Published Online: August 26, 2009


Lighting Fires With Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith is one of the country’s most renowned urban educators, having received numerous prestigious awards for his work in “Room 56” of Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. Known for his fiery and unconventional teaching style, Esquith has consistently turned his mostly low-income, minority students into top academic performers.

Esquith’s 2007 book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, introduced readers to his classroom and no-holds-barred teaching philosophy, and became a New York Times bestseller. This fall, he is publishing a new book, Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World.

Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith
—Heather Harris

Teacher talked with Esquith about the book, his thoughts on helping students thrive, and his advice for teachers.

What made you decide to follow Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire with a new book?

Well, it’s funny. I used to get all these questions after I wrote my first book, There Are No Shortcuts, so I thought Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire would be the end, an answer to the questions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about writing anymore. I thought I was writing a little cookbook. And instead, it not only became a New York Times bestseller here in the country, it became an international bestseller. It got translated into languages all over the world and I was just besieged by thousands of letters from people─ mostly teachers, also parents─ who were fascinated by my class, and wanted to know what they could do for the children in their lives. So that’s the reason I followed up this way. I basically was answering their questions, and they were the ones who gave me the prompts.

Who would you say that you’re trying to reach with your new book?

Well, certainly parents, who are really frustrated right now with a school system that has lost its focus. I hope to show them skills that they can be working on as parents. I want them, as I wrote in the book, to please take off the bumper stickers that say “my kid is an honor student.” I hate that stuff. I want them to start thinking about being humble and gracious and selfless.

I’m also trying to teach new teachers by showing them things that they might want to consider as a value for their classroom. I’m also really trying to reach those fifth- and sixth-year teachers who are starting to burn out. I hope they will think, “You know, these are good ideas, I’m going to start doing this in my classroom and I’m going to have the best year I’ve ever had.” I talk to a lot of teachers at those crossroads moments. They still have so much to give if they can just hang in there.

I don’t want to give away what’s in the the book, but what is your message on helping students learn today?

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.

So you think teachers need to focus on the big picture?

And be patient, patient, patient. I was guilty of impatience, too. When you’re a 24-year-old teacher, you don’t have a lot of patience! And it’s not because you’re a bad teacher. You come in with your lesson plan and you have everything set and then some kid jumps up and tells you to go [expletive] yourself, some other kids start fighting, and an administrator comes in the room and yells at you—all your plans go out the window. It’s happened to me. And you become so frustrated. But that doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Teachers and parents need to understand that this isn’t a Hollywood movie where the teacher just walks in and saves everyone. It’s a really hard job and we’ve gotta keep at it.

What do you say when a teacher comes up to you complaining of teacher burnout?

Well, first of all, I ask them, “What are you doing in your life that you enjoy doing? Are you a fisherman? Do you enjoy spending time with your wife or husband?” Because you’ve gotta have those times too. The other thing I say is, “What do you like to do?” And then I ask them, “Are you doing that with your kids?” What’s your favorite book? Have you thought about reading it with your kids? If you’re just reading a boring school textbook, it’s not fun.

One thing I hear from a lot of those teachers is, “Rafe, thank you for reminding me to be me. Thank you for telling me it’s OK to be myself.” 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. Sometimes you hit a home run and it’s great.

What would you say your essential theory behind teaching is?

My essential theory is this: Number one, we’re role models. We have to be the people we want the kids to be. If I want my kids to be nice, which I do─not to act nice, but to be nice – then I’ve got to be the nicest guy they’ve ever met. So my essential theory is, you gotta be the person that you want the kids to be. And as a parent, if you’re a parent watching television all day and telling your kid, “Go in your bedroom and read,” it’s not gonna happen. Now, I’ve raised four children, and they’re all voracious readers, but they were raised in a home where I read every night, all the time. That’s why they read! You have to set that example.

Can you describe your classroom and what makes it such an effective learning environment?

One crucial aspect to the classroom─and this is why I really encourage teachers to stay put, if they can─the absolute most important force in my classroom are my former students who come back and visit all the time. I must have 10 to 20 former students visit every day. Every day! And those kids tell my current students, “You oughta listen to Rafe. He changed my life.” That’s an incredibly powerful force in my classroom, it’s incredible. The way I explain it is: If you ever watch a cooking channel, and they’re making chicken, they show you a wonderful chicken dish and they say, “Doesn’t that look good.” They show you the finished product. The effect is similar when you have kids who come back to your room, kids who speak Spanish or Vietnamese or Korean and who are now going to Berkeley. My 5th graders see that and feel such a sense of hope and empowerment.

Another thing I like to stress about the way my 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.

So building experience is crucial for teachers?

Yes, and this is very important to me. I speak all over the country, and I meet so many great young teachers, and I’m trying to show them that I’m a truly ordinary guy, but because I stuck with it and persevered, I got good at it. Not because of talent, but because of experience! And I’m really trying to encourage a lot of young teachers to try and stick with it and get through those tough times because there are better times ahead if they can do so.

So what do you think of a program like Teach For America, which assigns teachers for two-year terms?

The concept for getting some of our very bright students into the classroom is a good one. But to give these folks five weeks of training and throw them into tough classroom situations is questionable to me. I’ve had hundreds of TFA people in my classroom, and they’re wonderful. But I don’t think the concept is going to work because nobody is a great teacher after two years, I’m sorry. I’ll put it to you this way: If you were having surgery, would you rather have a second-year surgeon or a 10-year surgeon working on you?

Do you think all students can turn out to be like the students of Room 56?

I don’t. I think there are some students where the odds are so far against them because of their family situation and other social issues. But here’s what I do know: There are hundreds of thousands of students in our school district who could be like the students of Room 56, who are absolutely capable, but they’re not being given the opportunity. 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.

Is that what you would say teachers have to do to achieve this kind of success?

Yes! And they’ve got to, each year, learn a little bit more and create a few more opportunities. It’s hard to do this if you’re simply following the script—which so many teachers are under incredible pressure to do now. So what 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. I don’t want the kids to have teachers that are all the same, I think it’s good for kids to meet different kinds of people who think differently and do different things. That’s why I write that I don’t have all the answers─I don’t! But 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.

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.

—Bryan Toporek

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