsed Shakespeare on a Esquith designed stage, practiced the musical accompaniment, read and discussed parts of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and played a game called Buzz that Esquith describes in the book. The class counted to 100, with Esquith pointing to students in turn. If the next number was a prime number, the student had to say “buzz” instead.

. . . He runs the Young Authors project, in which each student over the course of a year writes a book. He instructs on the world of money by having his students run an entire economic system in the class, with paychecks, rents and too many other complications to mention.

Esquith, author of There Are No Shortcuts, has a new book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! It recounts Esquith’s battles with bureaucrats who wanted him to stop teaching Steinbeck books to fifth graders (too hard) and tried to give his classroom to another teacher.

Teacher Magazine complains about Esquith’s “self-congratulatory tone.”

Perhaps even more irritating is his habit of putting down other teachers as “apathetic or incompetent or both.” On pages where he isn’t busy promoting himself, he is usually busy criticizing his colleagues for not being him.

Esquith takes credit for the students from Room 56 who have gone on to attend the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern, and Notre Dame, as if he were the only one who ever taught them. He doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which teaching is a collaborative art.

Esquith definitely is a diva who promotes a 12-hour-a-day, bankrupt-yourself, crazy-genius style of teaching that’s not realistic for most teachers — including most smart, competent, idealistic teachers.

In a New York Times op-ed, Bronx history teacher Tom Moore complains about the movie Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even.

Yet once a hero teacher inspires students, they turn instantly into high achievers.

This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.

Esquith may be a hero, but he understands that it takes long, hard work teaching to help his students catch up and move ahead.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Cook says:

    Missionary Teachers? Missionary means they haven’t got to pay you much.

  2. Do fifth grade students know how to read and write better because they spend time learning Shakespeare?

    Are they better at math because they’ve memorized prime numbers?

    You know, it’s not that hard to teach Shakespeare and go without a lunch period. It makes for great P.R. And teachers, for the most part, loved to be loved.

  3. Esquith may be a hero, but he understands that it takes long, hard work teaching to help his students catch up and move ahead.

    Why is that “but” rather than “and”?

  4. When I was young, I thought teaching was a calling on par with belonging to the clergy. I was here to offer willing supplicants the gift of my infinite wisdom. It took one long year at a private school with public issues to dispell those notions. I left teacher after having a grade changed to permit a star athlete to attend a Big Time University. I came back to teaching, but I returned with experience parenting, working outside of teaching and staying home with kids. This moved me away from the policy of teaching at all costs because I no longer prized the image of my chosen profession over my personal life. But in the end, it has made me a more caring and understanding teacher. It made me a more balanced human being. And it made me a better communicator. I have run across these educational zealots from time to time. They like to run committees and get elected to district positions of power and have their photos in the local newspapers. That’s great. You can do that if you want. But most people aren’t that comfortable around self-proclaimed saints. And most saints are notoriously unaccepting of the rest of humanity that just might have something better to do at night than arrange another setting for Shakespeare allowing it to become more meaningful for their students. Now I have to go read art history for three hours in order to lecture tomorrow. I think I do enough every day. While I am sorry if this would dismay this style of teacher, I would be more than willing to hand over my daily grind for him to absorb.

  5. Hmmm. Interesting quandry here. One the one hand, one would want to salute and appreciate true excellence. If this man is truly one of the superteachers I saw in videos in my college education classes (you remember, the teachers who, through their blinding excellence made each and every student appreciate the value of education, made them excel, straightened their teeth, improved their posture, and ensured that all would become Rhoades scholars), more power to him. I can only attest that in all of my years of teaching, I have yet to meet one of these superhuman beings who seem to exist only in education school videotapes. I do, however, know that absolutely excellent teachers exist. Perhaps he is one.

    On the other hand, if this gentleman is a ruthless self-promoter whose 5th grade curriculum is designed and driven to provide the maximum publicity and ego-feeding for himself, then we have a problem. I, of course, don’t know the gentleman, but from what I know of him, I seem to recognize the self-promoter type.

    Why do I say that? OK, let’s apply a bit of logic in one area only. As a teacher of English, a life-long thespian, and as an adult, I know that while virtually anyone can appreciate Shakespeare, particularly the comedies, on at least a superficial level, it would be the rare 5th grader indeed (hell, the rare high school senior) who really understands the complex social, sexual, political and human issues in Shakespeare’s works to a degree that would render their performance anything more meaningful than a group of elementary kids doing Shakespeare and being remarkable primarily because most elementary kids don’t do Shakespeare. Given sufficient time, I’m sure I could get elementary kids to do a reasonable performance of some of Shakespeare’s works, but their performances would be only a veneer, a surface approximation of what a competent adult actor could provide. Simply put, 5th graders are insufficiently developed, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually to truly play Shakespeare. But if my goal was to make them look like something they are not, I could probably, through careful choice of material and rote coaching, make them look the part, thus making myself appear to be something of a miracle worker.

    We must indeed encourage innovation and excellence, but no teacher does themselves, their colleagues, students, society or the profession good by denigrating others because they fail to live up to their own exacting standards. Hubris is as deadly and destructive now as it was in ancient Greece. It is possible that this gentleman may wish to remain out of the easy lightning lobbing range of Zeus.

    Is he the best teacher in America? Perhaps. But I’d be more comfortable with such pronouncements if they involved less mercenary self-promotion.

  6. I teach in the same district as Esquith. LA is an incredibly hard place to teach. There are so many problems. He is right, the administrators do get in the way of teachers teaching all the time. I read his book, and many others to try and teach myself how to be a better inner city teacher. What I discovered is that the ones who make massive changes in their classrooms work insanely long hours and many are single and or divorced. I have talked to his collegues at different district meetings. They admire his outcomes but not always his methods or beliefs. While I admire his dedication, it has not always been the healthy choice to teach at all costs. I read that once he was in the hospital sick and he crawled out of the window to join his students again on a camping trip.

    The thing I have learned is that “super teachers” like super athletes or actors, get book deals because they go above and beyond. Nobody wants to read about a teacher who struggles everyday, works her butt off and still has low test scores. That is me. My kids do a bit better every year that I gain more experience. We play “Buzz.” I read to them all the time. I try to model a love of learning. I think I have made a difference for some, but not all. I try hard to maintain a balance at home and school and it is a terrible struggle.

    Celebrate exceptional teachers -absolutely. There are lessons to be learned. Support all teachers! There is a definate need!

  7. I heard Esquith’s fairly long interview with Bob Edwards this morning and I was definitely impressed with his enthusiam and methods and results. I’m a mother of 3, and am not a school teacher. I recognize that teachers must have a home life also, especially if you’re a parent. However, there were so many things Esquith said in the interview that made complete sense to me, yet aren’t the norm in schools today. Some of the things he does in the classroom, we’ve done in our home, and all 3 of our kids (all teenagers) have been academically gifted, well-rounded, and “nice”. I was *so* glad to hear him say reading and music are the two most important things parents can get their kids started on. It worked in our house. 🙂 Even if you just don’t have the hours available to teach like he chooses to do, it seems that any teacher could take some of his tactics and use them to their students’ advantage. My 3 kids have all had huge amounts of wasted time in their classes over the years. Luckily, they usually had a book with them and read if it was permitted. I never felt their schools pushed any of them nearly as much as I would have if I was a teacher. I’m not sure what good it will do me, a non-teacher, but what I heard on the interview makes me want to read this book. Perhaps he is egotistical. However, I can handle ego if the performance justifies it.