Rafe Esquith became a household name for educators nationwide short after his book on teaching, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 became a New York Times bestseller.
Those familiar with his books are also familiar with the Hobart Shakespeareans—a musical and theater production company made up of students in his classroom that performs in numerous cities around the country. The class project is a feat that defies traditional classroom conventions: students start their school days as early as 6:30 a.m. and end as late as 5 p.m.
It's no surprise why many have come to revere the teaching techniques he has mastered in his classroom at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, where he has taught for more than 30 years. Esquith's humorous, no-nonsense approach challenges the status quo that teachers face in today's world of budget cuts, test performance pressures, and cuts to arts programs in schools.
On Tuesday, August 27, Esquith joined KPCC education reporter Mary Plummer in the Crawford Family Forum where he opened up about how he dealt with failure early in his career and why he feels today's education assessment methods are misguided.
'Good teachers are becoming an endangered species; the system is crushing them.'
The biggest challenge to teachers today is federal and state educational mandates including the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Esquith says. Like many critics of the so-called "common core," Esquith calls it an "Orwellian" approach to teaching math and English that doesn't address other factors that lead students to fail in school.
Instead, he says, it's simply more bureaucracy. "Teachers not only have to teach the same lessons we've always taught," he says, "but now you have to write it up in such a way that matches language that people that don't teach are asking us to do."
All teachers want to be evaluated, he says, but the process has become a bureaucratic burden "to prove that you're a good teacher."
"But when you're being force-fed from the top, something that is not going to help Johnny read any better, I promise you Mary, you're going to have me back here in five years saying, 'was the common core successful?'' he says. "People on the front lines will tell you that's not the case."
Teaching is tough, especially in the first years
"Anybody who's a real teacher knows that in your first couple of years, you're terrible," Esquith says. "The beauty of a long career is that you can learn from your mistakes."
Esquith says teaching is a tough job to do for a long time, also the type of job not possible to matter in a few years.
"Most young teachers have a misconception of what they're getting into. They have their lesson plans and they've gone to all their training sessions. And there's a bitter joke going around: there are those who can teach, and those who can't, make the rules for teachers. I have a thousand visitors a year to my room, and many of them are young teachers, and they're good, Mary. they've got the chops and they really want to make a difference. But they've watched the Hollywood movies. and they go in and they think, 'Hey I'm really cool and if I work really hard for a year all of my students are going to go to Harvard or Princeton.' And when they see that doesn't happen and when they see that they have to deal with poverty and — excuse my language — sometimes some real crazy ass parents and a system that is often dysfunctional and they start to, in their minds, fail — they're not failing but they think they're failing, then they give up and become discouraged and bitter," he says.
Esquith, who began his teaching career in 1982, says he didn't learn everything himself in his own classroom. "Most of my good ideas came from watching great teachers, working with great teachers," he says.
"I met a great teacher in Chicago. On the first day of school when she gets home, she gets out a pencil and she writes down everybody in her class she remembers, and then she looks at her role book and makes a list of every kid she didn't remember: those are kids she focuses on for the year. Because who do we remember? We remember the kids with their hands up, and we remember the kids who have driven us crazy. What about the kids that no one notices? So many of them are capable, wonderful kids if we just paid a little attention," he says.
'Keeping it real'
"If you go to most children in school, and you ask — they're doing math or they're writing an essay — 'why are you doing this?' What do you think most kids will say to that? 'Because my teacher told me to, or it's assigned or it's due or my mother will kill me if I don't get this done.' The reason why my students are so committed to their work is because I teach them a different answer. If you ask a Hobart Shakespearean, 'why are you doing your math? Why are you in Shakespeare? Why are you playing baseball?' The child will look up and say, 'if I learn this skill my life just got better'. And every skill that I teach I connect the skill to their life. We are not doing this for your grade; we are not doing this for a test; and we're sure not doing this to please your teacher. You're going to be using this skill in your life," he says.
"The advice I give to teachers: make your classroom relevant," Esquith says. "No child is going to work hard because you write a standard on the board. No child is going to work hard because of the color theme of your classroom. It's not going to happen. When the education is made about them and they're working for themselves, that's when they buy in and work hard. It's harder to do that."
Moderated by KPCC’s education reporter Mary Plummer. This event was produced by Elaine Cha.