Interview: Pay Your Dues, Then Rebel

May 01, 2003 5 min read
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A seasoned educator tells new teachers to stick with it.

Celebrated 5th and 6th grade teacher Rafe Esquith’s first book, There Are No Shortcuts (Pantheon), serves as a kind of guidebook for young teachers hoping to make their mark at inner city schools. While the 20-year veteran insists, as his book’s title implies, that success doesn’t come easily—hard work is always necessary—he does offer wise counsel on a number of issues. These include surviving dictatorial administrators, teaching effectively in an age of standardization, and keeping one’s sense of compassion for students in a stressed-out environment.

Esquith became one of America’s most famous teachers after winning the 1992 Disney Outstanding Teacher of the Year award and an Oprah Winfrey Use Your Life award for his work with students at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he remains humble, turning down Hollywood scripts because, he says, “they portray me as God’s hero when that’s not who I am.”

For this interview, Esquith recently spoke by phone from his classroom, where he was still working with students at 5 p.m. on a Friday evening.

Q. What are some of the key things young teachers need to know about working at an urban school such as Hobart?

A. A lot of young teachers have a perception of what the job is going to be and get discouraged by how hard it actually is. You’re going to have a lot of bad days. Sometimes it’s not even your fault—things just don’t work. In my school, the average teacher lasts two years; but you’re just not going to be that good in your second year of teaching. So number one, stick with it. I mean, we tell our kids to stick with it, not to give up; we must do that, too. My strength as a teacher hasalways been that I don’t give up. I’m a little tired of teachers who try it for a couple years and then quit and write their memoirs. The people I have respect for have been at it for 20 to 30 years and give it their best shot every day.

Young teachers also have to deal with administrators who are terrible to them. It’s a control issue, and it’s made worse [by] the current push for everyone to teach the same way at the same pace, from the same book. Gifted teachers are afraid to be creative.

Q. So what should the young teacher who wants to be innovative do?

A. I tell them that in the first year or two—since they are going to stay, remember, [for] 10 to 20 years—they should follow orders and maintain order. After a couple of years, when you’re established, you can start to rebel. I myself had horrific battles with administrators about why we should have Shakespeare in the classroom. But once I became the Outstanding Teacher of the Year, they stopped yelling at me. I went from “stupid” to “genius” overnight.

Q. What mistakes did you make in your early years?

A. I didn’t listen well to the kids; I’m a much better listener now. I also understand that the process is every bit as important as the end result. This means I let kids fall more now—whether it’s a failed science experiment, a scene in a play that doesn’t work, a botched musical performance. And that’s OK. Because it works out best when kids learn from their mistakes.

Q. You often work with students 70 to 80 hours a week, including weekends. Do you expect other teachers to have your commitment?

A. No, I’m certifiable. But our expectations are too low, both for the kids and ourselves. We had a day here when our reading scores were 40 percent out of 100, and we celebrated. We used to be 39, and the national average is 60. We’re celebrating being 20 points behind? That’s ridiculous.

Q. How do you fight burnout?

A. I have a fantastic wife and four grown kids. I spend time with my family but don’t watch TV. I’m completely ignorant of pop culture, though I’m not against it. I’m sure The Simpsons and Friends are fine shows. But something had to give.

Q. Most educators complain that their schools don’t have enough money. You take issue with that.

A. That’s right. I don’t think it’s a central issue in education. Like at my school—we have a lot of money here, we just don’t spend it wisely. I know one thing: It doesn’t go to good teachers. I’m at the bottom of the salary scale because I’ve never taken any of those [continuing education] classes; I just teach all day. I think I should have been rewarded for that. I make $40,000 a year, and this is my 20th year in teaching. I think the money is disappearing into central administration.

Ten years ago, for instance, a company gave the school 25 grand in my name to honor me. I suggested to my colleagues that we divide it up: $10,000 would go to my classroom, $15,000 to the school. I saw $4,000 of the $10,000. When I put in requests for equipment, the administrators said they couldn’t find it. Other money was supposedly going to the district so that they could pay subs while other teachers came to visit my classroom. But I never had a single teacher visit.

Q. You also complain about professional development as mostly a waste of time.

A. I love the idea of development if it were developing. Now every Tuesday, we stop school early so I can go to a two-hour meeting. I could die in these meetings. In a recent one, for example, we were told that every time students get a grade, they should write a reflection on how they feel about the grade. Give me a break! But I’m required to go. Now, I’ve also been to some great staff development, but too often it’s some bureaucrat downtown coming out with the new flavor of the month. In the last few years, for instance, we’ve been shown seven different ways of teaching English.

Q. How long do you plan to teach?

A. I’m 48 years old now, and I’ll keep teaching until they carry me from the classroom. I’m not leaving. I have turned down a lot of money to leave Hobart. Really. But this is where I make my stand. I try to model myself after Atticus, in To Kill A Mockingbird, who continues to do the right thing despite all of the disappointments and incivility he encounters. When all is said and done, Atticus walks into that courtroom. I really do consult Atticus on how to be in the world. I’ve adopted his code. I mean, there are kids I miss every day. Every day. I hope that’s something young teachers understand: You are sometimes going to miss kids. The key thing is not to focus on the disappointment, or to spend time feeling like a failure, but to just keep going the best you can.

—David Ruenzel

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