Teaching Opinion

“There Are No Shortcuts": An Interview With Rafe Esquith

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 01, 2013 10 min read
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An interview I’ve done with one of the most well-known teachers in the world, Rafe Esquith, is kicking-off a new season of this blog.

Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles for more than twenty-five years. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts. His many other honors and awards include the American Teacher Award, Parents magazine’s As You Grow Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life AwardTM, the Compassion in Action Award from the Dalai Lama, Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, People magazine’s Heroes Among Us Award, and being made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. To find out more go to The Hobart Shakespeareans.

His newest book is Real Talk For Real Teachers: Advice For Teachers From Rookies To Veterans

Education Week is sponsoring a Webinar with Rafe on September 10th. You can learn more about it here.

Interview With Rafe Esquith

LF: One of the many passages that struck me in your book was this one:

“When I teach a lesson, I see dozens of little misdemeanors that might have received my immediate attention as a young teacher. Over the years I have discovered that the energy I once spent correcting behavior is better spent perfecting the lesson. In doing so, fewer have misbehaved, and more have learned.”

This common sense approach reflects my experience and the experience of many good teachers I know. However, it seems to me that more and more classroom management strategies being pushed by professional development consultants, districts and administrators subscribe to a version of the Broken WIndows philosophy, where you’re supposed to not let much slide by because supposedly that will beget a lot more misbehavior and, in fact, more serious problems.

What would you say, and what would you suggest that teachers say, to those consultants, district leaders and administrators?

Rafe Esquith:

I understand the Broken Windows philosophy. I don’t like broken things. I fix things immediately. But when children do not understand a concept, they are not broken. They simply do not know something yet. When we have a Shakespeare rehearsal, the kids make dozens of mistakes. They speak too quickly or quietly. Their timing with one another is off. Their heads are not up when they dance. The list goes on and on. But even adults can only process a limited amount of criticism. I always keep in mind the long-term goal of an activity. If a child does not understand a particular concept, whether it is in grammar or baseball, I want him to correct these mistakes. But with experience I have learned that timing is everything, and some students will stop listening if a teacher piles on advice. The goal is for a child to master a skill permanently, and there are times when patience is the best road to take. This is when teaching becomes art.

The key to preventing bad behavior is to have exciting, relevant lessons. If a student in my class is rude or bothering his classmates, he misses the activity, and that truly is a punishment in Room 56. The best teachers make sure their kids know WHY things are done a certain way. Most classrooms focus on WHAT is happening. If teachers jump on the kids for not sitting up straight or having a desk that needs to be organized, the kid will probably correct the misdemeanor for the teacher. However, I want my students to sit up and be organized because they internalize the values I am teaching. I want them to understand that focus and organization will make their lives better, and not snap to attention like robots, and this takes time. There are no shortcuts.

I have found that some students are overwhelmed and do not improve in anything if they face a constant barrage of criticism. By being patient, eventually all the skills will be mastered. In our fast-food society, I have discovered that “fixing” mistakes a few at a time is more effective in the long run. This falls under the heading of “don’t sweat the small stuff.” If a teacher is constantly badgering and yelling at a student for minor infractions, the fear that is created prevents any real teaching from occurring in the year to come.

LF: Another passage that caught my attention was this one:

“Teach your students that all great books are about them . At all levels of school, we teachers must constantly read with the kids and help them connect the dots between the printed page and their own lives.”

This seems to contradict much of what the Common Core standards suggest. Though he was talking about writing, David Coleman, one of the creators of Common Core, famously said, ""As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s--t about what you feel or what you think.” This perspective seems to relate to the reading standards, too.

With many of us being pressed to teach to the Common Core Standards, what advice would you offer?

Rafe Esquith:

The Common Core is another Stalinesque five-year plan that will have little effect on creating opportunities for a child. All good teachers believe in standards and goals. All good teachers believe students should be assessed to make sure they are grasping important concepts.

The Common Core, as with other schemes, fails to address the most important reasons why so many students are not doing as well as we would like. Poverty, family dysfunction, and decaying societal values have far more to do with student failure than a set of standards. We can dress up standards any way we like. But 3 times 5 is still 15, and you still have to put a period at the end of a sentence. As long as our society values the Kardashians more than people trying to cure cancer, we are going to see millions of children fail to become real scholars.

My advice to teachers is to go to the Common Core meetings as I do, smile, nod your head, and jump through the latest hoops. But while you are jumping, make sure your students know the most valuable things you can teach them are not a part of the Common Core: Integrity, a joy of learning, and the taking of risks are not a part of the Common Core training, but they are essential skills I hope my students internalize.

And I respectfully disagree with Mr. Coleman’s assertion that people do not give a s--t about what you think or feel. I do care about what my students think and feel. And the fact that so many return to Room 56 to help while simultaneously doing extraordinary things with their lives indicates to me that the people who are creating the “new” standards do not work with a group of students every day. Good teachers do care about what their students think.

LF: It’s clear to me that the guidance you offer on principles that educators should follow -- encouraging student self-control instead of compliance through fear, for example -- can be applied throughout K-12. A number of the specific tactics you write about using in elementary school , though, might not work for older high school students who have been jaded and damaged for so long. What suggestions might you have for secondary school teachers who want to apply your ideas in their classrooms?

Rafe Esquith:

Actually, I work with high school students every Saturday. My biggest suggestion to high school teachers is that you have a secret weapon to motivate students that is not used often enough. It is true that many adolescents are not eager to accept my guidance. However, I stay in touch with hundreds of former students who are currently in college or graduates living in the real world. These young adults are constantly visiting my current high school students, mentoring and showing them the very real possibilities that exist when high school students internalize the values of Room 56.

Your question about being jaded is a very good one. High School students do become jaded, and often for good reason. However, showing them the possibilities with living examples can often penetrate the gloom when they discover that despite previous bad experiences in school, education and an honorable life can actually be a good thing. My high school students come to accept the fact that learning is fun, even if school can be a drag. Former students do a much better job of convincing my current students of this fact than I can.

LF: You’re very critical of a number of the actions being taken in schools today in the name of “school reform,” including an increased reliance on standardized testing, the use of Value-Added Measurement (VAM) to evaluate teachers, and the placement of new teachers in classrooms with little training. I have two questions related to those criticisms:

One, I may be wrong, but I don’t remember reading similar critiques in your previous books. Were there particular events, like the LA Times’ publication of individual teacher VAM ratings, that motivated you to be more outspoken on these issues now?

Secondly, given your concerns about the use of standardized testing, what would your alternate suggestions be for both teacher and student evaluations.

Rafe Esquith:

All good teachers want to be evaluated. All good teachers know there are bad ones that need to be taken out of the system. But to use standardized testing as the primary tool of evaluation is absurd. First of all, standardized tests are not even standardized. They are not proctored, and the cheating scandals we have witnessed all over the country are most likely the tip of the iceberg. Even if you believe that using test scores to evaluate teachers is a good thing, we are not even looking at accurate data.

I assess my students constantly. If they have learned multiplication, of course I give them a test to see if they understand the material. But I also tell them that if they do not do well, the sun will still come up tomorrow. It just means I have to show them the skill again. I want them to know that the test they have taken is not the be-all and end-all of their existence. My wife, I tell them, did not fall in love with me because of my test scores.

But good teachers know the most important things we teach students are not on the test at the end of the year. We can do better than looking at test scores to evaluate students and their teachers. Let us not forget that Bernie Madoff and the Enron boys did well on tests. Can we define such men as successful and honorable human beings? I look for students who strive to be honorable and decent in a world that often is dishonorable and indecent. Those qualities figure prominently in my evaluation of student success.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once discussed obscenity and stated that he could not define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. I think teachers should be evaluated by people who visit classrooms often and unannounced. Evaluators should include administrators, fellow teachers, and parents. When I walk into a classroom, I do not merely check to see if the standards are written in the appropriate corner of the board and check it off on a clipboard. Good teachers are on their feet connecting with students. They set high standards. They encourage and inspire. Good teachers are tough but fair. They are real. Like Justice Potter, I cannot define a good teacher, but I know one when I see one.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Rafe Esquith:

I don’t have all the answers. In Rome the Italians will tell you that “traffic lights are just suggestions.” I only have suggestions that might help some teachers with their classrooms.

But I do know that this is a long journey. Teachers need to remember that they do make a difference every day they walk into a classroom and are good role models. Many times our lessons kick in twenty-five years after students have left us. I hope teachers know that they do important work, even on days when they feel frustrated and tired. We want our students to commit to education and not give up. It begins with the model we set.

Thanks, Rafe!

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