June 12, 2011

Rafe Esquith – an amazing teacher

I'm sharing with you a really special book: Teach like your hair's on fire.  Written by Rafe Esquith, a Year 5 teacher in Los Angeles, it’s about his classroom called “Room 56”.  You should read it.


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Esquith is such an amazing teacher he makes me wish I was in his class when I was 10 years old again.  In fact Sir Ian McKellan, the famous actor from Lord of the Rings, encapsulates it best when he says,

"You can’t watch the little actors [Esquith’s students] without wanting to cry.   Why do you cry?  I suppose it's happiness, really, and a regret that not all the children in the world could have a Rafe Esquith for a teacher."

The book isn’t just for fumbling novice teachers  to read and cry about how brilliant he is at teaching.  It’s a New York Times bestseller and it’s because Esquith gets to the heart of how to teach children to be good people.

Here some quotes I really liked/empathised with/was drawn t0:

Like all real teachers, I fail constantly.  I don’t get enough sleep.  I lie awake in the early morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach.  Being a teacher can be painful.
If a truly expert teacher still feels this way, a teacher that has received a crazy amount of accolades, including being made a honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire, it makes my own tossing and turning at 3,4,5am in the morning about my kids seem almost expected.  I’m not going crazy because these kids can’t get out of my head.  Perhaps that’s just how it is. 
 
In a world that considers athletes and pop stars more important than research scientists and fire-fighters, it has become practically impossible to develop kind and brilliant individuals.  And yet… in Room 56 It’s a world where character matters, hard work is respected, humility is valued, and support for one another is unconditional. 
How beautiful it would be to create a classroom environment like this one!  I had my year 10 students create “vision boards” where they cut out images from magazines of what they were drawn towards, and so many of them just chose Hollywood celebrities and models with taut stomachs.  A few chose images of good food, cute baby animals, and crossword puzzles.  Even my best year 12 student doesn’t want to go to university because it’s too difficult.     

Expectations for children are often ridiculously low.  Racism, poverty, and ignorance often reign supreme on campus.  Add to this mix ungrateful students, and even mean-spirited people in the teaching profession itself, and the hardiest of souls can be crushed.  Each defeat usually means that a child’s true potential will not be developed.   
YES YES YES.  It is so painful to see this.  And seeing students who can be even more destructive to themselves than anyone else could ever be.  They’ve learnt to just give up. 

There are so many charlatans in the world of education.  In this fast-food society, simple solutions to complex problems are embraced far too often.  We can do better.  I hope that people who read this book realize that true excellence takes sacrifice, mistakes, and enormous amounts of effort.  After all, there are no shortcuts. 
You can see just from reading this quote that he’s the kind of teacher you would want every teacher to be.  Wow.  It definitely makes me question my own commitment to teaching – am I ready to sacrifice that much?  Really?  Then why am I procrastinating and being unproductive?  Gah! 

The simple truth is that most classrooms today are managed by one thing and one thing only: fear.
This is the issue that overshadows all others in the world of education.  It is the matter of classroom management.  If your class is not in order, nothing good will follow.  There will be no learning.  The kids will not read, write, or calculate better.  Children will not improve  their critical thinking.  Character cannot be built.  Good citizenship will not be fostered. 

Reading these lines was a “ding!” moment.  The 17 weeks (!) I’ve been teaching so far have been a crash course in behaviour management.  I have lost track of the hours upon hours I have spent discussing, reading, reflecting on and implementing different classroom management techniques.  My year 10 class is often run on fear.  I tell students to go outside if they are being disruptive to give them a stern warning.  I threaten to ring parents to tell them how their child is behaving, and do ring them.  I make them stay back after class.  I’ve given out my own after school detentions.  Students have told me they won’t come to class if I’m not teaching it. 

I don’t want it to be like that. 

Everyone has advice about how to make the class run better.  Reading Rafe’s book make me realise that I don’t want kids to do work because they’re scared and don’t want to get in trouble.  Or because  they want a reward, or to please me, or because they’re just following the rules mindlessly (of course this is better than just being afraid – but this whole issue of why people follow laws and behave the way they do has been the subject of legal theorists a lot more philosophical and intelligent than me).  Rafe thinks educators can do better than that.  He wants to instil in his kids a state of empathy for people around them, so that their behaviour is because they are considerate of other people.  And even beyond that, he wants to teach his students about having a personal code of behaviour that they follow, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Never forgot that the kids watch you constantly.  They model themselves after you, and you have to be the person you want them to be.  I want my students to be nice and work hard.  That means I had better be the nicest and hardest-working person they have ever met.  Don’t even think of trying to deceive your kids.  They are much too sharp for that.  If you want your kids to trust you, it takes consistent caring and effort on your part.  
I’ve got a lot more growing up to do if I want to get anywhere near where Esquith is as a teacher.
-Q

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