The role of public schools is one of the most hotly debated topics in American culture wars today. That many young people lack the necessary skills to compete in a global economy is a point of consensus. The reason why, and thus, the solution, is the point on which few can agree.
I was primed to dislike veteran teacher Rafe Esquith’s response to the controversy, Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans for reasons large and small: I’ve had my fill of Hollywood stories like "Dangerous Minds" and "Freedom Writers" about middle-class white teachers saving urban minority students; I’m averse to people who toot their own horn with how-to books relating their successes; and exclamation points bring out my inner-skeptic.
Finally, my husband, a Bronx middle-school teacher, spent this year trying to keep his students in their seats and navigate a principal who liked to lock his teachers in a room and lecture them about their short-comings, by yelling, “It’s just common sense!” (He also loved showing them "Stand and Deliver" and "Freedom Writers".) My husband heard enough pithy platitudes about teaching from his principal and grad school professors to last a lifetime and pretty much growled when Esquith’s book came in the mail. Suffice it to say, I kept it out of his sight line.
So I was surprised at how much I liked this book – and my husband liked the sections he read, as well. I teach, too, at the college level, and though that’s a very different animal, I found myself taking notes to bring back to my classroom in September. That’s because "Real Talk" isn’t full of easy answers or formulas or success stories.
Instead, Esquith dwells on the difficulty public school teachers, new and seasoned, face. Chapter headings are telling: “Badlands,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Even the Devil Can Quote Scripture for His Purpose,” “Haters” – you get the idea. And although Esquith offers some happy endings, they’re all earned.
Esquith’s tactics stand in contrast to today’s prevailing wisdom, like that espoused by KIPP, the much-lauded magnet school, which deals only with students motivated enough to make it to a magnet school. He slams “SLANT,” KIPP’s concept that success comes from making kids “sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod, and track the teacher,” as superficial, and takes “No Child Left Behind” to task, arguing that though no child should be left out, some will, in fact, need to be left behind so the teacher can meet the needs of the rest. He reserves special ire for the culture of measuring teachers’ and children’s achievements through “filling in the bubbles” of standardized tests.
What Esquith offers, then, are principles from which to work. Some are practical but more are spiritual. He advocates focusing one’s energy on students with “soul” instead of “polish.” He emphasizes humility, for instance – not the unquestioning variety that props up rules and hierarchies, but the kind that lets actions speak for themselves instead of broadcasting them – as a much needed antidote to the culture of reality-TV.
A strong believer in earned privileges, Esquith incurs the wrath of many a parent (and cowering administrator) who believes a child should be simply privileged without having to earn a thing. Yet he also decries the popular approach of fear-based classroom management, which advocates that young teachers not let students see them smile til Christmas – also advice my husband had been given.
It’s particularly pleasurable to read about his beloved 5th-grade “Hobart-Shakespeare” productions, which are both inclusive and process-driven, and have earned accolades from the likes of Ian McKellen. (See youtube for samples.)
Though "Real Talk" is billed for teachers, it’s a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the state of public education. In a sense, the book is a much needed defense, given policy-makers’ and pundits’ tendency to blame teachers for any shortcomings in children’s achievements. By contrast, the culprits in Esquith’s experience are politicking administrators, negligent parents, and all the effects poverty has on children’s intellectual, physical, and spiritual development – in other words, the conditions that any sane person recognizes have a greater impact on children than even the greatest of teachers.
Esquith’s advice runs along the lines of keeping the high goal in mind and suffering it to be so, rather than agitating for change. It’s rare that a book both disturbs and inspires, but that’s the case here because in telling teachers how to survive, he’s also telling them what they’re up against.
Elizabeth Toohey, a regular Monitor contributor, will be teaching at Queensborough Community College, this fall.