He’s not ‘just a regular classroom teacher’
Published: February 14, 2007 | 5566th good news item since 2003
Rafe Esquith’s classroom is dingy and cluttered, but it hardly matters. Within seconds inside it, it becomes clear why Esquith has been anointed as one of those magical teachers who propels his poor, immigrant students to impossible heights.
In under an hour on a recent Tuesday, his fifth-graders, many of whom speak with traces of Korean or Spanish accents, recited from memory the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They played “Riders on the Storm” on guitar, keyboard and drums. They discussed the Constitution and described vivid details of Civil War battles. Then, when they sat down to take a geography test, many politely informed their teacher that Honduras was in the wrong place.
The students were also sophisticated enough not to take any notice as a photographer and reporter crowded into their cramped classroom. They are used to it, after all. Over the years, Esquith has been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II and President Bush. Ian McKellen, the British actor, pops by to visit when he’s in L.A. Oprah Winfrey gave him a van.
This month, Esquith has a new book out, his second, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, and the media have again come calling to Room 56 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, a crowded, somewhat bleak campus that is one of the biggest elementary schools in the nation, with 2,000 students, more than three-quarters of whom come from families subsisting below the poverty level.
The book, and the media whirl it’s taking him and his students on, is an opportunity for Esquith to crystallize the lessons from his 24 years in the classroom. It’s a chance, as well, to confront a sometimes troubling paradox: The more Esquith’s students achieve, the less he seems to resemble his self-description as “just a regular classroom teacher” whose success any instructor can emulate. The myth of the hero teacher, Esquith is finding, dies hard – especially when most people consider his example, well, heroic.
It is a topic that renders his amiable face fierce and puts an edge into his mild-mannered voice.
“I’m not a heroic teacher,” he said, leaning forward over his hamburger at a downtown restaurant. What happens in his classroom, he said, is “not changing the world. It’s one small corner doing things the way it ought to be.”
He leaned back in his chair, relaxed. “I’m just a regular fifth-grade teacher.” (It is a point he repeats endlessly over the coming week, as he goes about doing things most regular fifth-grade teachers never do, like sitting for interviews or addressing well-heeled crowds of potential donors.) Esquith’s book is, not surprisingly, striking a chord: At a signing at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble last month, he drew a standing-room-only crowd of star-struck teachers.
Still, sometimes, when teaching experts, such as Bruce Fuller, an education professor Bruce Fuller at the University of California, Berkeley, hear about teachers like Esquith, it makes them sigh.
“The heroic teacher is important to remind us that it comes down to the motivation and inspirational quality of individual teachers,” Fuller said. “But we’ve got this institution called public schooling … and we think we can magically resolve its problems by hiring more heroes, and it’s just a simplistic way to think.”
Esquith concedes that not everyone can, or is willing to, work 12-plus hours a day, every day, all year long the way he does. But anyone, he writes, can, say, visit Web sites that offer good ideas for teaching novels.
He is also the first to agree that the public education system needs more than a few fanatically dedicated teachers. At times, his book reads like an indictment of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the public school system and, more broadly, 21st-century America. And he concedes that he encourages his students to go to private or charter schools after they finish his class.
But despite offers to leave the classroom for the lecture circuit or found his own school, he said, he decided a long time ago to remain on the front lines, pushing 10-year-olds from working-class families to dream big and doing everything in his power to help them achieve their goals.
Esquith, 52, looks like a Central Casting male teacher. Round cherubic cheeks and engaging smile? Check. Geeky white tennis shoes and blue sweater vest? Check. Incredible warmth. Undeniable enthusiasm. Endless patience. Check, check, check.
He grew up in the Fairfax district, the son of a social worker who read Shakespeare to him each night before bed. He went to UCLA, then began teaching in 1982 at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake. But after two years he went to Hobart because, he said, the students at Ivanhoe didn’t need him.
Each year, his students perform one of Shakespeare’s plays. (They rehearse after school.) He also takes them on at least one trip to visit colleges and take in cultural institutions in other cities. And, of course, they go to the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Ore. His earlier book, There Are No Shortcuts, described, among other things, how he nearly bankrupted himself and ruined his health working extra jobs to pay for his students’ extracurricular activities.
Not all of Esquith’s students go on to great things. “I fail all the time,” he writes, and he tells of being heartbroken when former students broke into the school and set off smoke bombs.
But for many, the year in Room 56, where the walls are lined with the names of former students who have gone on to college, seems to have been a turning point. “You believe in him and it helps you believe in yourself,” said Matt Parlow, a former student who graduated from Yale Law School and is now a law professor at Chapman University. “You start to figure out who you are and what you want to do and the type of work ethic you need to get there.”
Esquith acknowledges that he sometimes clashes with colleagues and administrators. And some find his approach off-putting. One Internet post in response to his first book put it like this: “The guy’s martyr/megalomania level is off the charts. He so desperately needs to be these kids’ uber-father figure. … And despite the occasional bone he throws other teachers, he is very clear that NOBODY is even in his league as a teacher.”
Esquith said he finds such criticism “very hurtful” and “a bit unfair.” But he comforts himself with the idea that “if I offend people, maybe I’m doing something right. … Remember, the best teacher who ever lived was Socrates, and they killed him.”
Esquith said he’s learned not to overextend himself disastrously, according to his wife, Barbara, who met Esquith when her daughter was in his class and is now nearly as dedicated as Esquith to his students. But still, from before dawn until late in the night, Esquith is with his students. He took 16 with him on his cross-country book tour. A few days before he departed, they went to a palatial house in Pacific Palisades to talk about his class and – Esquith hoped – raise funds to pay for the tour. It was a meeting of environmental and social-justice activists who had read about Esquith and wanted to meet him and his students. Fashionable-looking folks nibbled grape leaves and creamy cheeses, then watched open-mouthed as the inner-city kids at the front of the living room vanished into the personas of Hamlet and Ophelia, kings, shrews and knaves.
While his students waited in the cavernous hallway, Esquith took the stage himself to give an introduction. He had forsaken his trademark sweater vest for a suit and tie, and he had brought along a video of himself and his class on the Today show. And there was Esquith on television, insisting yet again: “I’m just a regular teacher. Just an ordinary teacher.”