Monday, August 25, 2014

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Rafe Esquith

A former coworker posted this to Facebook:
"That was Mrs. D. She cared a lot. She tried. She worried. And then one day she just died...She was not an old woman. But she had taught for twenty-five years, and the frustrations and difficult days can wear down a classroom teacher. You pay a price for constantly dealing with mean children, apathetic parents, and the pressure that you must do better. I am not a doctor, but I shudder to imagine an autopsy that concluded "Death by teaching."

When I asked what book it came from, she said Real Talk for Real Teachers. Really, any teacher who is willing to admit that this job can literally kill you, is a teacher I'm willing to listen to. Rafe knows. He gets it. And of course, he should. Unlike so many people who tell teachers what to do when they've never taught or haven't taught in years, Rafe is still in the classroom at the same urban school teaching children of immigrants who are almost all Free and Reduced Lunch kids. When I taught at a similar school, I was the obnoxious teacher who, at every staff training, felt compelled to ask, "So where do you teach? Oh...well what did you used to teach? Ok...and how many of your kids were ELL?...Oh...well yeah, I can see why you wouldn't have that population at an exclusive private school..." I had no patience for the Pearson employee selling my school a reading program or for the AP trainer who had never taught ELL students in an AP class telling me how to run my classroom (okay, the AP trainer was actually great, but he would have been better if he had experience teaching my kind of students so he could help me improve).

I really really wish I had read this book when I was still at that school. I really needed to hear things like:

  • Having a bad day does not make you a bad teacher.
  • There are many well-meaning policy makers and bloggers demanding that teachers reach every child. But some children cannot be helped, even when a teacher is willing to sacrifice her life to do so...All students deserve to be given our best. Good teachers never give up on an individual. But please balance your efforts to help a child with the knowledge that you cannot, and should not, be responsible for solving all his problems.
Much of the book is this: real talk about things that education classes, staff development, and other teachers are reluctant to admit. Not because it's not true, but because admitting it makes it seem like it's okay to not try or it's okay to write off kids because of their circumstances - that's not the point of this book. Rafe has been in the classroom for OVER THIRTY YEARS in a country where 17% of teachers leave the profession every year (20% of teachers in schools like Rafe's) - it's just not sustainable. I'm sure Erin Gruwell (of Freedom Writer's fame) is a lovely woman, but she only taught for four years before leaving the classroom. I'd rather take advice from the teacher who has elementary students putting on an entire Shakespeare play every year, who takes kids on field trips to the opposite coast every year successfully, who prepares them for standardized testing while still giving them a PE period he has to teach himself, who is at school before and beyond his contract time every day AND every Saturday, yet who still says things like, "I still care deeply about doing a good job; I just don't have to kill myself to do it."

I have taught for five years and consider myself a good teacher - sometimes I'm even a great teacher - but I don't yet identify as a Master Teacher. Anyone who considers themselves anything less than a Master Teacher could take lessons from this book. In spite of the fact that Rafe teaches fifth grade and I teach high school and college English, I still feel like I learned strategies to use with my own students.

It is all the best things of a good teachers' lounge: hilarious anecdotes, incredibly inspiring stories, some terribly sad ones, ideas that are workable in any classroom, and reminders of attitudes that I totally believe in yet occasionally forget to enact 100% of the time. 

When he describes the frustrations of trying to put together his first Shakespeare play (which involves after school and Saturday rehearsals), he quips "Naturally I faced the typical roadblocks teachers encounter when they try anything original, but eventually the school district was kind enough to allow me to stay after school and teach some of the students for free." It's this mix of realism with humor with brilliant teaching that makes this an excellent read for just before the start of a new school year.

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