In this post, Valerie Strauss interviews Rafe Esquith. It was published in 2013, in connection with the publication of his book, “Real Talk for Real Teachers.” He started teaching in 1983.
It is a fascinating interview. I urge you to read it. These are excerpts.
Why did he write the book?
“I want young teachers to understand what they are getting into. They are swallowing this line that they are going to save every kid. And when that doesn’t happen they are crushed and they give up.
“I am not saying this to be conceited, but I’m a very good teacher and I want them to know that I fail all the time. There are factors beyond my control. But I have to understand there are issues of family and poverty. Sometimes even if you do reach a kid it’s not going to happen in the year you have them. They aren’t going to sing ‘To Sir With Love’ at the end of the year.
“And to the veteran teachers who really understand what’s going on, every month it’s a new [school reform] flavor of the month. The Common Core [State Standards initiative] isn’t going to do anything. They are spending tens of millions of dollars but it isn’t going to do anything. In my classroom you still have to put a period at the end of a sentence…. I don’t need a new set of standards to make that clear to me.
What’s changed in teaching since you started teaching?
“The obsession with testing. We always gave tests, but basically now it’s the entire day. Basically if it’s not on the test don’t teach it. Teachers spend hours and hours and hours trying to figure out what’s going to be on the test. They will teach that there are four chambers of the heart, but not why we have a heart or why it works…. The data you are looking at — I feel like the emperor has no clothes. Somebody has to say this stuff. I think teachers will feel better to see in print what they think all the time.
“So the obsession with testing is one big change. Also, the economy has declined, families are hurt and I deal with many more family problems. Some of them are really difficult… Most of the parents I deal with try hard for their kids. One of the myths is that poor kids have parents who don’t care. That’s crap. They care.
“But I definitely deal now with more poverty and family troubles and the effects of poverty. I had a great kid this year. His father is gone. His mom works from 5 in the afternoon to 5 in the morning, so he doesn’t really see her. He comes home to an empty house. For teachers to be expected to have the same results as teachers in Finland where there is much less poverty, it’s absurd.”
What do you think about Teach for America?
“They [TFA corp members] are in my room all the time. Good kids. Nice. Bitter joke: TFA really stands for ‘teach for a while.’ Like all other teachers there are some great ones who are there for the right reasons who want to make a difference and some who want to pad their résumés. I certainly don’t think anybody can be a great teacher in five weeks. I hope this book helps them think a little bit about what they are getting into.”
“They [TFA corps members] are obsessed with test scores. It becomes all about this: If you have a kid who gets a 75 on a test and then the kid gets an 85, you are a good teacher. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because of my test scores…. They [TFA leaders] are incredibly defensive about hearing an alternate idea. What’s said is that they are constantly throwing data and money showing they are successful. But they are really not. They are no more successful than any other teachers and if you read their blogs a lot give up in horrible frustration.”
“The point of my new book is that it takes years to be a good classroom teacher. It takes years to be good at anything…
“With Teach For America, I just want to tell them that there’s another problem. Most TFA teachers don’t stay in the classroom long. I want them to know that Room 56 matters. What we do matters. But the kids see teachers shifting back and forth, leaving for other jobs, why would they believe anything matters if their teachers keep leaving?”