From January/February Principal
Rafe Esquith, celebrated fifth-grade teacher and author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, will share his inspiring story in the closing keynote address at the NAESP 2012 Annual Conference: Best Practices for Better Schools March 22-24, 2012, in Seattle. For more than two decades, Esquith has taught at a public school in a Central Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs, and violence. His classroom at Hobart Elementary—known simply as Room 56—is unlike any other in the country. Here’s a preview of Esquith’s ideas about teaching.
What’s the wackiest thing you’ve done to reach students?
Coming up with the concept of taking two of my three greatest loves in the world—rock ‘n’ roll and Shakespeare—and synthesizing them with our curriculum to create an unabridged production of Shakespeare every year, with a blistering rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack played by the children. They rehearse forever, but we don’t cut any of the Shakespeare; it’s not a toned-down version. The idea that kids could do this—kids that don’t speak English. The kids are perfectly capable of doing better; it’s our system that’s failed them.
What can principals do to support teachers?
Principals can make sure that their teachers get to observe each other and teachers outside their school. I think teaching has become so isolated. Many of my good ideas came from watching other good teachers. It’s great to hear theory, but to see a great practitioner, a real master at work, I think can really help other teachers. While we need great principals, we also need teachers who have no desire to leave. If everybody is in their second year [of teaching], you’re not going to have a very good school. Administrators have to do everything in their power to keep their teachers so happy that they want to keep teaching.
How should we measure student learning?
I would like to measure things like where the kids are 10 years after my class. The best teachers teach the kids skills that they will use in their lives. That’s how we measure. Where do these kids wind up 10 years from now? Are they still in school? Are they in college? Are they doing good things? Or are they dropouts and gang members?
What are the tell-tale characteristics of outstanding teachers?
The kids have a clear vision of what the classroom mission is. I also think that the best teachers shut up. You’d be amazed at how quiet I am in the classroom; I don’t talk a lot. I know that a lot of young teachers like to be the center of the classroom and entertain the kids. But the best teachers are almost invisible. The best teachers simply model the behavior that they expect of the children.