July 18, 2013


Real Talk for Real Teachers. By Rafe Esquith. Viking. $26.95.

     One hopes that Rafe Esquith did not come up with his own subtitle for this book, because it is not only lengthy but also pretty awful in everything from sentiment to punctuation: “Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: ‘No Retreat, No Surrender!’” Um…how’s that again? Is this an advice book? A suggestion to regard the classroom as a military exercise? An all-things-to-all-people (or at least all-things-to-all-teachers) tome? What exactly is going on here?

     What is going on is that Esquith, himself a teacher with nearly 30 years of elementary-school experience, wants to share lessons, thoughts, ideas, ramblings and mental meanderings with fellow teachers everywhere, whether they are beginners, at mid-career, or “old hands” like Esquith himself. Subdividing his book into “Once Upon a Time” (which should really be “Once upon a Time”), “Growing Up” and “Master Class,” Esquith shares notions, experiences, and happy and sad moments from his own experience, and tries to generalize them in ways to which other teachers will relate.

     There is some very good material here – a lot of it, in fact, although the folksiness of the whole presentation sometimes makes it hard to pick out the genuinely useful ideas. They are there, though. In one of his many talks about the “Hobart Shakespeareans” (Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles is where Esquith teaches), Esquith laments students’ unwillingness to ask questions, tying it into “the number one fear on their hit parade, [which is] that of being laughed at by peers.” Then he intelligently suggests what can be done about this: “There is one thing a teacher can do that might be the most underrated first step in helping the kids understand that they are safe in your class. You can smile.” And then, through explanation and anecdote, he explains how and why this works – a salutary experience and a high point here.

     Later, sharing feelings that are quite common among teachers nowadays, he discusses the frustrations felt by good teachers whose ratings depend on test scores that may or may not reflect their classroom abilities and may or may not even be accurate. “For young teachers, overemphasized test scores can lead to painful and frustrating moments, and sometimes a loss of income. For a veteran, they can make you question your entire life’s work.” Esquith has strong opinions about the overuse of standardized tests, although he does pay lip service to their value: “Parents have a right to know about teacher quality. After all, they are the ones paying our salaries. However, as is so often the case when complex problems are oversimplified, this [sic] ‘data’ was [sic] not nearly as accurate as it [sic] claimed to be.” Hmm. Well, the opinion is pretty clear, and the position has some merit (although the alternative to some form of standardized measurement is by no means clear). But, umm, the word “data” is plural (“datum” is singular), and just because a plural is often misused as a singular, it would be better if a teacher with decades of experience used the difference as a, shall we say, teachable moment, wouldn’t it?

     Anyway, Esquith’s position on the testing issue comes down to this: “Teachers, stay strong. Go in every day…and be a positive role model for your students.  Always remember that test scores matter, but your students matter more, Students and their test scores are two very different things. Test scores will eventually fade into oblivion, but your students will always remember you.” This is the eternal call of the good teacher, the one who works much more for love than for money (of which there is far too little in the teaching profession, a situation oft bemoaned but apparently unchangeable). And there is no question at all that Esquith is a good teacher – sensitive, concerned, involved, thoughtful. Esquith is also a teacher who has had his share of bad experiences as well as good ones – which is scarcely a surprise. Some of the bad times are recounted in this book, and Esquith’s discussions of them show his overall attitude toward teaching, students and even morality.  At one point, he talks about three girls who stole hair dryers from a hotel during a visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – and his sense of hurt is palpable. “Their actions were unconscionable and I could not find an answer to why this had happened. There were no warning signs in the past and none of the girls had been going through any sort of crisis that could have forced them into a desperate cry for attention. It was simply greedy, awful, and wrong. ...[T]hose three haunt me still. It was a wake-up call reminding me that despite every effort possible, there are kids who will make terrible decisions and thumb their noses at you. As teachers, we like to think we can have an effect on the kids, and we do, but not always. …Teaching hurts. Teaching is pain. Disappointment comes with the territory.”

     Yet Esquith stays with it, year after year, despite the pay and frustration and occasional significant setbacks and political interference and “helicopter parents” and the thousand natural shocks that teachers’ flesh is heir to. Ultimately, in this book for teachers by a teacher, the message that Esquith delivers is that it is all worth it. It may not always seem that way, it may not be worth it every day or for every student, but teaching is a meaningful profession, one of the most meaningful, and that is what Esquith wants his fellow teachers to understand – whether they are starting out or are long-term veterans like him. Real Talk for Real Teachers is not a guidebook, not a memoir, but a combination of the two; and although it wanders a bit and lacks real cohesiveness, plenty of teachers – at whatever stage they may have reached in their work and life – will appreciate knowing that no matter where they are, no matter what they are going through, Esquith has probably been there as well…and understands.

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