Rafe Esquith and Isolated Greatness

Rafe Esquith is a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles, CA.  He has won many extremely prestigious awards throughout his nearly quarter-century of teaching, and his recent book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire (pictured below), talks about the “methods and madness” inside his classroom.

I chose to read this book just as summer break began, hoping for inspiration for my own classroom for next fall.  I found that Esquith is extremely dedicated: he lets his students enter the classroom at 6:30 in the morning, begins an optional math team at 7:00, runs the typical school day from 8:00-3:00, leads a Shakespeare club from 3:00-4:30, and allows students to continue studying in his classroom until 6:00 or later each evening.

Amidst all of the dedication that Esquith shows for his students, however, it became clear in reading the book that his methods, although they may be effective, are not duplicable on a wide scale.  First, his hours are “insane” by his own admission.  Second, he also acknowledges that he has a “Messiah Complex.”  He also scorns his teaching colleagues and school administrators and states that in a typical day, he talks to no other adults at his school.

The good thing about Esquith is that he cares deeply about his students.  The bad thing is that his work, largely because of his own antisocial behavior, is not going to be contagious.

I think Rafe has fallen into a trap that we all would do well to avoid, where he cares only for the twenty-some kids in his class.  He has lost site of one simple fact: They’re ALL our students.  The best schools are the ones where the school’s most inspiring and talented teachers work collaboratively with others to help them achieve similar greatness.

Until he learns that, Mr. Esquith’s career will be defined as one of isolated greatness; he will not be the agent of change that he could have been.

18 thoughts on “Rafe Esquith and Isolated Greatness

  1. Whew. I thought for sure that I was the only one who found Esquith’s work to be a little bit over the top. I recently read it as I was finishing up my first year of teaching (third grade, second career) and spent a day or two thinking that I’ve got a long way to go. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that his work is inspiring, but certainly not to be emulated in its entirety. I found one of his earlier works to be a lot more down to earth: _There Are No Shortcuts_. It’s a lot more philosophical and a lot less “here’s how I do it.” Rafe Esquith certainly deserves respect (with a small dose of awe–how can he maintain that pace?– thrown in for good measure) but I have to wonder about the personal price that he and his family pay for his devotion.

    I agree with you about his apparent dedication to each of his students…that is worth pursuing. (The Shakespeare thing sounds pretty cool too!)

  2. Demonstrating highly commendable dedication of a teacher, Rafe Elsquith’s book is beyond over the top.

    I am in the midst of “There are no Shortcuts” and can’t help but wonder if perhaps he could expand the good that he does by supervising or better yet mentoring teachers who would like to implement some of his programs.

    Should he become an administrator I imagine he would expect such insane dedication from the teachers who work for him.

  3. Did you know, Mark, that the sixty children in his after-school Shakespeare club come from 8 different fourth and fifth grade classrooms? I know this because I recently went to one of the performances. Sounds to me, then, that he absolutely does have to collaborate, or at least communicate, with other faculty at the school. And more importantly, if he’s staying these insane hours to work with students from all these different classes, he most certainly does care a whole lot about students at his school, Hobart Elementary, and not just his classroom. Also, consider this: after reading his two books, I called his school and left a message, saying that I was interested in coming to one of the Shakespeare performances. Rafe, undoubtedly a busy man, contacted me within twenty-four hours. We talked on the phone, exchanged a couple of e-mails, and, even though he had already received 5,000 ticket requests for his shows, which only hold a combined 400 people (his classroom only holds 30 people per show), he was able to sneak me in at the last minute. His explanation: anything for a fellow teacher. At the show, he extended an offer to me and my girlfriend, also a teacher, to come by his classroom to observe, or contact him whenever we need teaching advice. There is nothing isolated about this man’s greatness. He is willing and eager to help out his fellow teachers—-my personal experience has shown that. I believe that is why he wrote his books in the first place, to share with fellow teachers the secrets behind his success, so that we may acquire new ideas and techniques that will make us more successful in our classrooms. And he knows his craziness is not replicable 100%. If you’ve ever heard him speak, he encourages fellow teachers to take a couple of ideas they liked from his book, then impliment them. If they work, take a couple of more the next year, and so on and so forth. That’s what I plan on doing, and I encourage the poster to do that, too. In conclusion, I would warn against jumping to conclusions about a person and including opinions (“antisocial”) without any real evidence. It paints a skewed, and in this case, inaccurate, portrait of how someone really is. Thank you.

  4. He admits that his exact methods cannot be replicated on a large scale but certainly on a smaller scale they can be. It sounds like it is some other teachers who do not want to collaborate with him primarily because of jealousy. I strongly recommend the PBS documentary which you may not have seen as you clearly see that Rafe does know how to collaborate particularly with the larger community beyond the gates of the school. I’ve read his first book and he has had an effect on me and my teaching already.

  5. Mark Pullen
    The Elementary Educator
    August 2, 2007

    Hello, Mark:

    I want to sing the praises of Rafe Esquith.

    I am a 66-year-old newbie elementary school teacher who discovered a stack of copies of HAIR’S ON FIRE in Spring 2007 gracing a “new book table” at a little coffee-shop-cum-bookstore in Newberg, Oregon, where my teacher wife and I had stopped off on a Sunday afternoon drive. The book fairly leapt off the table at me. You gotta admit the title and the cover are catchy.

    I soon acquired my own copy of HAIR’S ON FIRE and started to stir Rafe’s ideas in with ideas and suggestions I was gleaning from some other education books on my shelf: Jim Fay’s TEACHING WITH LOVE & LOGIC,” Maria Montessori’s THE SECRET OF CHILDHOOD, Harry Wong’s THE FIRST DAYS OF SCHOOL and Dr. Fred Johnson’s PROACTIVE DISCIPLINE FOR REACTIVE STUDENTS.

    Come Summer 2007, I stumbled on Rafe’s other book, THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. I could hardly put NO SHORTCUTS down and devoured it quickly. I then went back and finished HAIR’S ON FIRE. I am now (August 2007) rereading NO SHORTCUTS for the second time as I fine tune my thinking and planning for a new group of students come September 2007.

    Beyond a doubt, Rafe Esquith has his shortcomings. What teacher doesn’t? Today, however, I googled “rafe esquith” and spent a delightful hour and a half exploring the hits that came up. I was able to see video clips of Rafe and listen to an NPR interview. I took a slide show tour of the Hobart Shakespearians’ most recent trip to Ashland, OR. I also was able to read the observations of some of Rafe’s detractors.

    I am sorry, esteemed detractors of Rafe Esquith, I find the man inspirational. I am energized and inspired by the way he keeps going back to Hobart Boulevard Elementary School year after year, decade after decade. He has obviously made some kind of peace with the administrators at the Los Angeles Unified School District and with the administrators at Hobart Elementary.

    I feel that Rafe is telling me, “Hey, teacher, you can do more!” and “You, too, can have more fun, and success, in your teaching!” I find it comforting to know that Rafe is NOT aiming to stop teaching and become an administrator, or a professional traveling educational consultant.

    How wonderful to know that he has probably already started to prepare a new group of youngsters to become his 2007-2008 quality musicians and actors, and excellent students of math and literature!

    Come May 2008, I would like to pay a two-day visit to Hobart Boulevard Elementary School. I want to see the day-to-day workings of Rafe’s classroom, Room 56. I am also curious about what it is like to be the teachers in the classrooms beside Rafe’s, so I would like to visit Room 55 and Room 57. And, if it is not too late to order a ticket, I hope to see one of the May 2008 performances of the Hobart Shakespearians.

    Thank you for running your Rafe Esquith-related blog.

    Laurence Wiig
    Hillsboro, Oregon
    MA, Asian Studies, Hiroshima University
    BA, History, Howard University

  6. I heard your comments regarding your after school shakespearean club with elementarty students on public radio in Detriot. Being an educator for 30 years I was truly inspried. You provided insight for new teachers, who I work with on a daily basis, that could give them an abudance of insipiration. I would like a tape of your thoughts to share with my “new” staff of first and second year rookies to inspire and encoarage them to step outside of the “box” for the sake of the students.

  7. September 7, 2007

    Hello, Mark and fellow teachers,

    Laurence Wiig back again. Although TEACH LIKE YOUR HAIR’S ON FIRE and THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS are both excellent print sources of inspiration for teaching, I want to add that Rafe’s DVD, “Hobart Shakespearians,” is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand what Rafe has to share with the world.

    One important thing I have learned from Rafe, especially through watching his DVD (easily available through Blockbuster’s website or Netflix), is the importance of arriving at school early and leaving from school late — even in my case, just 15 minutes on each side. I used to arrive at school within 5 minutes of when I was supposed to be there — oftentimes less than that. During this new school year, 2007-2008, I have gotten off to a start in which I arrive at least FIFTEEN minutes earlier than the required time.

    I figure it this way: if Rafe can arrive one and a half hours early, I can arrive 15 minutes early. A NEW WORLD opens when you arrive at school early. You don’t worry about hitting red lights on the way to work. You don’t worry about happening upon a train crossing the road. You start to notice that you are more relaxed. You are at school way before the majority of your colleagues. You get to watch them “shaving minutes” off the workday. This can be a liberating experience.

    Thank you, Rafe.

    (Comments will be appreciated.)

    Laurence Wiig, Hillsboro, Oregon

  8. Laurence,

    Thanks for your well-stated dissenting views (compared to my OP) on Rafe. I’m glad that you do find him inspirational.

    On a side note, if I got to school just 15 minutes before the kids did, I would be in an absolute panic. And I certainly wouldn’t be there before the majority of my colleagues. But 15 minutes is better than 5, I suppose.

  9. I just finished “Teach Like Your Hiar’s On Fire” and am inspired by the ideas and experiences that have come to me over my 19 years of teaching. Rafe teaches us to connect to our dream of teaching. I admire and appreciate his methods and devotion and am proud that he continues in the classroom, it’s where he finds the love of teaching at its best. He follows what he knows to be best for our children and in doing so shows me the rightness of doing what I am learning is best for our kids. Here’s to that profound and wonderful art of teaching.

  10. I just heard Rafe speak today and he has changed the way I will forever look at my classroom. He is a true inspiration not only to his students but to those in his profession. If you feel he is suffering a great personal price, that is just because you are rationalizing why you don’t want to become as dynamic as he. I love his 6 levels philosophy on life. I couldn’t agree more! Thank you Rafe for inspiring me. I wish I could take a year off and volunteer to work with him as an intern. I have a new idol to look up to!

  11. Boy, I am just now reading “Hair’s On Fire”, and I can’t put it down! I only wish this teacher had been inspiring the educational system I went through in the 60s and the one I taught in, in the 70s.

    I was so very impressed about the values and goals his students are learning, to take with them through life. For example I’m trying to imagine a world where sports players played for the joy of the sport and humbly (may I say, HUMBLY!) acknowledged fans who travel great distances to see them play, instead of congratulating themselves, and where fans are as appreciative of the effort put in by the losing team as that of the winning team–that’s a world I long to live in.

    Well, Rafe Esquith can put me on the list of appreciative teachers wanting to visit his classroom. I say THANK YOU for taking the time and energy away from the classroom to write about it for us–otherwise, how would we know?

    The very best to him and his past and future students!

    Nova Scotia

  12. You know, Rafe seems to have changed his tone toward his colleagues in his newest book, Lighting Their Fires. He has grown on me quite a bit since I wrote this post three years ago.

  13. I just finished reading There Are No Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith. It was a book that I couldn’t put down. I love to pick his mind on how he would teach secondary students with severe special needs. He is awesome (whether LAUSD knows it or not).

    1. Dear Rafe,
      I am a retired urban public school teacher. I taught special education for 14 years, and Language Arts for 10 years, as well as subbed for another 8 years. I too have experienced many of the same types of ignorant people and situations as you. What a wonderful job you are continuing to do with kids. Many of them look forward to school because it’s all they have going for themselves.Many children just need that extra attention to make a difference in their attitudes about life. I taught crocheting to a group of not so nice girls after school, and it really turned some of them around, especially their rapport with me in the classroom. Yet when I applied for a small grant, which we were encouraged to do at the time, I was denied it because the activity wasn’t academic enough! These girls were learning to follow directions,and get along with each other too. I had supplied all the materials which were getting a bit expensive. One girl in particular who was a bear in class did a complete turn-around for me when she developed a love for crocheting. Returning to school on a parent night in tenth grade she came to visit me with her afghan and hook in hand.They would also come to my room for lunch everyday along with their projects.
      It’s a shame that jealousy, incompetence, meanness, and narrow-mindedness gets in the way of educating our kids.
      Now I have heard from friends that are still teaching that the kids no longer have to learn American history because they can just google it. They no longer have to learn cursive or their times tables either. We will have a generation of kids that have to carry calculators on them to go to the grocery store. It’ a sad day for the public school system!

  14. It is a shame that most of the replys to Rafe’s work are very short-sighted. Rafe admits that his work habits are a bit insane. But, what he teaches is that to teach our kids, requires more than 7 hours a day teaching drivel. Our politicians want to destroy the America we all love. They are doing it by breaking the back of education. By adding more and more topics, and minimizing the arts, physical education and creativity, they hope to lower everyones expectations. Rafe wants us to raise our expectations. We, as a country, have to raise our expectations. But to do so we will need to work at it. The first step is to leave the agrarian calendar. Schools need to be 8-5 and year-round. Teachers and teaching need to be raised to professional status, and paid well for it. The school curriculum needs to enriched and infused with hands on, action oriented materials. Testing needs to be validated or not done at all. All of this has to be funded, not as charity, but as the most important obsticle our country has ever overcome. Lets help Rafe teach. Not diminish what he has done because we all cannot get him everywhere at once. There are no shortcuts you know.

  15. I worked with Rafe 36 years ago, while he was still a student at UCLA and I, only in high school, assisted him with an after school daycare program run by the Westside Jewish Community Center. Even then Rafe was driven to do the best for our kids, whether it was soccer, storytelling or theater. He actually started the Shakespeare thing back then; he and I worked together on Midsummer with a group of about 15 kids and then put on the production for audience filled with parents and friends. But it’s important to realize that to be that driven requires a great ego as well, and Rafe had a my-way-or-the-highway approach to things back then.

    He was undoubtedly an inspiration to me despite his flaws; I would like to mention, though, that his older brother, David, was perhaps even more so: quiet, restrained and amazingly professional, David ran an entire after school program whenI worked with him (a year later). I don’t know where David ended up or what he’s doing today, but he was a major influence on Rafe back then, too.

    Michael Schuchman (now Michael Charney)

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