Educator Rafe Esquith

An innovative, award-winning classroom teacher, Esquith gives the backstory to his book of no-nonsense advice, Real Talk for Real Teachers.

Described as a once-in-a-lifetime educator, Rafe Esquith has been featured in a documentary and is the only classroom teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of the Arts. The mostly low-income Hispanic and Korean students in his Hobart Boulevard Elementary School class—known simply as Room 56­—start school very early, often leave late, play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare and go on to attend the best universities. A UCLA grad, Esquith has been in the same classroom for nearly 30 years. He's also written four books, the latest being Real Talk for Real Teachers, which offers advice to those who struggle day to day in the world’s hardest profession.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: There’s no more important profession than educating students, and for more than 30 years no teacher has done a better job than Rafe Esquith. By demanding the highest standards, he’s prepared generations of fifth-graders to a level of learning and excellence that’s earned him a Medal of Arts – the only teacher to be so honored.

He’s now written a new book called “Real Talk for Real Teachers” that’s filled with no-nonsense advice for those who want to make a difference in kids’ lives. His students are known as the “Hobart Shakespeareans” because of their deep dive into the playwright’s work.

This year they performed “The Tempest,” which became even more relevant for young minds by including the great anthem, “Get Up, Stand Up” as a reminder of the importance of justice for all. Let’s take a look.

[Video clip of school performance]

Tavis: Speaking of standing up, you were telling me before we came on camera that you were with a group of your kids the moment, in a hotel room -

Rafe Esquith: Yeah.

Tavis: – when the Trayvon, when the verdict in the George Zimmerman case -

Esquith: Right.

Tavis: – just days ago was announced. Tell me about how you talk to kids about that.

Esquith: I basically tried to tell them that there’s a difference between logic and what maybe people see when they’re represented evidence, and justice, and that they’re not always together. Because that’s what the students couldn’t understand – where is the justice?

I tell them that’s where we’ve all got to keep participating in this country, or else he died for nothing. That’s why I want them to really become a part of our system. It’s the only way we’re going to make it better. That’s why I think a teacher is so important in getting kids not to tune out, but to tune in and participate in this country.

Tavis: Yeah. But it’s summertime. Why would you even hang out with these kids?

Esquith: Well, I travel a lot with my students. I’m trying to stay in the book that there are things that you can learn outside the classroom. So we hit the road a lot. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but even our kids who get to college, they don’t finish college.

They’re not prepared. They don’t know about life. So we go on the road and even learn about things like doing your laundry and managing your time, and maybe that’s not on the test at the end of the year, but it’s in the test of life, and that’s why my classroom is successful.

Tavis: But that’s a lot to ask of teachers beyond the classroom.

Esquith: I’m not asking in this book teachers to be like me, because I’m a bit crazy. But I am asking teachers to understand that we must make the education relevant for the children. If they’re only working for the tests or they’re only working to please us, they’re not going to be interested in school.

I try to show the children how every lesson I teach them is going to be something they use in their real life. That’s why my kids work so hard. Not because I’m so cool, they’re working for themselves, and this is the advice I’m giving to teachers in the book.

Tavis: I was going to say how do you use the agency; I should back up and say how do you even find the agency to do all that you do in your classroom when you are, as a teacher, demanded, required, to get them to pass these tests?

Esquith: It’s funny, good teachers are an endangered species because they’re giving up because of the tests and everything. I’m suggesting in this book, I have a chapter called “The Quiet Man,” where you quietly rebel against the system.

The system is too big for any one teacher at those staff meetings to get them to throw out all these ridiculous tests, so I nod my head and I say, “Oh, absolutely, of course we’re going to do that,” and we do, but quietly, I inject my own lessons, my own outstanding books.

Malcolm X is not on the curriculum in L.A., but we read him. Whether you agree with Malcolm X or not, it’s an important voice for kids to hear. So I do all that fantastic literature in my classroom quietly, and when my students do well on those tests, people leave me alone.

That’s another great piece of advice in this book. For the young teachers who are frustrated, if you stick with it you can build a fantastic classroom, and then teaching becomes fun. This is my 31st year.

People leave me alone now. They didn’t in my first five years, but that’s the secret – stick with it. We ask our kids to stick with it. We’ve got to set the example.

Tavis: But if good teachers, Rafe, are an endangered species, what does that say long-term about the performance of our students?

Esquith: It’s terrible. This is the tragedy. You mentioned that it love Shakespeare. In Shakespeare, tragedy is not just something that’s bad, it’s something that could be good and is bad.

You hear terrible stories because there’ll be a story about some terrible kid, but most of the kids I work with are terrific kids. They’re poor, maybe their families are broken so they’re not coming home to a mom and dad and a nice dinner every night, but these kids are capable.

The reason I love teaching, it’s like being a miner. I find all these undiscovered jewels, and with the right motivation they’re amazed at what they can do. I have to show them their capability.

The other great thing I have in my classroom is because I’ve done this for a long time I have an army of former students who are constantly returning from college and high school.

So when the kids see the poverty in their neighborhood but they see these successful kids who come from the countries they come, they come from Mexico, come from Korea, come from the Philippines, come from Salvador and were doing really well, it motivates them to do better. The former students give them a vision of what’s possible.

Tavis: But how does teaching a classroom full of kids where the majority of them, overwhelming majority, are poor, how does that impact your ability to teach them, to get their attention, to keep them focused? Because as you know -

Esquith: Sure.

Tavis: – poverty impacts so much of what’s happening in our school system these days.

Esquith: It is the number one factor, and they don’t talk about it in schools. Poverty is huge. When I have children that go home and mom and dad are not home because they’re working, they’re trying to get food on the table, and they come home to an empty house and they go to sleep in an empty house, there is no way that child can compete against a child from the west side of Los Angeles who both parents went to Stanford.

Good for them, God love them, but that’s not an equal playing field. In this book I try to share ideas that any teacher can use to work with those kids who have not had a great start in life. But it is just a start. We can’t give up on somebody when they’re 12 years old or 15 years old or 17 years old.

We can’t give up. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to win, and I’m very clear in this book that I fail all the time. But for me, the real failure is giving up. We tell our children you must commit to school, that this is an important place. If we give up, what does that say to them?

Tavis: Talk to me about expectations – what you expect of these kids and what they actually deliver.

Esquith: Well obviously, we’re doing Shakespeare, algebra, in the fifth grade; higher mathematics. Critical thinking and fantastic science experiments, and baseball is a religious in my classroom. (Laughter) It’s a very important part of life, baseball.

But basically it’s really one lesson all day long. You talk about expectations. You can’t flip a switch at 3:00 and say, “Hey, now it’s the soccer team. This is when we try our best.”

I always tell the kids that excellence, it’s like pregnancy. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are or you’re not. So we take our work seriously in the classroom, but we also have fun.

We laugh a lot in that classroom. Somewhere over the last 20 years, there are a lot of schools where you see these kids sitting at attention like the army. It might look good on camera, but those kids aren’t having a good time.

I like having a good time. I’ve actually been to classrooms, Tavis, where there’s a rule on the wall: No laughing. In a classroom? Are you kidding me? We laugh all day long, usually at me. But that’s okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: L.A. is a microcosm of the world, but I suspect in your classroom you must teach a little bit of everybody. Talk to me about the multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic dynamic that is now present in our education system.

Esquith: One of the funny things about the racism of this system, when I started 30 years ago I’m in an area called Koreatown, and most of the kids were Asian. When the kids did well, people said, “Well, of course they did well. They’re Asians.”

But when we had this huge influx of Latino children from Central America, they said, “Oh, you’re going to have problems now.” No I didn’t. Kids are kids. I know we like to focus on the differences, and there are some differences, but you know what?

Kids still like to laugh, kids still like the joy of learning. When you have a cool science experiment, I don’t care where you’re from. When you have that ah-ha moment, whether you’re in China or Kenya, that kid’s eyes are going to open up. So I really try to focus more on what we have in common than what differences.

Tavis: Every time I think of you – you love baseball; I love baseball too, but I love basketball as well.

Esquith: Me too.

Tavis: Very quickly, every time I think of you I think of Coach K at Duke.

Esquith: Oh, sure.

Tavis: Here’s the comparison. Coach K could have gone pro, could have gone to the pros a long time ago. Believe me, he ain’t hurting at Duke; they take good care of him. But he could have made a whole lot more money years ago if he’d left Duke.

Esquith: Sure.

Tavis: They keep coming after him all the time. He coaches the Olympic team, for that matter.

Esquith: Yeah.

Tavis: Could have left Duke and gone to the pros.

Esquith: Absolutely.

Tavis: You could have left the classroom a long time ago.

Esquith: Absolutely.

Tavis: Made a lot more money -

Esquith: Sure.

Tavis: – and maybe even impacted a lot more people.

Esquith: Maybe.

Tavis: Why are you still there?

Esquith: I’ve told the kids for 30 years that what we do in Room 56 matters. If I leave, I’m lying. It means that it’s about me. I don’t even have a desk in my classroom. There’s no picture of me on the front of this book.

This is not the Rafe story. This is a book for teachers, to help them understand that yes, we’re all frustrated, but there are things we can do to impact lives. If we put the students first – and I know good teachers do – there’s just maybe a little bit of help in there to make their classroom a little bit better.

Tavis: The only teacher to be honored with a National Medal of the Arts. His name is Rafe Esquith. He teaches at Hobart here in Los Angeles. The new book is called “Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans, No Retreat, No Surrender.” Rafe, always good to talk to you, man.

Esquith: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Tavis: I’m glad you – oh, honored to have you here, any time.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: August 30, 2013 at 7:57 pm