There is no shortage of books about education, and most of them are not positive. The line of critics telling us what is wrong in our schools, with our teachers, and with students today, stretches to infinity. If someone does manage to sneak through a book extolling something positive that is happening in the classroom, he is shouted down by those holding up schools as models of disorganization and chaos filled with child molesters and do-nothings. No doubt, American education has been at a crossroads, a critical juncture that may well determine the future of the nation. However, there is good happening on our school campuses. And there are excellent teachers doing the job and living the life in the face of almost constant criticism and negativity.
One of those good teachers is Rafe Esquith, winner of the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award among other honors. Even Queen Elizabeth has taken notice, making Esquith a Member of the British Empire. Quite a trophy shelf for a teacher from Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. The story of Esquith’s work with the Hobart Shakespeareans is a positive beacon of light in a very dark period in American education. For thirty years, he has taught everything from situational base running in the great American game of baseball to, of course, Shakespeare. His day begins at 5 AM and goes nonstop until 9:15 PM when he drops into bed. He teaches on Saturdays and plans lessons on Sundays. He takes kids on trips during breaks to Washington D.C. and Ashland, Oregon for the annual Shakespeare Festival. During the summer months, he brings in kids to study Shakespeare and prepare for the next year’s show, if he can bribe the janitors to unlock the door. This is how he creatively works around the ever-falling budget ax.
Esquith is an excellent, all-around teacher, but what he is known for is the Hobart Shakespeareans. Every year, his ten year old students produce a Shakespeare extravaganza that includes music, dance, and the plays themselves. This teacher is a force of nature. His latest book, Real Talk For Real Teachers (Viking, 2013) is subtitled, “Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: ‘No Retreat, No Surrender!’” The sheer scope of his commitment and the long hours he puts in may scare off some rookies and force veterans into retirement, but then they were probably not real teachers anyway. For the real deals, he will motivate and inspire; for those who have never set foot in a classroom after their own graduations and think teaching is an easy gig with summers off, you will be in for a ride.
Esquith is brutally honest about his job. Fatigue is always a factor, and failure is always lurking outside the door waiting to come in on the heels of a troubled student or a difficult parent. Kids will disappoint, Esquith makes clear. Parents will scream and berate, and there are times when colleagues and administrators discourage, complicate and frustrate. All part of the game. Esquith gives some solid tips to handle these cases and so much more.
What Esquith doesn’t like is almost as interesting as his advice on how to cope. He knocks President Obama’s Race to the Top program, saying education isn’t a race. “The journey is everything,” he writes, “and every voyage should balance adventure with rest.” Teachers who follow Esquith’s schedule will not find any rest, but I take this to mean that students’ education must be balanced between academics and play. Later, in his daily schedule, Esquith shows us the time he devotes to recreation with his students outside, teaching them teamwork, athletic skills, and a graceful competitive spirit. He gets in some good digs about overemphasis on standardized test scores and the latest boondoggle, Common Core Standards. At a training session, the presenter tells the audience of teachers, including Esquith, that their job as educators is “to prepare the children to be a part of the international workforce.”
To those well-intentioned business leaders and production specialists who think they know the secret to improving education, he says back off. It is not as simple as a good teacher equaling good outcomes for students. “The family situation of every student, both emotionally and financially, is the primary influence on a child’s success or failure in school,” he writes. Teachers teach children, not curriculum. “Standards may be the same for all ninth graders,” he says, but not all ninth graders are the same.” Therefore, he makes clear that a good teacher must know his subject and how to communicate and inspire students. Esquith writes: “After a few years of finding one’s style and rhythm, good teachers begin to spend more time locked in on the audience rather than on the assignments.”
Much of what Esquith excels at is discipline. He is disciplined and focused himself, and he expects nothing less from his students. Without discipline, one cannot be effective as a teacher or a student. He takes remarkable risks traveling with students in this age of frivolous legal action, and he spends a lot of time in the book explaining how he teaches discipline to his kids. He places the problem within the framework of a permissive society. “We have created situations where children do not understand that actions have consequences,” he writes. School districts are too eager to please and to keep all stakeholders happy. “In doing so,” Esquith writes, “they hurt the very children they are supposed to be helping.” Before his Hobart Shakespeareans begin rehearsal or hit the road for an off campus adventure, they know that actions have consequences.
Do the students ever act up and cause trouble? Yes, and these stories often include the teacher’s embarrassment, but Esquith analyzes the incidents turning them into learning experiences for the reader, often by showing where he, himself, went wrong. This is all part of his classroom motto (and title of his first book): “There are no shortcuts.” Esquith says “It’s a reminder to students that nothing comes easily. Mastering a skill or achieving a difficult goal takes thousands of hours…in a fast-food society, good things take time.”
I would be remiss if I did not point out some shortcomings in the book. What works for one teacher is not universally good for all, and although Esquith never says his methods are a panacea, teachers who read this book need to recognize their own uniqueness requires his ideas to be adapted to their own style and persona. He throws down a daunting example to follow. His all-teacher-all-the-time approach may be unrealistic for those of us who, you know, need some sleep once in a while, and Esquith makes clear that rest is necessary. Of course, some people need more than others, and that is important to remember. Some teachers may even find his program discouraging to attempt to emulate. He has had thirty years of trial and error to perfect his game, a game best suited to his temperament, his school, his classroom, and most of all, his students.
To combat burnout, he suggests, “Every year you teach, add one new activity to your class.” For some teachers, this might be a recipe to maximize fatigue. My philosophy has always been “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Sometimes, less really is more. Again, it is up to the individual teacher. If one is bored, or feels the teaching has become stale, then by all means shake things up and add something new. One has to be careful, though, not to push too hard. No student is better served by a teacher in the hospital with exhaustion.
I also found fault with the content of some of the teaching and activity he describes. My first concern is with intellectual maturity. Are children in fourth or fifth grade ready for Shakespeare? It’s great that they can learn the lines and their meanings and perform for an audience, but there are a number of grade level texts that speak to their age and life experiences. Shakespeare is high school level. Pity the poor teacher who comes after Esquith and must teach the play he has already done. Every teacher brings a new facet to a previously read work, but the kids don’t see it that way. They see it as “been there, done that.” This could set up some issues for teachers down the line, and I’ve seen that happen repeatedly in my twenty-six years in the classroom. I am torn about what Esquith advocates here; I do think educators need to reach higher, and challenge students to do the same. Still, it is a delicate balance between reaching and over-reaching.
Shakespeare often includes themes and ideas that although readable by a ten-year old student, may not be comprehendible. Even his comedies base their humor often on racy material. He mentions doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has some sexual elements to it. I’ve taught the play in the eighth grade without difficulty, but I’m wondering, truly, what a fourth grader might make of its confused lovers and sexual overtones. Esquith also mentions using the Prince song, “Cream,” in a production. “It’s particularly raunchy,” he writes, but he feels it is perfect for the themes of Measure for Measure. I would be hesitant to have young children performing this song.
Rafe Esquith is a truly remarkable teacher. His advice should be welcomed by teachers across the country as well as by parents. Inspiration and creativity are crucial components of a healthy classroom. Esquith shows the reader how it’s done. He dares teachers to dream and to reach and to come to their classrooms with fire and passion. His students remember what they learn in Room 56, using those lessons to strive for success in their future endeavors. This alone is a testament to Rafe Esquith’s abilities as an educator. As he shows us in this book, there is so much more waiting out there for the teacher who dares to dream, and for their students who are inspired to come along for the ride.