Rafe Esquith, who made a splash in 2007 with “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire,” is still teaching in the Los Angeles public school system — when we spoke with him, Esquith was in a hotel room preparing to take his fifth-graders diving in the Pacific with staff from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Despite a second career as an author and public speaker, you get the sense immediately that Esquith’s real work is still with the kids he teaches.
“Real Talk for Real Teachers,” Esquith’s latest book, is for his fellow laborers in the classroom. “I wrote this book to pick teachers up,” the award-winning educator told me, saying he gets questions every day “from good people who’ve been teaching five, 10 years, and they’re incredibly frustrated. One, because the system is broken. And also it’s tough when you pick up the paper every day and you read that you’re doing a terrible job as a teacher, and the schools are failing, and you are to blame for all of society’s ills.”
The biggest problem, he argues, is standardized testing, which terrifies students and burdens teachers. Esquith, who has earned widespread respect for his successes in urban classrooms, says that some testing has its place, but that for the most part he presents it to his students as “a necessary evil,” reminding them that “the standardized tests do not ask the important questions. They don’t ask if you’re honest. They don’t ask if you’re a good neighbor. They don’t ask if you help the old lady across the street — which in my classroom are very important questions.”
Years after students leave Esquith’s classroom, many study with him on Saturdays up until high school. “The real assessment,” he tells me, “is, where are the kids 10 years after you’ve worked with them? What skills have I given them — not for my class, but for life?”
Esquith reads at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Brookline Booksmith.Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.